Guest Column

The Misguided Search for Heroic Leadership

Viewpoint by Susan Moore Johnson


School boards across the country search intently for superintendents who are courageous and confident leaders, men and women who can size things up and make them right. These leaders, it is said, take charge and command respect. They promote allegiance and compliance, generate activity and enthusiasm.

Sometimes teachers and principals are heartened by the arrival of superintendents with reputations for such leadership, believing they will champion the cause of public education, garner new resources, and win respect for their schools. Often, though, teachers and principals regard heroic leaders warily, doubting that they really know much about teaching and learning or that they understand the challenge of improving schools. Rhetorical questions like "What's his agenda?" rumble through faculty lounges evoking the cynical retort, "This too shall pass."

In a recent study of school districts with newly appointed superintendents, I found that conventional notions about the power of heroic leadership just didn't hold. Extensive interviews with teachers and principals revealed that they distrust the prospect of what Tom Sergiovanni calls "follow me" leadership. They are not seeking direction or waiting to be told what to do.

Can a resolute superintendent succeed by forging ahead despite such resistance? Not really. For although the superintendent has more formal authority than anyone else in the district, the power needed to change classroom practices is widely dispersed, residing not in the central office but in the many private lesson plans and staff conference rooms of the schools. If a school district aims to successfully educate all children, many different people must diagnose problems, devise plans, and make decisions without direction from above. As one central-office administrator said of his superintendent: "He's only going to be as good as I am and the principals are and the teachers are. He can't make it work without principals and teachers. He cannot make it work."

Superintendents exhibiting the kind of heroic leadership that many school boards seek often fail to promote lasting change in their schools. They don't convey that they want constituents' help or that they can learn from constituents' experience. Often these superintendents actually generate quiet defiance among the very people who must join them in making change happen. Over time, demands increase on the can-do leader to do it all.

This is not to suggest that superintendents should step back to tend bus routes and budgets while teachers and principals try to reform their schools. The problems in many districts are severe, and disparate reforms often make things worse rather than better. Moreover, superintendents have powerful levers of leadership—the right to call meetings, select and supervise principals, authorize expenditures, or review programs—that can be used to engage others in change.

The alternative to "follow me" leadership is not abdication, but collaborative leadership. Collaborative leaders arrive in their new districts with strong values, fresh perspectives, penetrating questions, and useful knowledge about what works in education. But these superintendents also realize what they do not know. The ideas they bring are not prefabricated schemes for change, but rather rough sketches, intended to promote discussion and provoke review. They are subject to others' elaboration and revision in response to the local context.

These superintendents see promise in others and align resources to foster that promise. They use their authority carefully to ensure that people do their jobs, that things are fair, and that children are well served. But they work through difficult problems alongside others, modeling the very interaction they seek to encourage. The promise of school leadership lies not in the individual agency of one, but in the collaborative efforts of many.

Susan Moore Johnson is academic dean and professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New Superintendency, published by Jossey-Bass.