Feature

Tragedy at the Top

by Terrance L. Furin

No Hollywood script could have captured better the nasty drama that unfolded for more than three hours on May 21, 2003. No wild scene at a National Hockey League game or a professional wrestling donnybrook could have matched the catcalls, boos, cheers, screams, pushing and shoving that finally was broken up by local police and security guards.

But this was not a Hollywood movie or a carefully scripted event. This was a local school board meeting in a suburban high school auditorium outside Philadelphia. The district superintendent had committed suicide a few days earlier in the midst of hearings about his alleged misdeeds on the job. He had disappeared on Good Friday, and his body was found on Easter Sunday in his locked car. A gun and a Bible were nearby. One comment screamed above the ugly crowd in the school auditorium that night was that he had been “crucified.”

More than 400 people had turned out for a public feeding. Most of them pointed accusatory fingers at the school district solicitor and her supporters on the board. She had been entangled in a power struggle with the superintendent over the previous few months while investigating the allegations against him. The solicitor was fired that evening by a 5-4 board vote. In the end, everyone had lost. 

Haunting Images

I was a member of that audience. I went because I was trying to find some answers. I have known too many similar tragedies during my 22 years as a school superintendent. The most painful happened almost two years earlier on April 18, 2001.

I could not really believe what I read in the newspaper headlines that morning. A friend and superintendent colleague had committed suicide. I still feel sick to my stomach when I think of the tragedy that ended this gifted administrator’s life. As superintendents in the same county, we had gotten to know and respect each other during the time she served as superintendent in a large suburban district in southeastern Pennsylvania. She was forced to leave that superintendency—the victim of a badly divided board. Yet looking back, her dismissal seemed a blessing in disguise when she landed the top position in an affluent school district in a nearby state.

The past haunted her, however, and someone in her old district lodged charges with the State Ethics Commission that as the superintendent she had accepted gifts illegally. The commission agreed, and the district attorney was reviewing the case with the possibility of filing criminal charges. The events of April 18 ended the investigation.

Two months earlier another of my colleagues in the superintendency was sentenced to prison on a plea bargain for theft and forgery involving approximately $275,000. We had lunch together near the end of his eight-month sentence while he was on work release. The crime and punishment devastated his life—loss of family, home, retirement savings and the ability to continue in his chosen career. He is a strong individual and may be able to pull things together. Then again maybe he won’t.

 

Sad Realities

These are not isolated tragedies. A recent Internet search revealed the following headlines about top school administrators in California, Florida, Michigan and Texas: “School official . . . pleads guilty,” “… school officials are suspended,” “Board calls second meeting about ex-school chief’s fate,” and “Suspended ... pleads guilty to grand theft.” Although thousands of superintendents never experience such serious problems, too many have. Our nation cannot afford to lose top school leaders, especially at a time when fewer educators want to become superintendents. We need to ask some hard questions about why these catastrophes occur and hope to find some answers.

Because I have known some of the individuals involved in these tragedies, I can say with confidence they were bright administrators who were deeply committed to their profession. They were willing to work endless hours and meet countless demands to serve constituents. They had risen to top positions in excellent school districts where they received generous salaries and benefits. They had supportive families and friends. They received advanced degrees from excellent schools where they had learned the most sophisticated leadership theories.

Was it a question of not knowing the relevant laws or district policies? Doubtful. Did these individuals lack personal ethics? Not the ones I have in mind. Did they recklessly jeopardize their careers, families and lives for comparatively few extra dollars? Hard to believe.

I think we need to look elsewhere for explanations. Sometimes something breaks down in the twilight zone between leadership theory and practice. The certainties of leadership theory so nobly taught and learned in graduate school simply do not ring true with the demands of the real world—at least not for some.

 

A Cult of Self

Most superintendents today have been taught that participatory management is the best type. Those most affected by decisions should be involved in making those decisions. The more the decision affects an individual’s professional and personal life, the more he or she should be involved. 

It is important, therefore, to solicit input from various constituents in setting a district’s vision and seeing how it can be fulfilled. Teachers should write curricula, and students and parents should help determine key policies. Citizens should work with school officials to assess facility needs, and everyone needs to understand and help set the priorities of the budget. Participants learn from each other for the good of the whole.

When focusing upon bettering the lives of children, participants in these democratic processes rise to new levels together. They become transformed, and the leadership that assures this process is known as transformational leadership, a term coined by James MacGregor Burns in his seminal study, Leadership.

