For Stephen S. Murray, leadership begins with trust and a commitment to connect with his audience whether at the workplace or in the classroom. Murray, headmaster of the Lawrenceville School, will share his core beliefs about education, mentorship, and empathetic leadership at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Business Before Business breakfast on Wednesday, November 15, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. The cost is $25 for members and $40 for future members. Register online at princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Empathetic leadership, says Murray, benefits both the leader and the staff. He uses a Gallup polling tool, called Q12, that measures a person’s emotional connectedness to the workplace. The method involves asking questions like, does your opinion seem to count at work? Do you have a best friend at work? Does the mission of the organization make you feel your work is meaningful?
Murray and his staff use the feedback as a conversation starter. If they receive low marks in a particular area, Murray asks the responders to talk about it and share their ideas on what could be done differently. He finds that people are willing to provide answers.
“Even before making changes, the conversation itself tells people that you’re listening to them,” he says. Sharing feedback is important because it shows that you want to improve employee satisfaction, and it also serves as a model, making it easier for others to be open to evaluation and feedback in order to grow.
As a teacher, Murray finds that genuine caring and mutual trust are keys to motivating students.
“You’ve got to show kids you care deeply about them and invest in them deeply, and that you can be trusted,” he says. But, he adds, that does not mean that you have to be lax and allow mediocre work. A tough coach or a soft-spoken poetry teacher can communicate that they expect the best the student can give because they believe in the student and know he or she is capable of excellence. “If kids sense that from you, they’ll jump over a wall for you,” he says.
A very strong influence in the school’s approach to teaching is the Harkness method, in which students and a teacher sit around an oval table exploring ideas as a group, developing the courage to speak, the compassion to listen, and the empathy to understand and respect each other. They are open to learning from their peers no matter where they come from.
“You earn respect by who you are and what you contribute around the Harkness table and in other ways,” Murray says. While the public may have a perception that all students at Lawrenceville School come from wealthy backgrounds, more than 30 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid.
“We have a wide range of students who come here from Trenton, Newark, East LA, and from Greenwich, Connecticut. Because of the diversity of the student body and the emphasis on learning from others, Murray finds that students don’t have a sense of entitlement that one might expect to see in a prestigious private school.
Recently, the students organized and held a debate on whether or not the school should declare itself a sanctuary campus. “Students spoke from all ends of the political spectrum,” Murray says. “It was one of the most civil, thoughtful, interesting debates I’d heard in a long time. These kids were addressing complicated ideas, listening to each other, responding, and disagreeing in thoughtful ways. They listened with respect and disagreed with respect.”
What particularly impresses Murray is that they did not hear disagreement as an attack. “And that’s part of free speech on campus. They work hard together and live well together.”
Murray was introduced to the Harkness method of teaching in his junior year of high school. Until then, he had attended public schools in Morristown where he grow up. His father, who worked in New York in public finance, was a strong role model for young Murray who describes him as a person of great integrity. His mother, the family homemaker, kept busy raising him and his five siblings, he says.
After his sophomore year, he completed his high school education at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. On his first day he walked into a classroom to find students assembling around a Harkness table, and asked himself, “Where’s the back row, where I usually sit?” However, he quickly adapted and embraced the new (to him) environment.
Murray worked hard and thrived at Exeter. While enjoying the school’s environment, he thought about the public school he had attended and his friends who were no less able than the kids at Exeter. “So, one of my first lessons was that this was about opportunity,” he said. He was exposed to students who had much higher ambitions than he had experienced up to that point. His new peers had a different level of motivation. It wasn’t about ability, it was about seeing possibilities that he hadn’t been aware of in his public high school setting.
Even though his public school teachers were role models and heroes, he experienced something at Exeter that served an important purpose. He concluded that greater access to these institutions makes them better, and it makes them instruments of social mobility.
After Exeter he earned a bachelor’s degree in French and political science from Williams College, a master’s in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a master’s in French literature from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. From 1990 to 2005 Murray served Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in several roles. Before joining the Lawrenceville School as its 13th headmaster in 2015, Murray was the headmaster of University School in Shaker Heights.
In the interest of strengthening and extending the school’s mission to inspire the best in each to seek the best for all, Murray and members of the Lawrenceville School are focusing on a strategic plan, which involves:
Community Building: Broadening the diversity of the student body and faculty and replacing some older facilities with buildings architecturally designed to build community.
Energizing the academic culture by adding more hands-on experiential learning through a new STEM center and adding more opportunities for real science research working with labs around the country.
Supporting professional growth of all employees, including housekeeping staff and the food servers, people working in the classroom, administration, and professional staff running different areas of the school.
Focusing on general financial sustainability, which includes looking at how the school manages its endowment, controlling tuition cost, and exploring means of financial support to be sustainable over time.
For Murray, fulfilling the role of head master is a passion. “Leadership starts with loving what you do and finding meaning in what you do,” he says.