Executive Perspective

Nearly Famous

by Paul D. Houston

Shortly after my arrival as the new superintendent in Tucson, Ariz., with all the attendant media fanfare given to the new “Piñata in Chief,” I was invited to one of my staff member’s homes for dinner. I rang the bell and his young son opened the door. He took a hard look at me, his eyes brightened and he said, “Oh, I know you — you’re nearly famous.”

It later struck me how right he was. That is the category in which most superintendents find themselves — nearly famous. You’re somebody, but people just aren’t sure who.

Being the superintendent in a town with two daily newspapers, four TV stations and not much to focus on except the university athletic programs and local schools, I got all sorts of experience finding out what it felt like to be nearly famous. It was always a bit crazy to walk through the aisles of Costco and hear people discussing me as if I wasn’t there. I think because they had seen me on television, they assumed I was still in the little box and couldn’t hear what they had to say. Or I would be in a restaurant with friends and realize all the other diners around us were leaning toward us like we were E.F. Hutton because they were curious what the superintendent might be discussing.

Other times people would look at me with a glimmer of recognition, knowing I was someone, but they just weren’t sure who. Several asked which news show I was on. “All of them” was my answer. Once a lady asked me if anyone had ever told me I looked a lot like Paul Houston. I told her the truth: “No, no one has ever told me that before.”

Free Counsel
When I was superintendent in the small town of Princeton, N.J., I didn’t get the media exposure, but I was very big in the checkout line of the supermarket or on the sidewalk after church on Sunday. Everyone had a question or more often an opinion. I used to observe I had the easiest job in town because everyone knew what I should do and was happy to tell me. I just could never get them to speak with one voice. Superintendents get lots of free advice, but sorting it all out can be a challenge.

The truth is that the job we have chosen for ourselves is certainly more than running an organization. We are the public face on a complex and often misunderstood institution, and we have to find ways of feeling comfortable playing that role. In many ways we also serve as the lightning rod for the public’s disappointments and dissatisfaction. When things are going well, it is the teachers and principals who are getting it done. When things aren’t going well, a search party is formed with the superintendent in the crosshairs. And while that may not feel fair, it strikes me that it is pretty much the way it should be.

Good leadership should focus outward and illuminate those doing the work. It should never be about you. It should always be about them. When I first became a superintendent I used to get a chuckle (and truth be known a bit of a thrill) walking into a meeting and hearing people say, “Oh, Mr. Superintendent” or “The superintendent is here, let’s see what he says about that.” It didn’t take me long to realize that the focus I was getting cuts both ways. Yes, I was in a position that people looked up to and that had influence, but I was also the one easily blamed if things didn’t go right or who was held accountable for what needed to happen next.

Being “Mr. Superintendent” wasn’t always all it was cracked up to be. But the real work I did was to keep the pressure off the people doing the business of educating. I realized my job was to be the tent pole in that little circus, and I had to keep the canvas from smothering the performers. It was an important job, but sometimes one that made me nearly famous in ways I didn’t particularly enjoy.

Conversation Starter
I have heard people say that superintendents are all extroverts. I am not sure that is true, but you better do a pretty good job of faking “extrovertism” if you hope to succeed.

However, I think the best way to look at the job is that of being a catalytic converter. You are a catalyst whose presence, vision, energy and insight can help jumpstart the conversation and move others to mountaintops they didn’t know they could climb. You also must convert the work and the language into actions that the community understands and can support.

I have observed that being the superintendent is like being the dolphin trainer at Sea World. You have to ride on the backs of two dolphins, with a foot on each. In the case of the superintendent, one dolphin is the staff and the other is the community. You have to keep a balance between the two or you’ll fall off your dolphin.

The job of superintendent is both internal and external. You have to use your position to help the staff move forward, and you have to engage and enlist the community in supporting the job. Basically, you have to help the staff understand they are not as good as they think and the community to understand the staff is better than they think. That is where you can use the “fame” you have been given.

Superintendents are among the most influential people in their communities. There is a reason why they are nearly famous. While the job may not carry all the respect it once had, it is still one that makes a difference in the lives of children and the future of the community. Superintendents must be the intellectual and moral leaders in their communities. They can focus the conversation on the right things and can call people to a higher place. While you may be only nearly famous, you have the opportunity to be wholly critical to the future.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.