Exercising Power

by C. Cryss Brunner

Superintendents are constantly in a double bind when it comes to the way they define and use power.

Their communities traditionally have expected them to be "in charge" of their districts—behavior that results in domineering, authoritarian leadership. Yet today's political climate and reform agenda dictate that school system leaders allow others to contribute to decision-making.

Many superintendents aspire to collaborative decision-making, but wanting and actually practicing shared governance are two divergent states. The shift from top-down to collaborative decision-making is arduous.

How can someone in charge of a local school system suddenly share power to be collaborative in decision-making? Is there any substantive difference between a superintendent who practices top-down leadership and one who practices collaborative leadership, or is this just a difference in operating style?

During a four-year study, I asked superintendents in all parts of the country and those who work with them about superintendents' leadership styles. I found identifiable differences exist between superintendents who are top-down leaders and those who are collaborative leaders. These differences center on the way that superintendents define and use power.

Defining Types

Power as defined by superintendents is usually one of two kinds: power defined as control, authority, or dominance ("power over") and power defined as collaboration, consensus-building, or shared ("power with/to"). The first definition prevails in our culture and in our schools.

The second category of power is less discussed and valued, although it is receiving increasing attention. Jay Bonstingl, writing in the August 1996 issue of The School Administrator about "Applying Total Quality Management to Schools," discussed the need for "replacing outmoded and counterproductive top-down, authoritarian modes of operation with collaborative, community-building leadership practices." Bonstingl suggested ways administrators might move toward collaborative leadership.

Power Applied

Not surprisingly, definitions of power from the superintendents in my study most often fell into the category of "power over." However, a few superintendents defined power as "power with/to." Here are some of their own definitions of the two types.

"Power over:"

  • "My definition of power would simply be that it is the ability to be in a position to make decisions. So anyone with power has that authority or has been granted that right to make certain decisions." (male superintendent)
  • "My perception of power would be people looking up to you for direction and being able to provide that direction." (male superintendent)
  • "Power is the ability to get something done. There are three ways you can get things done: you do it yourself, you delegate, or you hire somebody outside the system." (male superintendent)
  • "Power is the ability to be able to coerce a direction in a certain way." (male superintendent)


"Power with/to:"

  • "I see power as something you don't get, but something someone gives to you. You don't take it. I don't try to control people." (female superintendent)
  • "I would define power as the ability to get things done with other people." (female superintendent)
  • "To me, power is something you earn. It's almost like respect. Some might say that I have power because I have a title. I might have power in the eyes of the other people because of the title but that doesn't really give me power." (male superintendent)
  • "Power to me means serving. It's servant leadership. Power means assisting other people to accomplish their goals, and that has a lot to do with the issues of collaboration and linking—bringing people together." (female superintendent)
  • "Power is the freedom for people to be all that they can be. You don't make decisions in isolation. You give yourself power when you watch the success of those that you work with." (female superintendent)


Gender Disparity

Interestingly, the majority of "power with/to" definitions came from female superintendents. Most would agree that the socialization of women predisposes them to be more collaborative than men, who are expected to be top-down decision-makers.

This puts male superintendents in a difficult position when they try to be collaborative leaders—they run the risk of being considered "wishy-washy" or unable to make decisions. This is not to say that being a collaborative leader is easy for women. Since communities continue to expect superintendents to be in charge at all times, this makes it difficult for men and women alike to be collaborators.

What connection did the superintendents' definitions of power have to the way they used power? In most cases, those superintendents who defined power as "power with/to" were very collaborative in their decision-making processes. I concluded this by asking other educators in the superintendents’ districts to describe their superintendents—whether they were authoritarian or collaborative and how they made decisions.

A few superintendents who described the "power with/to" definition operated as authoritarian leaders. This contradiction between professed values and behavior was not surprising given the popular buzzwords used around shared decision-making.

