11 June 2010

Shawn Benjamin: A Leader the Army Should Want

Yesterday was my final day working as a high school math teacher in Richmond.

Among the most memorable moments was our group goodbye to all five staff members moving on to different pastures.

When it was my turn to speak, I lauded the leadership of my boss, Shawn Benjamin.

She is, by almost any conventional measure, an exceptional principal. She inherited a high school on the brink of failure and a culture that almost tolerated it. Three years later, she presides over the most successful school in the district. It is also the most improving. According to the state, it is getting better every year. It's a school that more parents want their kids going to.

Shawn Benjamin has done a remarkable job in a very tough position. This post could end up being very long if it were a profile of all the amazing and improbably things she has accomplished as the head of LPS Richmond.

I don't mean this to be a fawning profile though, but a case study in leadership.

I have spent a large portion of the last three and a half years as a full-time Soldier, surrounded by men and women trained to lead by and for one of the greatest institutions in the history of humanity.

On other institutions and leadership, several months ago I asked a man who consults and evaluates schools and districts what the three most important leadership traits are in school leaders. According to him, the best leaders:

1. Demonstrate an ability to make decisions based upon the priorities of student learning (hang on, I will get to the Army part in a bit).

2. Systematically evaluate the effectiveness of their personnel.

3. Find ways to communicate their vision to subordinates, and use the variety of skills among subordinates to achieve that vision.

The same traits apply to Army leadership. The best exemplar of those traits, though, is Shawn Benjamin.

Ineffective Army leaders are often poor communicators, relying on old authoritarian ways to get their message accross. Understanding or buy-in is generally not part of the message. Shawn, however, is a good communicator who has a defined vision of what she intends to accomplsih. She needs her staff to understand that vision, and she realizes each performs a vital function.

I have been struck by how she is able to decide when bold action and decisive calls are necessary versus thoughtful persuasion and motivation. What is particularly fascinating is how it seems that she employs the latter much more than the former. She trusts her subordinates, and we are integral pieces of her plan. She lets us know what we contribute, and that it's valuable.

The Army already has systems to evaluate performance of personnel, but it takes a solid leader to harness those systems, make them understandable to everyone, and help Soldiers evaluate themselves based on established criteria. The next step is to enact measures to remedy shortcomings. Make the organization better. Shawn has done that, and it is quite apparent.

A principal must make choices based on whether they will result in greater student learning. Sometimes deciding how to meet that lone criterion is obvious, often it is much more subtle. In the Army, the mission is obvious, and many leaders let the thousands of other concerns cloud what should be the central judgment.

Ms. Benjamin is a model leader. She could very easily fit in among combat or joint-force commanders. You see, the traits that make her so successul at a high school with a seemingly impossible mission are the traits that are necessary for anyone leading people in any situation-- peacetime military and combat included.

I will forever look to Ms. Benjamin as a paragon of leadership, in and out of the Army.

1 comment:

  1. Well, this certainly makes me miss working with her! :)