It’s a rosy world until you take off the glasses. Too often a different reality sets in.

Many times school boards—and often parents, teachers, administrators and the general public—want the top school official to be a person who can show muscle. Be tough. Be every place at once. Make quick decisions. Make all decisions. Say no first and maybe yes later. Democratic processes take too much time. Participatory management is weak. In essence, these stakeholders want either an authoritarian leader or one who understands the political realities of transactional relationships—you do for me and I will do for you.

At times, superintendents need to act alone and act decisively. As a general rule, decisive actions are needed to support the existing mission, policies and strategic plans. Most decisions affecting the long-term well-being of the organization, however, demand democratic processes. These include making significant changes in the school district’s mission, strategic plan, facilities, curriculum and resources. Discerning when to use these different leadership styles involves continuous analysis of the organization and its needs. Not knowing when to act alone and when to use democratic processes, starry-eyed superintendents often enter a twilight zone where they experience a disconnect between what they have been taught and what is expected. And they enter it alone.

Flying alone, such leaders may develop a “personality cult of self.” They believe they are indispensable, needed by everyone. They make the crucial decisions involving others. The district becomes the ego, “my” vision, “my” curriculum, “my” teachers, “my” building, “my” test, “my” lunch menu, “my” bus schedule, narrower and narrower. They wheel and deal, and rather than sharing power they concentrate power and often feel and act as if they are above everyone, including the people they serve and the law. They shed the transformational leadership masks they donned in graduate school. Such masks often hide a different desire for authoritarian power. They become the tough-minded cult personalities that are often admired in our efficiency-minded corporate culture.

A Transformational Path

This cult of self leads to isolation—and often tragedy. There must be a better way. I have come to understand a different vision of leadership over the past few years. This is a belief in leadership that is truly shared and grows from a community of believers. I found it high in the Bolivian Andes in an organization known as Fe y Alegria.

Fe y Alegria is a Jesuit organization that runs schools for 260,000 students in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. The organization believes its mission is to build schools, literally, where the road ends. Many of them are in rural areas where students have to walk great distances, sometimes more than 10 miles one way, which means they come to school on Monday mornings and return home on Friday afternoons.

Teachers and administrators are paid the same meager salary as their colleagues in schools directly run by the government. However, a waiting list exists of government schools wanting to become Fe y Alegria schools. In large part this is because the schools are believed to be transformative for their populations. The director, Father Enrique Oizumi, leads them in a highly democratic way.

Oizumi gave up a life of wealth to become a Jesuit. He later gave up a life of relative ease as head of a private school to become a parish priest in a native Aymara parish on the plain above La Paz. Here he learned the necessity of blending his beliefs with those of the indigenous population and focusing their energies on a common mission—the education of children.

 

Oizumi’s leadership style is greatly respected by central-office colleagues, teachers in mud brick buildings and students and parents in poverty-stricken communities. Rather than flying alone, he is part of a powerful flock where he often learns more than he teaches.

Since leaving the superintendency, I worked for a period of time during the past two years with Oizumi and his colleagues. I do not worry about reading a headline screaming “Superintendent of Schools Kills Self.” He gains richness by sharing power. There is no mask here; this is the real thing. It is manifested time and again in the organization’s strategic plan, school curricula, teacher training, facilities and operating budget. Similar to the organization’s belief, his life began where everyone thought the road ended. This is, indeed, true transformational leadership.

Future Transformations

Not every school leader can live for years in a poverty-stricken area to experience the type of transformation that has caused Oizumi to soar. It seems, however, that the concepts of transformational leadership need to be deeply internalized to be successful.

One effective way this can be done is by studying attributes of transformational leaders and building relationships with them based upon principles of mutual mentoring. Professional organizations such as AASA can be extremely helpful in promoting this type of internalization through national and statewide networking.

Another component key to the success of the transformational leader is the recognition of the need to share power with all members of the organization. That means moving from “my school district ” to “our school district” and “our community.” In so doing, leaders then do not stand alone. Ownership of ideas and initiatives belongs to those most affected by decisions. Shared ownership means support—not isolation of the leader.

If more school leaders internalize the basic principles of transformational leadership, then hopefully we never again have to open our morning newspapers fearing what the headlines may say about our colleagues.

 

Terry Furin, a former superintendent in suburban Philadelphia, is an assistant professor of education at St. Joseph’s University, 5600 City Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19131. E-mail: tfurin@sju.edu