Schools have both structural and cultural elements. Structural elements deal with top down school laws or expectations by which a person can be held accountable as a driver of behavior. Cultural elements deal with bottom-up or socially-driven behaviors. Both have strong influences in a school. The knowledgeable head of school knows that the right combination will help a school succeed.
The key is knowing when to build capacity by creating a more resilient and adaptable school and when to use that capacity to solve challenges. The structural side helps keep the school on one consistent plan. The best a school can achieve with only that lens is compliance. The cultural side invites a rejuvenating energy and a feeling of solidarity. The best a school can achieve with only that lens is mission-driven collaboration with the danger of going in a wrong direction. When the two sides work in sync, you get the best of both.
Sometimes a school's structural and cultural elements are at odds. These two powerful forces can damage a school when cultural and structural designs do not mesh. This can happen when a culture resists structural change. In that case, a school sees cliques of teachers forcing the head of school to manage instead of lead. This may occur when the culture shifts because of a change in population or turnover of staff, and the structure no longer serves the school’s goals. In that case, the head of school needs to change the structural side to harness the energy of the culture instead of fighting to keep the structural side sacred and immutable. It is the difference between surfing a wave and trying to stop the tide from coming in.
In order to make this work, the head of school needs to develop feedback loops supplying data necessary to make good choices. While the data may be different from school to school, the head of school can see how the staff make choices when they are not held directly accountable. These situations point to how much structural responsibility, social esteem and mission has “sunk in” and how much the staff thinks that the culture of responsibility to each other, self-esteem and personal success has superior value. This insight is essential for a head of school in determining how best to move forward to re-establish an equilibrium.
Recognizing the potential for this tension and balancing structure and culture are some of the most important leadership skills a head of school can exercise.