How Political Capital Affects Executive Decision Making and School Culture

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How Political Capital Affects Executive Decision Making and School Culture

Many heads, whether first-time, experienced, newly arrived or longer term, make the mistake of taking on an overly ambitious list of goals. Sometimes boards strongly encourage heads to undertake as much as  ten major goals per year, and the head feels that he or she cannot push back. Or the head believes that the number and nature of the goals are manageable and underestimates the time, energy and political capital required to execute them. These scenarios are particularly risky for a new head but also for an experienced head who is newly arrived to a school.


Typically, most board or head-driven goals require changes, simple or complex. School cultures are conservative. Teachers are protective of the status quo.  They are very wary of change particularly change led by a leader whom they do not yet know or trust.


Newly arrived heads arrive with no “gas” in their tank of political capital. When heads make decisions on highly sensitive issues, they are drawing down political capital that has not yet been deposited. In other words, they are driving on vapor and no fuel. They have to build that capital. They can and must do some of this on their own, but they also need help from the board AND support from the faculty.

I. Building Political Capital with Faculty

Decisions about compensation, benefits, workload, schedule, curriculum innovation and change, calendar, and especially about evaluation, or termination of even a single employee are particularly risky for a head of school to undertake.


All heads need to build a reservoir of political capital with faculty and staff. They do so in one of these ways:


  1. Heads make enough decisions that teachers like including ones that support teachers and make them feel heard and valued.


  1. They know to ask the board for political cover and additional political capital such as approval for a higher than normal salary raise for teachers in a good fiscal year. The head can lean on this popular move later to retain faculty trust even in the face of a difficult termination or similarly tough decision.


  1. They have come to know well the staff and their families and periodically assist with family needs and make exceptions to rules to support staff and staff families in stress. In general, it is clear that they care deeply about their staff.


  1. They build a team of key academic leaders who are popular, have their own reserve of political capital and are willing to “pass it on” to the head when the head needs it for a difficult decision. They do this knowing that the head will in turn back them up when they find themselves in a situation that requires the head’s support. (Of course, this reciprocity does not work if these administrators gather and use up that political cover only for themselves.)


Interestingly, our experience and observation of recurring patterns of behavior in our schools indicate that most political disgruntlement with heads tends to originate with mid-career males in the history and English and sometimes science departments. This occurs because capable individuals who want advancement, but for whom no or few opportunities have developed, can influence other teachers over time to foment discontent. That can turn a faculty culture negative over time. Certainly women and those in other departments may play this role as well. Why might this happen?


  1. These individuals usually feel they have not reached the career and leadership goals, including greater earning power, that they had envisioned.
  2. They come from academic training that prepares them to analyze decision making.
  3. They may feel passed over by current or past administrators for professional opportunities and the head is not even aware of their disappointment.
  4. They feel that school leadership has not sufficiently solicited their opinions on important issues.


There are four ways to manage these individuals:


  1. Listen more and evaluate whether they can be placed in appropriate leadership positions that are open and for which they are qualified.
  2. Informally seek their advice periodically on key issues.
  3. Try to keep them from influencing newly arrived, impressionable teachers and those vulnerable to turning negative.
  4. If all else fails, work out a separation agreement that is mutually acceptable.

In general, it is not advisable to form a faculty advisory committee, but a head needs to have a cohort of trusted teachers who can counsel and advise him or her about how much political risk the head will likely take on by making certain kinds of decisions.

One example of a new Head learning how fast and how far he could make certain decisions was his relationship with a head of the math department.  This teacher in a faculty meeting might play the devil’s advocate and challenge the direction in which the Head was going, but that was often a friendly warning signal from a “friend in court” who later would seek out the head and indicate the risks to a certain decision and what kind of decisions he felt the faculty could support.

All heads have a certain, unique decision making style. What is crucial is to signal in advance to staff which decisions the head will make on his or her own; for which decisions the head will seek counsel and advice; and which decisions can be made by the faculty or staff in a more democratic collective judgment.


