Two Paths, Two Ends and a Set of Lessons

The story behind the diverging paths of two Midwestern school superintendents—one who was “killed” by the job and the other who rose to the top of his profession—suggests several ways superintendents, citizens, school boards and other educational entities can work to make the top job more rewarding and effective.

First, superintendents themselves must establish a personal moral code of respectful and self-respecting conduct. They should understand they are almost always hired not only to be effective managers but visionaries as well, finding ways to bring diverse sections of the community together in shared understandings. They need to accept the fact that pleasing everyone is not possible and work instead toward gaining others’ respect. And they should recognize that they will need to develop and use high-quality communication and interpersonal skills—and, yes, a high level of political adroitness—if they are to be successful.

In addition, superintendents should keep a keen eye on the emotional balance of their own lives. They need to pay closer attention to their spouses, children and extended family members. And they should establish and use professional support networks to get and give help to superintendent colleagues on a regular basis, fighting in themselves and others the tendency to display false invulnerability.

Citizens, for their part, must learn to acknowledge the difficulties of leadership, seek ways to create “crowning” rather than “killing” environments, and, to a reasonable extent, be willing to understand and forgive the human flaws of their leaders. They should find ways to create a healthy discourse about schools and leadership, bucking the current trend of societal cynicism and incivility that feeds the “disposable leader” syndrome. Residents should refrain from personal attacks on leaders and should assume responsibilities themselves for both leadership in district problem solving and followership in solution acceptance.

School boards, likewise, must heed the call for civility in dealing with their superintendents and must develop ways of handling broken or deteriorating relationships in a positive and restorative manner. Training for school board members about the shared role, relationships and responsibilities of the school board and superintendent should become a pre-condition to board tenure. State school board and superintendents’ organizations could do this training and follow it up with annual in-service sessions that could be held in conjunction with each school board’s yearly goal-setting process.

Isolated statewide professional organizations, including the school boards association, the superintendents’ association, the business managers’ organization, the association of curriculum and staff development coordinators and others, should pull together to promote closer relationships and build respect among the various levels of school administrators. The goal would be to create common support systems among beleaguered administrators at all levels.

Leadership training programs should teach leaders how to adopt a cultural perspective for leading, articulate a vision of systemic greatness and empower followers. Training programs should invest time and effort into assisting aspiring and established superintendents to obtain and strengthen necessary communication skills for effective school leadership.

Hiring agencies used by school districts to employ superintendents should include public disclosure for candidates about the district’s history, including leadership turnover, board member tenure and historical community splits.

For communities that already have fallen into disharmony, the state education department, school boards association and state affiliate of AASA should collaborate to form crisis intervention teams ready to help with mediation, conflict resolution and consensus building. These should have professional counseling and confidential treatment options ready for troubled superintendents who need them. And, given the proper legislation, state education departments should be prepared to censure or remove board members who misuse their offices and help create a harmful atmosphere for their superintendent and for those whom he or she serves.