Guest Column

Quality Writing, Quality Leadership

by Arthur E. Lehr, visiting assistant professor, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill.

Years ago a superintendent I knew wrote a conventional beginning-of-the-school year letter to his school district’s teachers. They were accustomed to receiving this annual reminder that summer was nearly over and found the letter unremarkable until they reached the third sentence. It read: “I hope you had an enervating (emphasis added) summer as the school year promises to be very challenging.”

For years thereafter, long after the superintendent had departed the district, teachers remembered him not for the many good and useful educational programs he had instituted, but for the letter in which he had inadvertently wished them a debilitating summer vacation instead of an energizing one.

Because the written word may leave an indelible mark on its audience, school leaders do not have the luxury of treating casually any writing that they do. Words outlive actions.

The durability of the written word is one of three key points I impress on my graduate students who are preparing to become school administrators. I tell them they have a special responsibility to write well in their day-to-day communications with other educators as well as with parents, students and the public. They must set a quality standard with their own communication.

As my friend in the superintendency learned so painfully, our words are enduring. They also can have a powerful impact and can be highly effective when part of a deliberative process.

Shaken Confidence
The larger the audience, the more profound may be the effect of careless or poorly planned communication.

The New York Times recently presented an account of a corporate CEO who wrote to employees before he thought about what he was saying. His sharply worded memo upbraiding workers for their perceived shortcomings and threatening them with harsh reprisals was posted on the Internet by a recipient. The memo traveled well beyond company employees to thousands of stockholders and market analysts.

The CEO’s hostile, belligerent tone in his message so disturbed the investors’ confidence in the company that its stock price fell 22 percent in three days. As I warn my students, if one ill-conceived and recklessly written memo can provoke an estimated $1.5 billion loss in stock value, what effect might communications prepared by a thoughtless, inattentive or poorly skilled administrator have on a school system?

Early 20th-century journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken once wrote, “People write badly because they do not think clearly.” His contention tends to draw defensive fire from some of my graduate students who see writing merely as the recorded outcome of information processing that is complete long before the first word hits the page. For these fledgling school administrators, the alternative view of writing as a deliberative process is a hard sell.

Most people educated in the public schools recall an English teacher in the distant past telling them that the writing process begins with a planning stage, moves on to drafting and revising, and ends with proofreading and editing. What students usually don’t remember, however, is what occurs in each of these stages.

I use a simple approach to stress the need to write deliberately to a recognized audience to accomplish a definite purpose. My advice: “Think about what you want, who can help you to get it, what they will need to know and what arguments you can offer to get them on your side. Then, very carefully, write it down in that order.

“After you have written it, leave it alone for a while. Come back to it later and see if it still makes sense. If it doesn’t, continue to work on it until it does. If you are not sure, ask someone you trust to read it. Listen to advice. Finally, check for all the little things that may have gone wrong and make them right.”

This blunt expression of process appeals to students who are looking for ways to make writing tasks less daunting.

The approach may not seem sophisticated, but it is appropriate for many practical formats and applies to many writing situations faced by administrators. Moreover it works for students and practitioners—at least that’s what I have heard from former students who have gone on to become school administrators. One of them stopped by my office recently to say, “You know that writing strategy you showed us? I think it persuaded the district to build a new parking lot for my school next year. Thanks.”

Whether it’s new pavement or a major school initiative, purposeful and carefully crafted writing can get you what you want.

Art Lehr is a visiting assistant professor in the college of education at University of Illinois, 1310 S. Sixth St., Champaign, IL 61820. E-mail: lehr@staff.uiuc.edu