As head of school for The Woods Academy, a K-8 school in Bethesda, Md., Joe Powers has one mantra – listen – and four pieces of advice he tries to follow. He also has a sense of humor about the head’s role in weather delays and cancellations. (He once sat in his children’s backyard igloo for a snow-day video but has no plans to embrace the YouTube trend of heads singing snow cancellations.)
Kalix: What is the most important leadership quality for a head of school?
Joe Powers: You have to be a good listener. As much as we might not want to sometimes, we need to. Listen with your ears and eyes, so you get a sense of the culture and community.
When I think about this job, the words wise and simple come to mind. The job is very complex, but [we need to] look at our world through the lens of being wise and smart and not making the job more complicated. The mission is the compass against which we benchmark our decisions and opportunities. You have to align with the mission. Sometimes it’s a natural alignment, and sometimes you have to make it align, [but] it’s all about the kids and being a champion for our students. For me, it’s grounding, motivational and inspirational.
Kalix: What is the most underrated quality?
Powers: Being a meteorologist is something that no one can prepare you for! I spend more time talking about the weather than anything else. You need to have a sense of humor. We have to laugh and enjoy [the job.] The last thing you see on a job description is sense of humor, but I’d argue it should be top of the list. Recently someone was telling me about getting his MBA in preparation for becoming a head of school. I told him the two degrees you really need are in meteorology and psychology. This job is all about people!
Kalix: What was your first job at a school and what did it teach you about leadership?
Powers: I was a prefect in the dorms at Georgetown Prep. I was fresh out of college and wasn’t much older than the seniors. It was 24/7 and taught me how important raising children is and all that comes into play. Eventually, I became the residential dean, but those first years framed education for me in a very personal context. I learned about the intangibles and all the pieces you need to navigate relationships.
Kalix: What is your best advice for independent school leaders?
Powers: It’s four things:
- Breathe. This job is intense and very important but try to stay calm, breathe and focus on what is right and good.
- Know that it’s a team sport. Surround yourself with really talented and bright people.
- Build relationships. Specific skill sets can be learned like reading a financial report. The challenges are often with relationships and working with challenging people.
- Have outlets outside of school. There is no perfect balance in any of it, so enjoy the moments you have away from the office and school.
Someone told me early on that you should learn something new every year. I’ve taken art classes with the students and am getting certified as an executive coach. Learning something new puts you in the shoes of your students. That advice helps me be focused on the learning that we ask our students to do every day.
Head of School for The Woods Academy since 2011, Powers also has served as Headmaster for the Washington Jesuit Academy, Assistant Head of School and Middle School Head for Pasadena, California’s Mayfield Junior School and Georgetown Preparatory School, where he began as a Dorm Prefect and finished as Dean of the Resident School. The Alexandria, Virginia native received his B.A. from LeMoyne College, his M.S. in Educational Administration from Johns Hopkins University, has taken coursework toward his Ed.D. in Educational Administration at The George Washington University and is completing ICF and ACTP Executive Coaching Certification at American University’s Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance program. Powers, who is a member of the Catholic Business Network of Montgomery County and Elementary School Heads Association, presents TEDx Talks and speaks nationally on entrepreneurship’s role in education and other topics.
Watch Joe’s most recent TEDx Talk, “Be the Change: Follow the Kids.”