Superintendents who had the talk but not the walk were at least open to the idea that things were changing. Consider, for example, the following definition offered by one superintendent who was thought to be authoritarian by those in his district:

  • "In talking about the superintendency and the power he has, basically he should be facilitating communications and directions to a district in cooperation with the staff, the board of education, and the community itself. To say he is omnipotent and collects all the first fruits and the last fruits, it doesn't work. It's basically working with people, but you are responsible to make sure that all the people work together." (male superintendent)

    This superintendent is aware—at least to profess verbally—that authoritarian leadership doesn't work, yet he has been unable to change his actions. Here’s what people around him thought of his decision-making processes:
  • "He is authoritative. Let's just say he makes his decisions and I'm not sure what they're based on. He makes them by himself, and once they're made, we find out about them." (school-to-work coordinator)
  • "He's, as far as I am concerned, an authoritarian. He may smile, shake his head 'yes,' and turn around and do exactly what he wants to do—really not caring about your feelings or the kids’ situations." (community member)

Clearly, this superintendent practiced top-down leadership yet talked about his practice in a way that made it sound collaborative. He was struggling in ways many superintendents are.


Seven Tips

How does a superintendent make the change from top-down to collaborative leader? What benefits are there from doing so?

No. 1: While collaborative talk about power does not always make the walk, it certainly helps. Superintendents who could talk about power as a collaborative concept were at least aware they could be considered powerful even when they shared decision-making. For most, in fact, this understanding was enough to make them collaborative leaders.

No. 2: Collaboration is not delegation.
Superintendents who are collaborative leaders remain in the discussion. They do not often turn decisions over to individuals or groups. Instead, they remain active in the decision-making process mentally, giving themselves one vote when the decision is made. (This is an attitude, not necessarily an actual vote since many consensual settings do not call for a vote.)
This is a difficult thing to do. Stakeholders in the district must know that the superintendent values their opinion.

No. 3: As superintendent, have the attitude that anyone in the district is as capable in decision-making as you are.
Knowing that others can make sound decisions rests on one important fact: that everyone is informed.

No. 4: Share all information, and communicate with everyone.
Knowledge is power. Withholding knowledge is a top-down move. If true collaboration is to occur, everyone must know everything of importance related to pending decisions. Gone are the days, for example, when budgeting was a hidden process.

No. 5: Include everyone in the decision-making process.
This means invite everyone. Do not select or appoint. Let others decide whether the decision will impact them or not. This sounds extreme, but this mentality is necessary to really be collaborative. Work with others to establish formal processes to allow this inclusion.

No. 6: Establish a climate where people understand that decision-making takes time.
Collaboration takes time. Unless absolutely impossible, important decisions require input, research, and collective thought—time-consuming process. Make this understanding a priority of the district. Poor decisions cost more time in the long run than collaboration.

No. 7: Expect other opinions, and keep an open mind.
Collaborative leaders must be able to listen authentically. What they hear should impact and even change their thinking. Without this ability, a superintendent will not be trusted. The collaborative process will be a sham. Admit you could be wrong.

Powerful Present

Superintendents must understand they are only powerful when they can admit that power is a gift to them from others—the ability to work with others for the good of all.

One superintendent in the study summed it up beautifully when he said: "In the old sense of the term, power is simply command and control. In this position I think that definition gets you in trouble. It doesn't exist anymore. If a people go into the superintendency because they think they want to be in control, they shouldn't go. The people, the time, the situation, the whole decision-making process has changed so much that the workers, your colleagues, they have minds, they have hearts, they have investments, they have souls, and they aren't going to let that happen to the system, and they shouldn't. So I see power as more of a collaborative, more of a participatory term."

Collaborative decision-making, although difficult, has proven to facilitate school reforms that advance social justice with an emphasis on academic achievement for every child; higher-order democratic values exemplified by equality of input and equality of opportunity; and the notion of an "ethic of care," which combines caring, administration, and academic achievement. Collaborative decision-making is a worthy endeavor.

C. Cryss Brunner, Assistant Professor of Educational Administration, University of Wisconsin-Madison