The Right Leader at the Right Time

The key to sustainability is matching the leadership style with the local circumstances by Mark F. Goldberg

In early 2006, The New York Times Book Review asked 200 authors, critics and editors to identify the single best work of fiction published in the past 25 years. Responses came from 125 individuals. The winner was Toni Morrison’s Beloved with 15 votes. Five other books received between 7 and 11 votes and another 17 books received between 2 and 6 votes.

Just as book quality and preferences vary from author to author and critic to critic, the quality of educational leadership and the culture of individual schools or school districts vary from leader to leader and from place to place. Although scores of books and articles have been written about educational leadership, each one, including this one, can tell only part of the story, for there is no template for an ideal district or a template for exemplary leadership under all circumstances.

For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given millions of dollars to open dozens of small schools across the country. Many of these schools have thrived, often serving students who have had little success in traditional schools. Similarly, The Big Picture Co., recipient of Gates and other foundation money, has established more than 30 breakthrough public schools based on several specific characteristics such as real-world projects, an advisory system and rigorous but unconventional teaching. The schools that are successful are often guided by transformative leaders such as Dennis Littky, co-director of The Big Picture Co. and recipient of the 2002 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize for education.

Another example is Deborah Meier, a 1987 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius award”), who directed the alternative Central Park East schools in New York City, then went on to Boston where she founded the K-8 Mission School with results similar to her successful work in New York. Meier now is a senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

These leaders match their philosophies with their goals and their strategies with their schools. They establish a culture that sustains the work a particular school or district requires. No two schools look or function in the same way because the requirements vary from community to community.

Dennis Littky has transformed or founded several schools that have exactly one common leitmotif: a very personal relationship between the faculty and students and the same relationship with the school community. He has served as a principal in a school that could be called progressive (Shoreham-Wading River in New York); a dysfunctional school that he turned into a well-functioning school that would be characterized as very progressive (Winchester, N.H.); and, of late, several schools without formal classes but with a very strong student mentorship program (The Met in Providence, R.I., for example).

Effective school leaders recognize their strengths, have a clear vision for education and seek settings that support their leadership style.

• Some want to manage a well-functioning school or district.

• Some aspire to renew a school district that functions well but appears to need some change to be more effective.

• Some are visionaries who want to turn a district upside down.

Effective school leaders also know the importance of garnering support for their work. That includes establishing and maintaining a strong relationship with the board and the local community — one that includes a common vision, a clear trajectory for the next several years and increased capacity to support new initiatives.

Sustaining Initiatives
For several years, Richard Doremus, superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River School District on Long Island for 17 years, scoured educational journals and conference presentations for information about successful school programs. He took the opportunity during a yearlong sabbatical to visit the schools and school districts that had implemented these exemplary programs, expecting to find transformation and renewal.

Much to his disappointment, in many cases the superintendent or principal who had brought advisory or block scheduling or differentiated instruction to the school or district had left relatively soon after implementation; the initiatives withered for a year or two and then the programs simply ceased to exist. Without sustained leadership, they had little chance of surviving.


Sustained leadership that maintains effective programs means the school leader values the programs and is willing to support them for years to come. While there is no magic number, five or six years is often enough time for programs to become part of the culture and for leadership capacity to be at the point where enough stakeholders — teachers, principals, assistant principals, central-office administrators and even parents — are knowledgeable about the program and support it enthusiastically. If the leader or even a handful of the members of the group who implemented an initiative leave, 10 or 15 people are primed to continue the program.

Priorities are also vital to leadership capacity and sustainability. I have visited too many school districts where a board member or superintendent proudly shared, “We’re really on the move here. Just last month, we approved 26 district priorities for the next three years.” If I’m just visiting, I smile and nod my head. But I am saying to myself, “This district has no priorities.” Having more than five major priorities is a roadmap to failure.

Priorities are important goals that require serious consideration and continual attention over several years until they have taken root as part of a school’s or district’s culture. Rearranging teacher bus coverage may be a good thing to do, but it is not a priority. Installing an advisory system in grades 7-12, training K-12 teachers in National Writing Project techniques or cycling K-5 teachers through workshops about new and proven techniques for working with struggling readers are legitimate education priorities.

