The Heart of Superintendent Networking

by George Thompson

I've facilitated a professional network of superintendents for a decade, but it was only in this past year that I gained an understanding of the true power of a network.

It was eight months after Hurricane Katrina, and the Louisiana-based members of the Superintendents Leadership Network (managed by the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform in partnership with the BellSouth Foundation) were still in no position to travel so we decided to take our quarterly institute to New Orleans. The organizing theme would be transformation, and we would see how tragedy and devastation could be reframed into an opportunity to transform schools.

What we really learned about was the courageous leadership of superintendents whose stories had not been told.

We adjusted the agenda, creating space for conversation and reflection. We heard stories of survival and leadership, and we learned it was not just schools that were to be rebuilt — these superintendents were being asked to lead the re-creation of entire communities. Indeed, especially in the parishes surrounding New Orleans, reopening school had become the focal point for all community building.

Network superintendents listened to their colleagues, affirmed what they had to say and shed tears with them. The Louisiana superintendents, who along with their families experienced great personal loss, had shouldered the burden for so many others and had listened to everyone else's story, but it was only in this safe setting they could tell their own stories. In listening to these superintendents and to their colleagues' responses I came to feel the true power of a network with a heart.

New Thinking
The need for a superintendent network is especially strong for those who see their role as "moral and intellectual leader," as Phil Schlechty says, or as Level 5 Leader, as Jim Collins puts it — those who build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.

These superintendents are about leading change, and what they need from a network is different from what is needed by those who are about maintaining the status quo. Change-leading superintendents are more about building value, building community and building relationships than they are about building their own careers.

The Schlechty Center provides frameworks for thinking about organizational transformation. Initially we were not assertive about making these frameworks central in the work of the Superintendents Leadership Network, but we soon learned that a network that is not grounded in a set of beliefs and that does not have a point of view is susceptible to the pursuit of fads that may be fashionable but are not systemic or sustainable.

A core group of change-leading network members came to insist we use our frameworks to help them focus on engagement, on quality work for students and on building school district capacity to initiate and sustain long-term change. At that point it became clear that the SLN would be about transformation and that anyone interested simply in focusing on compliance with state and/or federal mandates would not be the primary customer for this network.

Superintendents as change leaders do not see compliance as their main goal. They see engagement as the key to creating great schools, and they want their schools to be great. They also want to be intellectually and socially stimulated and challenged, and they want to be engaged in learning experiences with other leaders who are grappling with similar issues. One superintendent from Georgia said firmly, "If all we talk about is FTEs and No Child Left Behind, I can stay at home. I come here to get above all of that."

New Tools
Superintendents leading change are focused on the demands and opportunities of the future, not on "war stories" from the past. In his 2001 book Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, Phillip Schlechty identifies a number of dramatic changes (he calls them "seismic shifts") that are having a profound impact on our society and, consequently, on our schools.

In his book, he contends: "These shifts require school leaders to respond with dramatic and powerful changes in the way schools go about doing their business and perhaps even with the redefinition of the nature of the business they do."

Network superintendents want experiences, tools and information they can use to create a sense of urgency and to build common understandings in their communities of what is going on in the world. They want to explore trends, shifts, issues and perspectives in order to understand the larger context in which they operate, so they can help others understand that context as well.

The Schlechty Center's partnership with the BellSouth Foundation has been invaluable, as the foundation has opened its own doors and used its leverage to gain access to other businesses and nonprofits from which to learn. To date, the partnership has designed and sponsored 36 institutes and field experiences, which have included Toyota, Disney, Scientific Atlanta, NASA and Ingalls Shipbuilding. The focus of the institutes has never been on what leaders outside of education think superintendents should do — it has been on what superintendents can learn from change leaders who are struggling with transforming their own organizations.

Schlechty maintains that learning from is substantively different from learning that. Each time we facilitate a field experience we frame it with these questions:

• What can we learn from what we have seen here today?

• How does what we have learned help us think about our own work in school districts?

Community Commitment
Superintendents leading change are committed to accountability — and they are fundamentally committed to being accountable for themselves and for the positive differences their actions make. During a contentious discussion about whether the governance structure of school boards should be changed, an Alabama superintendent said, "I am not aware of a superintendent successfully changing the governance structure of school boards. I do not have any control over that. I do have control over the work I ask my board to do. If I can get them engaged in work that is consistent with their needs and interests and that contributes to the district doing its core business better, I won't have to worry about the governing structure."

Similarly, change-leading superintendents must help others reframe their roles as accountable contributors to transformation. Until a school district has become a school community that is unified by a common vision, driven by common beliefs, and committed to internal accountability for its performance, transformation is not possible.

Finally, superintendents as change leaders need community themselves. A true network is a community. At the institute in New Orleans, one network member said she would "be awfully glad when things got back to normal." A Florida superintendent, whose community had been devastated in the recent past by three consecutive hurricanes offered, "There won't be a normal as you have known it. What you have to do is accept and get others to accept the new normal, and then move on."

At that point, the room grew very quiet as that lesson, learned through trial and tribulation, sank in — and then it provided the kind of relief, acceptance and renewal of spirit that could only have come from a fellow superintendent who had learned how to reframe the problem — and turn it into an opportunity.

George Thompson is president of the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform, 950 Breckenridge Lane, Suite 200, Louisville, KY 40207. E-mail:


White Paper Collection
The Superintendents Leadership Network has produced a collection of white papers about how a school district can become a school community. The materials deal with school boards, central-office administrators and principals; most papers were presented at the 2004 AASA National Conference on Education in San Francisco.

To access these publications and for additional details about the Superintendents Leadership Network, visit