Systems Thinking

Lonely at the Top

by Joan M. Raymond

It is lonely at the top! That is an axiom long used to describe leadership positions in both the private and public sectors. It is accepted as fact because after all the study, research, recommendations and counsel given to any problem or issue, the final decision must be made by the individual responsible for the management of the organization.

Often the decisions are difficult and unpopular, and the chief executive officer stands alone, sometimes without support and under attack from within and without the organization. That is particularly true of the school superintendent because of the public nature and high-profile status of the position.

Certainly, a wide range of resources are available to assist the superintendent in making critical decisions: staff, research, data, technology, board members, community leaders, elected officials, university contacts, professional organizations and a plethora of other support services. Those are invaluable assets in the decision-making process, but the burden, responsibility and accountability for the final action sit on the desk of the superintendent and nowhere else.

If for no other reason, the superintendent must develop a network of colleagues beyond the school community and seek unbiased, detached professional opinion. Other superintendents can do that since there are few issues or crises that they have not experienced, and they can provide insight, direction and caution.

Networking Chances
Several levels of networking are available. The first is local. Every school district belongs to some regional association of superintendents that meets regularly. In some states, attendance at these meetings is mandatory, but mandatory or not, superintendents should attend these meetings to establish contacts with their neighboring superintendents. I built and maintained friendships for almost three decades with superintendents whom I met in these regional groups in four different states. Most all of them have moved, but many reappeared during my career in other settings, and the network grew and the experiences we shared grew as well.

Those superintendents who often say they are "too busy" to attend and who flash in and out of these regional meetings are probably the loneliest at the top because they have not nurtured the professional networking system. The support won't be there when they need it the most. Some probably don't even know they need a network.

Of course, there are the state associations. Interestingly, the regional networks feed into the state conferences for superintendents and administrators. In each state where I've worked as a superintendent, I always found it interesting that the regional group of superintendents stuck together and rarely mingled with superintendents from other areas. This is a huge mistake.

The state association conferences provide a platform to expand a network and should be actively pursued, not only during the business part of the meeting but during the social side as well. Superintendents love to tell stories, and since the local and regional stories are pretty well known, the state meetings provide exposure to issues and incidents that sometimes are almost unbelievable, but can be stored away for future reference.

Most superintendents belong to several national organizations and each provides networking opportunities. AASA is the premier networking organization for superintendents. The AASA national conference provides unlimited opportunities for superintendents to learn from each other and to develop contacts throughout the country. In addition, the focused AASA conferences, such as the summer leadership meeting, are great networking occasions. There are several other national associations that offer invaluable resources for the superintendent, but smaller and more focused groups may be more helpful.

Peer Groups
Early on in my career, I was a member of the mid-urban superintendents association. At one time, it was known as the 100-300 group, identifying superintendents of districts in cities with a population between 100,000 and 300,000. It was a wonderful group of superintendents who met twice a year on a rotating host basis. Lasting friendships were formed during those eight years that I belonged to the 100-300 group and I, along with many in the mid-urban group, moved on to larger urban districts and joined the Large City School Superintendents organization.

I have been a member of the LCSS for more than 20 years and it has been the greatest professional support of my career. Not only have the superintendents of these large urban districts become close professional associates, they became a family of close-knit friends. They offer intellectual stimulation, emotional support and expert counsel. Our meetings are topical and informative and provide a basis for socializing on a highly collegial scale. Every superintendent needs such a peer group.

A systems approach to networking is critical for the leaders of our public schools. Frankly, they need a web of networking if they are to survive. There have never been easy answers or simple solutions to the problems in our profession. Now, however, there may be no answers and no solutions and the superintendent stands more alone than perhaps ever before. Build a network. It is lonely at the top.

Joan Raymond, who retired in 2006 after 28 years in the superintendency, is an executive consultant to the AASA Center for System Leadership. She can be reached at 2859 Wyndham Way, Melbourne, FL 32940. E-mail: