Executive Perspective

A View From the Top

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

There is a Randy Newman song called “It’s Lonely at the Top.” Listening to that song always reminds me of how it felt in the years I spent in the superintendency. I once said that superintendents make the Maytag repairman look like a party animal. The very nature of the job is one of splendid isolation.

It always has been curious to me to see how so many extroverted, gregarious folks should happen to choose a profession that cuts them off from the very essence of their humanity. It is lonely at the top.

When you think about it, very few jobs are done singly. Most people work with others and have peers who share job descriptions and responsibility. The irony of the superintendency is that while it is carried out by a person whose job most others don’t understand or even care about, its effectiveness is totally dependent upon what others do. A large problem occurs when a gap exists between the leader and those being led.

Showing Empathy

I was once talking with a group of teachers and they complained that I couldn’t possibly understand their issues because it had been so long since I had been in a classroom. I acknowledged they had a point, but I went on to suggest to them that at least I had been in a classroom at one time in my life; they had never been a superintendent and couldn’t possibly understand things from my perspective.
The lesson here for leaders is that you can only see the world clearly when looking through another’s eyes. It is the old adage that to understand someone you have to walk in his shoes. Superintendents have to be willing to spend most of their days trying on other folks’ loafers and looking out through others’ eyes. Only then can you begin to lead others by demonstrating to them you are capable of understanding their needs. People will only entrust their hearts to you when they feel they can trust you with them. If a leader wants to be trusted, then he or she must demonstrate empathy.

I always have been fascinated with mountain climbers—not that I would ever want to be one myself. But you have to be curious about a mentality that drives someone to spend days of struggle at risk of life and limb to climb a mountain that could easily be flown over in several seconds.

We all have seen pictures of the lone climber who mounts that one last step to the summit and surveys a landscape that stretches below in all directions. That climber knows how truly lonely it can be at the top, but she also understands how magnificent the scenery can be. And she knows the view was made possible by the test. It is only through testing that any of us can feel the sense of accomplishment.

Leadership is about taking the risk to enjoy the rewards. Not everyone is willing to do that, but that is what makes a leader a leader. And it is good to remember that while the photo opportunity is of the lonely climber who got to the summit, he or she didn’t get there alone. Mountains are scaled by teams.

I often have joked that I have a real problem crossing bridges. I get very “white knuckled” when I have to drive across a bridge. My friends tell me I have a phobia about it. I beg to differ. Phobias are irrational fears, and there is nothing irrational about being afraid to cross a bridge because bridges take you from what you know to what you don’t know. They take you from a place of comfort to a place of possible discomfort. Yet that is what education is about and that is what leadership is about—building bridges and escorting people across them to unknown territory.

Albert Einstein once said teachers are messengers from the past and escorts to the future. And so are leaders. Leaders open new worlds to people and they understand that exploration is a lonely business. But bridges are built by crews and exploration is typically undertaken by expeditions.


Group Solidarity
The thing we have to keep in mind is that while our work is lonely, it is a mutually dependent activity. While we know that no one really knows or understands our work, our task is to create a sense of mutuality and an understanding that all things are connected. And to do that we must be connected.

A recent series of TV commercials for AARP focused on individuals doing something of great impact. One featured a housewife calling the President and talking him into fixing Social Security and another showed a lady bringing in a group of CEOs to fix the health care crisis. The tag line was, “If we could do it alone, we wouldn’t need AARP.” I have used that thought in encouraging folks to belong to AASA, but it is also a powerful idea for any leader. If we could do it alone, we wouldn’t need each other.

It sometimes can be a lonely world and there is little doubt we have chosen a lonely profession. But that doesn’t mean we have to be alone. We have to use our humanity to connect to those we work with. And we have to be grateful for the gift we have been given to be leaders.

We can make the world a better place. That is a powerful mission. So it is lonely at the top, but that is where you get the best view.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.