By Larry Stednitz, Ph.D
An Associate of Woodbury Reports
(Woodbury Reports is printing this as the first in a series of articles regarding the evaluation and development of residential schools and programs for children. Each article will address a program component and/or issue that is topical and critical to effective programming.)
The first and foremost requirement for the creation and maintenance of a sustainable and high quality program is leadership. Programs for troubled youth are extremely complicated and difficult to operate day in and day out; without strong leadership, most programs will languish in mediocrity and eventually fail. Those who develop and operate programs must have strong leadership qualities. Those who evaluate these programs must recognize leadership and know how to assess a program’s leadership in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.
Imagine for a moment if you will, that a program of fifty students using a residential treatment model, will identify at least three or four problem areas for each child. Youth are enrolled in a program because of their problems at home and in the community. In many instances, it was impossible for these problems to be dealt with successfully in the youth’s home. Add to this mix approximately fifty staff who come from various backgrounds and experiences. In order for the program to be successful, the program leadership must pull nearly one hundred individuals together for one purpose, in addition to organizing schedules and activities for students and staff, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365/6 days a year. The structure of the program must be integrated in a way to accommodate all of the social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual needs of the students. The program leadership team must possess enormous energy and dedication to a cause that is much larger than themselves. This cause is the glue that will ultimately keep a program team and the participants united and working together.
All leaders possess a vision of what they want to accomplish. Their vision may be to develop a program that will “save lives”, or help youth to “develop their full potential”, or “help others”. Key leadership questions are, “What is your vision of the program?” “What are you trying to accomplish?” A strong leadership and team will be able to clearly articulate their vision of the program. This mission must inspire others. It is a clear statement of what the program is and who the people are that lead the program. In most cases, the vision inspires both those who work in the program, as well as the youth the program serves. The vision requires these lofty goals of inspiration precisely in order to navigate the complexities and difficulties of the work at hand. The vision must be exciting and worthy enough to win the commitment of others. It is not enough for the leadership to develop lofty and meaningful goals; they need to be woven into every aspect of the program and communicated with conviction to all participants on a regular basis. Every staff member and every youth needs to know and be able to articulate their purpose and role in the vision.
The leadership team must possess credibility, integrity and the ability to articulate their vision, and be able to use it to guide the organization and day-to-day activities of the program. The vision must be re-iterated and revisited on a regular basis, and refined as new information is gained. Does the leader possess the experience, talent and credibility to accomplish the vision? Does he or she have the integrity and honesty to mold the program over time in a cohesive and clear manner? Every action of the leadership must repeatedly demonstrate their conviction and belief in the work that they are doing, and their ability and motivation to accomplish their goals and objectives.
The ability of the leadership is paramount to the success of a program. The leaders must possess experience, knowledge, and the desire to learn on a daily basis. While many leaders have natural talent, the likelihood of having a successful program is much greater if the leaders also have experience. Though it is true that some individuals have the skills required to lead a program without extensive experience, five to ten years of experience in the field is considered minimal. Regardless of experience, successful leaders are blessed with confidence and a dedication that conveys their command of the program.
It has been said that there are few challenges that are more difficult and taxing than the development of a successful program. New programs as well as more mature programs are difficult to lead at best. By keeping the vision in the forefront, and the goals of the program in operation daily, the leadership of a program can endure the hardships and complexities of a program. The great leaders are able to keep moving forward in spite of the difficulties that are common in running a program. They regularly overcome obstacles and keep moving forward with courage and steadfast determination. Operating a program for troubled youth is not for the “faint of heart”.
Leadership as defined in this article does not necessarily mean “charismatic” leadership, although often individuals with good leadership ability also have charisma. Good leaders are emotionally healthy and are able to handle pressure in a positive and constructive way. They are able to develop positive and helpful relationships with staff and youth alike, demonstrating genuine concern and interest in others. They have the ability to set the direction of the program and manage the level of detail required through their own efforts in combination with the efforts of others. They have the ability to set standards and sustain them over time, keeping steadfast in their direction while maintaining the integrity of the entire organization.
Program leadership is not comprised of “perfect” people. They have strengths and weaknesses, just as we all do. However, good leaders are able to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and can obtain other people’s help when they are not able to accomplish the goals on their own. They delegate wisely and engender a teamwork atmosphere. Not only are they able to recognize their weaknesses, they are able to make specific efforts to improve themselves over time. Their genuineness with others creates positive and healthy relationships throughout the program.
When evaluating a program, it is suggested that a major aspect of the effort be focused on the identified program leader and his or her leadership team. Once the experience and vision of the leadership team is learned in detail, then the degree to which it permeates all aspects of the program will be readily apparent.