II. The Board’s Role

Many board members have told me that a head made several decisions which they later wished they had challenged in terms of the effect on school culture and faculty climate. However, in general these trustees supported the initiatives and assumed that the head knew how far and how fast he or she could move on strategic initiatives, curricular changes and personnel shifts.  In retrospect, these trustees wished they had questioned the head more about the pace of change and about the wisdom of building more political capital first. Regular board governance workshops remind trustees that they often can and should speak up.

In one case, a first-time Head who came from the outside and was clearly an intellectual change agent and curricular leader advanced his agenda very quickly over his first three years. He had followed a 25-year Head and there had been no Interim.

Following the dismissal of a popular high school teacher for cause (the specific reason could not be made public), high school students, parents and teachers led a constituent reaction. The theme was the new head’s “attack” on the school culture.  Often these political situations begin within the upper school where students may become involved.  Sometimes their teachers encourage this by venting their frustrations about the new head within earshot of their students.

A common refrain in this situation—which this consultant has heard in literally hundreds of schools is “We are losing the family feel of the School”. It is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle when the gas tank of good will is empty or nearly empty.

Sometimes heads have to let popular school administrators go and popular teachers leave for sound personal or professional reasons, but faculty still believes that the arrival of the new head is the cause. These heads need help and the board needs to step up and publicly and privately support the head.

It is amazing that so few boards and heads plan for “entry” of a new head into a school. Even if there is no formal and documented entry plan, there needs to be a transition team that works with a head for his or her first one to two, and possibly even three years. The transition team’s goal is simple: Ensure that the head makes it through the transition phase into a successful legacy-leaving tenure.

We have spoken in the past of the pendulum swing of choosing new heads who are the polar opposite in style of the head who is leaving. There may be a large age gap between the departing head and the newly arrived one.  Often there is a shift from the “hale fellow well met” outgoing head to a more introverted, curriculum focused new head.  Even if the prior head let some things slip and did not seem to be a 21st century curriculum leader in terms of innovation and technology, the new head must still develop relationships before developing programs.  The board needs to allow the head time to form those relationships and the transition committee needs to identify for the head the key individuals whom he or she must cultivate.

One recent search client at first stated that the Board’s number one goal in hiring a new Head was to find a successful fund raiser who could raise the six million dollars needed for a current capital campaign.  Little thought was given to how an outsider was going to build relationships and political capital and make successful fund raising calls without knowing the internal dynamics and culture of the community. IF the head did dive right into fund raising, he or she would have ignored building that critical political capital needed to bring about stakeholder support.  Heads need to learn how to do this and learn it early on.

Another Head’s seven-year successful tenure ended when a perfect storm of three events damaged his headship. First two Division Heads left to lead their own schools. Second, three teachers were not renewed even when a paper trail of detailed evaluations indicated that this action was warranted. Given ample opportunities, the teachers had not improved. Finally, these two events led to a firestorm of worry among parents and faculty. They demanded a town meeting with the Board Members who should not have agreed to it. The Board was outnumbered and vulnerable at that heavily attended meeting.  Further efforts by faculty and parents behind the scenes to weaken or fire the head made his tenure untenable.

Even long serving heads with deep political capital and strong relationships with a range of stakeholders know the importance of building and maintaining robust friendships and political support from a cross section of more senior and highly respected teachers across all grade levels.

All heads must constantly assess their reservoir of political good will. Terminations will draw down on that good will. All heads must focus on how to rebuild that political capital for the rainy day when it is needed again.  Thus, how do heads build political capital and assess how much of that will be used up by certain decisions surrounding changes that can affect faculty culture and overall school climate? How do boards assist in this effort?

Littleford & Associates helps schools improve their school climate; coaches both new and experienced heads; and trains leadership teams to engage in collaborative decision-making that builds and shares political capital. Boards need regular training, especially during a head transition, on the importance of helping the head amass that political goodwill with all stakeholders.