Why Chicago Public Schools CEOs fail at being transformational leaders

Today, Mayor Rahm Emanuel named yet another Chicago Public Schools CEO–Forrest Claypool—to lead our troubled school district.  Yes, we are troubled at the school level, but today’s troubles are due to poor district leadership.  In the last 20 years that I’ve been in education, the CPS CEOs failed to transform our district because Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Jean-Claude Brizard, Barbara Byrd-Bennet do not posses key qualities of a transformational leader.

Today, Forrest Claypool gets a shot for who knows how long.  But based on an interview when he launched his failed Cook County Assessor’s campaign in 2010, I don’t see transformational leadership qualities in him either.

For the fourth time in twenty years, we have a CEO with no teaching experience.  Because, let’s face it, teacher experience and leadership is just not valued.

Interestingly, according to a Psychology Today article, “the very best teachers behave very much like the very best leaders. In other words, successful teachers are very much like successful leaders–they both engage in transformational behaviors.”

These behaviors are what leaders in the Chicago Public Schools lack.  Many good teachers possess those skills—but teachers are not selected to lead.

The first leadership quality is idealized influence: “Followers of transformational leaders admire their leaders and try to emulate their positive and authentic behavior.”

I don’t remember listening to a past CEO or learning about a CEO’s decision and saying, “I want to be like that.”  And, yet, good teachers know how to do this.  We struggle and make mistakes sometimes, but good teachers work to set an example for the people we serve–because we know our students will hold us accountable.

At today’s press conference, Claypool referred to previous statements by the mayor at least three times.  He mentioned how over the last four years, CPS made enormous progress under Emanuel’s leadership, along with the leadership of David Vitale and Jesse Ruiz.   At the end of this long list of city leaders, Claypool mentioned the hard work of teachers and principals.  As the new leader, Claypool should have mentioned the people he is going to lead first.

Instead, his speech began with references to Denise Little, who steps down as Chief Education Officer.  He mentioned how she had her fingerprints on many of the recent gains.  He stressed that she will remain in an advisory role to him.

Increased graduation rates have been called into question.  If we work in a high school, we know the numbers game.  And we know the controversial decisions of closing schools, the budget decisions that led to Byrd-Bennett’s resignation, and the bureaucracy that continues to perpetuate paperwork demands and rob us of time with students.  There’s no way Claypool made us want to be like him today.

The second transformational leadership quality is inspirational motivation or  being “positive and inspirational.” I don’t remember ever hearing a CEO speak, I don’t remember reading a CEO’s email and feeling inspired to continue my work.  In many cases, I felt insulted because the communication sounded out of touch or insincere.  We received, remember, a letter from Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz thanking us for our work during Teacher Appreciation Week—during the week when we faced the possibility of losing the district’s pension contribution.

Today, Claypool said that we have the responsibility to give children the highest quality education possible.  In order to continue to be great, he said, we have to meet that commitment.

But then he referred to the mayor who said, “We need equity.”  Equity in Claypool’s mind involves change so that our broken pension system does not divert dollars from the classroom.  He forgot to mention the significant quality in school buildings; the increasing challenges teachers and school leaders face as we meet arbitrary, questionable district demands; and the impact past leaders’ decisions have had on low-income black and brown youth.  His goal, Claypool, said is to make our district “efficient.”  Where is the inspiration in that?

Our leaders also lack the third element: individualized consideration—“being attuned to the individual needs of each follower.”  Nowhere in his brief statement today did Claypool connect with students or their families.  These are the individuals whose lives, whose futures depend on a good education.  Claypool’s statement today clearly showed his connection to the city’s politics and disconnected him from our students’ realities.

All the CEOs failed to establish a sustainable connection with schools and the communities and families these schools serve.  While some may say that one seemed more approachable as a leader, all the CEOs lacked one more key transformational elements.

The last element is probably the most important: intellectual stimulation. The very best leaders get followers “to think about things in new ways, and challenge them to greater intellectual achievements,” the Psychology Today article states.

Claypool today mentioned how he would bring in the best talent, follow best practices, and support teachers and principals.  Sound familiar? Then, in what I see as an awkward moment,  Claypool publicly recognized Rev. Jesse Jackson and told him, “We need your voice even more.”  It sounded like the same ol’ Chicago politics.  But as teachers and school leaders, we should fear not.  Claypool said we would get training and guidance to support us in our jobs.

No CEO in the last twenty years engaged our district or our communities in new ways of thinking that lead to productive long-term conversations for the benefit of students.  While some may have presented a good idea, he or she let the dirty politics of our city influence what could have been a good option for students.

It’s important to recognize that demonstrating these transformational leadership qualities in the classroom does not mean we can demonstrate them in other contexts automatically.  District leadership requires a broader set of ideas and language.  And being a good leader requires having a good mentor.

It’s only logical that a school district’s leader have teaching experience.  But as a smart former boss of mine says, “there you go again–being logical.”

While a teacher would likely find it challenging to go from the classroom to a CEO position, there’s a great deal a Chicago Public Schools CEO can learn from the good teachers in our schools.

For now, because of the same ol’ CEO show in our district, I’ll say what many in our district have said: “This too shall pass.”

But what we cannot let pass is the inspiration that motivated us to be teachers and leaders who push for what is best for students and what is manageable for teachers.  We’ll need to, as we always have, look for inspiration far from the offices of our district’s leaders.

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