Guest Column

Landmines in the Pathway of the Superintendency

by David E. Lee

One night around 11:30 p.m., on my way home from a highly emotional school board meeting, stark reality set in. I found myself tightly gripping the steering wheel, the veins in my neck stretched to the limit — a condition perfect for stress, heart attack and insomnia.

What was I doing serving as superintendent? What made me think I could turn things around in a school system with a history of failure?

Nine months later I was in a university position, training aspiring and mid-career superintendents. During the opening session of my superintendency class, I asked my students to name all the characteristics they thought a superintendent should possess. I received answers such as honesty, integrity, intelligence, change agent, communicator and motivator. The list got longer and longer as I scribbled the responses on a board. After about 50 qualities, I asked the students who in the world can be a master of all those things. It began to sink in that a superintendent is expected to be everything to everybody. Therein lies the problem.

Potential Explosions
My 30 years of administrative experience at both the local and state levels, coupled with my tenure as a local school board president and national consultant, have helped me to spot the landmines that can wreak havoc with our careers. I count these among the most explosive situations:


  • Prophets of doom. If you come across individuals who are progress stoppers, don't ignore them as they won't go away. It may seem their whole purpose is to make your life miserable. Can you build a workable relationship with your prophet of doom? If not, you are in trouble. Don't underestimate people with small minds in positions of power.



  • "We don't play politics here." As the renowned Louisiana politician Huey Long once said to the legislature when no one would accept blame for anything, "Don't blame you, don't blame me, blame that man behind the tree." Know full well you are in a political arena and you must master it to make real progress. Build your political capital every day. Remember the school board responds to the community, and your success will be directly related to how well you are received by your community.



  • Work with the best, ignore the rest. If you ignore a board member, you will regret it. Tell everybody the same thing. If one member requests something, send it to all members. If you do a special favor for one member at the expense of another, you are getting closer and closer to a landmine. Never allow a board member to talk you into jeopardizing your principles or integrity. It will come back to bite you every time.



  • It's off the record. Don't let reporters fool you into thinking you are their friend. If your board meetings are the No. 1 media show in town, you have special problems. Only say and do things you want to read about in the newspaper. Act as if you have a reporter with you at all times.



  • Be outstanding without standing out. Constant public exposure can be your downfall. Let others run with your success. Historically, many state and national superintendents of the year are gone within a year or two. Your picture or name in the media is good from time to time, but avoid getting all the praise. For some reason, people don't like the individuals they see in print all the time.



  • If you want a friend, buy yourself a dog. Folks will turn on you just when you need them the most. The position you hold attracts people to you, many appearing to be someone they are not. You simply can't trust everyone around you to be loyal. They'll do what's best for themselves in the end, even if it means sacrificing you.



  • Know when to depart. Don't hang around too long. When things get out of control, you rarely get back on course. Remember, it's better to leave when most want you to stay.



  • It's not how smart you are, but rather how you listen. Many fired superintendents are extremely intelligent and know exactly how to do their jobs, but that alone isn't enough. You must listen to the right people saying the right things. If the right people aren't buying in on your brilliant proposals, then failure is imminent.


    A Perilous Road
    I recently attended the annual convention of the National School Boards Association as the president of my local board. As I looked at the badges of other board members from across the country, I asked many, "How are things in your district?" and then followed with, "Do you have a good superintendent?" Most board members offered a similar refrain: "Are you kidding?" What's scary is that it could have one of your board members saying that about you.

    As a school board member, I see potential landmines all the time. Superintendents assume the board will back proposals without proper information, take support from some board members for granted or fail to be totally upfront with a board. Remember, in every big picture you present, there are always small pockets of extreme personal interests that matter to each board member. Travel this road blindly at your own peril. Great leaders persist until the results are clear, but they always watch where they step.

    David Lee is co-director of the School Leadership Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Drive, Suite 5027, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. E-mail: A former superintendent, he is president of the board of education in Walthall County, Miss.