Rabbi Allen Sellis is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program.  Allen is  Head of School of The Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis.  He can be reached at aselis@ssdsstl.org.

If you’re a leader, don’t be afraid to do these three things:  Face up.  Fess up.  Fix up.

In the summer of 2007, I assumed the headship of a Jewish day school in St. Louis.  I spent that summer working nearly around the clock—scheduling, connecting with donors, clearing up problems in the school administration.  Meanwhile, some of my most important constituents were huddled in strategy sessions.  By the poolside, parents speculated about how this year would turn out…how this headmaster would turn out…and ultimately, how the school would fare.  It was a tall order for me to fill, given that some things had not run smoothly in the past.  With no track record of my own, how would I inspire confidence and win the trust of my school community? 

As the school year began, I decided that each and every day I would stand in the carpool lane at dismissal time—rain or shine.  The first day of dismissal, I put a smile on my face, walked outside and chatted my way down a line of cars.  I had many wonderful conversations that helped me get to know my school community better.  But I also heard a lot of complaints.  Some of the issues were old, maybe even long gone…but not to my parents.  Others related to scheduling decisions that were made months before I signed my contract.  What was I to do? 

One day, I spoke to a parent in the carpool lane, upset almost to tears about an incident which took place years prior.  On an inspired whim, I decided that I would get it wrong.

With a sense of calm and assurance in my voice, I looked back and said, “It sounds like the school made a huge mistake on this one.  I’m so sorry it happened.  Would you come into the office so we can talk?”  Both of us were a bit shocked…I had just blown my line.  Mom was supposed to be upset.  I was supposed to get defensive.  Then she was supposed to get angry…at the school, and at me.  But suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t on the line.  The school had made a mistake, one which I could never fix.  All that I could do was communicate honestly.  It was so easy!  After all, I wasn’t even there at the time.  Mom and I met the next day.  She left my office in tears, thanking me for listening, and for caring about her family.  She has become a wonderful ally of mine, and remains a true supporter of the school.

As the weeks went on, I embraced this position.  If something wasn’t right, I gave my honest opinion.  When parents brought me complaints, I smiled and said, “That’s really important for me to know about.  Thanks for giving me the opportunity to fix this.”  In past years, the parking lot had served as the unofficial grape-vine of the school, where rumors were spread and discontents were fomented.  One month into the year, another parent came to me and said, “Rabbi, something is strange…no one is complaining in the carpool lane!”

I have come to believe that when individuals approach leaders with complaints, they want three things, two of which are critical.. 

First, they want to be heard.  If people take us at our word on the nature of our organizations, then joining one is like becoming part of a family.  If they are not treated well, they suddenly question whether they truly belong now…sometimes whether they ever belonged.  It is important to listen.  When someone complains, that’s a good sign.  It is a statement that “I still care about my connection to the school.”  People who don’t care walk away.  That’s why I love complaints, because the bearers of complaints are (mostly) looking to restore the quality of their connection with my organization.  Even better, they are helping me find problems that I can fix, assuring that others don’t fall into the same pitfalls.  So I always listen to complaints.  Sometimes, it’s actually the listening part that people want most.

Second, people want leaders to take responsibility.  They want to know that some sense of larger values guides the organization.  If you are a leader, at any level, you constantly have an opportunity to affirm your organization’s values.  But that only happens when leaders own up to this role.  By taking responsibility, we assure people that the school (or schul, or after care program…) has a real face, and behind that face, a conscience.  As long as people still know that you are willing to represent the larger values that justify your existence, then they will stick with you…even if you have just made a mistake.  When leaders have the guts to take responsibility, the question of an individual decision fades.  Your dedication to core values comes to the fore. 

Lastly, people do want you to get it right.  When it is possible to fix problems rapidly, do it.  One parent spoke to me at back to school night last year, frustrated that her address had not been updated in our roster.  I looked her straight in the face and said, “That’s totally unacceptable.  This will be fixed by 8:00 tomorrow morning.”  At 7:59 the next day, I reached her sitting down to work.  “Problem solved.”  I had another ally.  Sometimes it’s not so simple, and I have both seen and made my share of errors that could not be fixed.  But I rarely find a case where the school can do nothing.  If you care enough about your parent, your donor, your client… you’ll find something to do.  So find it.  And do it.

I won’t claim that the year went perfectly.  It had its ups and downs.  But something important had changed regarding how people viewed the school.  While we managed to repair some real and valid operational problems, the change in organizational climate was the bigger victory.  We began to give the message that our parents mattered more than our pride, that a strong core of values guided us, and that we cared about relationships within our community. 

For a school that spent the first month of the year “getting it wrong” we had gotten a tremendous amount right.