Out on a High Wire: How Department Heads Balance Leadership Roles

by Elise London, EXPLO Elevate Senior Consultant

When I talk to department heads these days, I can’t help but picture them as tightrope walkers on the high wire.

Although they are always excited to take the time to discuss their work, to focus on the bigger picture, I get the sense in these meetings that these are individuals who precariously walk forward, while so many different factors compete for their attention and threaten to knock them off course.


When a department head arrives for a one-to-one meeting with me, just to talk about the work – a calm can settle in. Sometimes, just taking the time to look down and to name the forces that are competing for their attention can be enough to situate a department head to steadily keep walking on their wire.  Or, at least, help them breathe more deeply.


Teachers first:

Ask any department head about their job, and it is clear that they are teachers first. Often masters of a discipline, these individuals carry a relatively full (depending on the school) teaching load and take time to center the needs of their learners first. Most department heads reflect that the kids bring joy – and that sometimes the other work seems less joyful. In fact, department heads are often the only administrators in a school who maintain a primary responsibility in the classrooms, who spend the majority of their days directly with students. 


Simultaneously, the department heads are asked to accomplish a set of tasks that can best be described as managerial in nature – ordering textbooks, managing budgets, or assigning faculty to sections. These two responsibilities, teaching and managing, can sometimes work to take away all of a department head’s “free” time. Yet, the real work of the department head comes into focus when these two roles (teaching and management) interface with the leadership work inherent in the role. Schools thrive when department heads lean into their leadership responsibilities, when they can articulate a vision and long-range plan for their department as it is situated within the broader context of the school and its mission.


Department Heads as Leaders:

When the department head role moves to emphasize the work as leadership, it elevates and reframes it, enhancing its connection to the mission of the school. While it might be easier to clump all of the work under the mantle of “leadership,” it is much more useful to think of the different types of leadership that department heads must exhibit. In doing so, schools can find the best ways to support them and help them to grow. Rodney LaBrecque, in Effective Department and Team Leaders, outlines four different types of leadership that department heads need to balance: instructional, departmental, administrative, and institutional. 


Adapted from Effective Department & Team Leaders: A Practical Guide by Rodney LaBrecque, Christopher-Gordon Pub, 1998

At any point in a given week, the department heads are balancing these four leadership roles, while uniquely balancing their work as teachers and department managers. It is important for school administrators to take the time to recognize this complicated balancing act as they lean into considerations of how to better support their department heads and set them up for success. 


When we take the time to name all of the different forces that might pull on a department head’s attention, it is no wonder that they might be struggling to balance it all! However, what we can do is look carefully at each of these roles and consider the best ways to support these master balancers in their goal for a steady walk across the high wire!

Please also read Elise’s recent post about the 4 Cs administrators should consider to best support department heads.

Elise London has spent more than two decades working in and learning from diverse independent school communities. She began her teaching career at Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, where her role evolved from full time math teacher to serving as the college counselor, dean of students, and sometimes philosophy teacher. She worked in the college counseling office at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to serve as the Head of Upper School at Moses Brown School. After spending many years as the Chair of the Board of the Independent Curriculum Group, she currently serves on the Board of Trustees of One Schoolhouse.
Elise grew up in the school her parents ran on a small farm in Vermont, going from there to Williams College (BA) and Harvard University (MEd in school administration).