Establish priorities, announce them, publicize them, conduct staff development around them, include them on the board agenda two or three times a year and give them pride in position when budget decisions are made. When new secondary school teachers are hired, they will need a workshop on how the advisory system works. When new elementary school teachers are hired, they will need some training in the district’s methods for working with struggling readers. In addition, every new teacher and administrator should have an experienced mentor for at least a year.

Review the priorities at least annually. One priority may not be as important anymore, given successful achievement of the goals or changed circumstances. Other priorities will require continuing support, although attention to them may decrease through the years as they become part of the district’s culture.

Maintaining Perspective
By its very nature, the superintendency is a challenging job. Parents, students, teachers, teacher organizations, the board, other administrators and the custodial staff all make demands. But to sustain their leadership, superintendents cannot allow the job to overwhelm them. Some administrators I know say with pride that they work as many as 70 hours per week. From my experience, the work week should not exceed 55 hours. Of course, there may be a few weeks of unusual activity or genuine emergency, but typically, administrators should put in no more than 55 hours a week.

Every leader needs time for family and social life, time for exercise and for self. Non-school activities renew leaders so they can tackle the difficult and complicated work of our 21st century schools.

School leaders can maintain their focus and avoid becoming overwhelmed by considering the following strategies:

First, every year, perhaps at the middle and end of the school year, determine what you have done well, what you could have done better and what time-consuming tasks you can drop from your responsibilities. Include colleagues in this discussion. Do you need to be at every district meeting about curriculum change? Can an assistant superintendent for curriculum take on this responsibility within clear guidelines you establish? You will, of course, receive brief reports on progress and may be invited to a critically important meeting.

Second, superintendents are in a position that could require a 70-hour work week, and they can easily become overwhelmed if they do not establish their responsibilities early in their term as well as seek help when their responsibilities change. I live in Austin, Texas, where some of the surrounding communities are doubling in size every five years, and not every superintendent has the skills to build new schools and run a district two or three times the size of his or her comfort level.

Speak to your school board president about getting some help — not necessarily another administrator and not necessarily full-time. Maybe a teacher or community member can help with schedules, technology, the district newsletter or some other obligation at far less cost than would be required for a full-time position. Take advantage of opportunities to outsource work to respectable organizations, anything from property management to budget. Do your homework before requesting support. Prepare a two-page executive summary of the problem, propose a solution and reassure the board you will provide adequate administrative oversight.

Third, in school districts where hiring another central-office administrator is warranted, put together a cogent argument, carefully listing the proposed responsibilities of the new deputy or assistant. Here, you would do well to learn how similar neighboring districts are organized. For example, what is the ratio of administrators to teachers? If your district has some unique circumstances, be sure to include those and be prepared to explain them. Politically, it is important to seed any request for a new administrator by having one-on-one conversations with several board members, and particularly the board president, for the two or three months before you add this item to the board agenda.

No organization wants to see the leader running in four different directions at once, unable to respond promptly to important issues. Scattered leadership is not sustained leadership.

Final Thoughts
Education is a shared responsibility among parents and guardians, teachers, policymakers, administrators and board members. Ultimately it is the responsibility of school leaders to lead the school or district to success. And while the types of leaders needed at a particular place at a particular time vary, all successful school leaders must be focused, realistic, calm and dedicated to the work they and others do. Martin Brooks, an educational leader I know well, has served with considerable distinction as superintendent in three school districts on Long Island over the past 15 years. I have watched him turn down offers in districts where he felt he was not a good fit or where he was convinced he did not have the complete support of the hiring board.

To remain focused, calm and effective the fit must be right, and any candidate for a superintendent’s position who fails to consider situational fit very carefully does so at his or her peril.

Mark Goldberg, a retired school administrator, is an educational writer and editor. He can be reached at 6001 Sierra Arbor Court, Austin, TX 78759 E-mail: Mark12738@aol.com. His latest book is Insider’s Guide to School Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2006).