Broken-Wing Superintendents

The healing process, following termination or buyout, means overcoming feeling victimized by George A. Goens

You can see it in their eyes—the hurt, the doubt, the humiliation, the embarrassment. They are “broken wing” superintendents, those who have hit the glass wall of rejection and failure. They flew, some with no warning, smack into the window pane of contract buyouts or termination. The high flyers have flopped from the sky, dazed onto the deck, faced with healing their wings and hoping to fly another day.

This is not a new phenomenon. In a profession fraught with conflict, it is easy to run into the glass wall. Given a political and dynamic context replete with multiple and conflicting expectations, highly competent school leaders can easily be brought down. Inexperience can shorten flights. So can tackling unwinnable battles over principle. Others crash because they react too quickly or too slowly. Some fly blindly in the shadows and fog of complex issues. And sometimes it is just plain time to go.

No matter how they hit the glass, these superintendents carry the emotions, feelings and hurts of people wounded or victimized. Their confidence may wane in these times, and picking themselves off the floor is not as quick or easy as people think. When you are competent and hold a highly visible position of authority, falling from a lofty public perch is very visible. Crashing in solitude is a different matter from colliding when the public is watching and commenting.

But hitting the glass need not be fatal. Broken wings sometimes heal stronger than the originals. However, restoring emotional energy and confidence needs to take place before taking flight and getting back into a leadership role such as the superintendency.

Experiencing Shock

When superintendents hit the glass, they generally do not suffer physical damage. Usually the wound is emotional, but it hurts just as much or more than physical maladies.

Broken-wing superintendents have one emotion in common: shock. For some superintendents, the prevailing thought is “it can’t happen to me.” Hitting the wall happens to someone else. Because superintendents are a confident lot, it may never have entered their minds that losing or giving up a job would be in their future.

Other superintendents say, “I didn’t think things were that bad. I didn’t see it coming.” Being caught by surprise only adds to their feelings of embarrassment and guilt. With no time to prepare family and friends or oneself, the sting and impact of the glass is greater.

In some cases, the subtle signs were ignored as superintendents felt the slow erosion of the board’s support. In other circumstances, the erosion may have occurred more like an avalanche. Either way, efforts to forestall what may have been inevitable do not lessen the distress.

Not leaving under one’s own terms leaves a void, a vacuum and a lack of closure. It is frustrating and dejecting. Confusion often occurs. Trying to understand the issues, the whys and wherefores, does not soften the pain. Sometimes these issues cannot be reasoned through by logic. There is emotion on both sides, and trying to cut through it is not easy.

The shock can lead to anger emanating from two sources—self and others. Self-directed anger over hitting the glass occurs from not seeing it coming, not anticipating what was unfolding. Being blind-sided strikes at the heart of leadership. Leaders are supposed to anticipate issues and have foresight and wide peripheral vision.

Directed Anger

A second facet of self-directed anger relates to poor decision making or the exercise of poor judgment. Sometimes, one decision becomes symbolic and galvanizes peoples’ judgment about a leader’s competence. When a decision goes haywire or lands with a thud, many leaders take it personally, often beating themselves up in the aftermath. Not handling the substantive or strategic decision successfully can be maddening and exasperating.

Anger is also directed externally—at the school board, staff, parents, community and civic officials. External anger sometimes is couched in terms of clandestine schemes or plots and loss of control. Accusations of hidden agendas, unreasonable or unclear expectations or allegations of dishonest or unethical conduct are made. Breaches of trust and the debilitating feeling of being caught in the clutches of others create enormous hurt and certain anger.

At times, this anger causes the superintendent to want to strike back and set the record straight. In one case, Jerry, the outgoing superintendent of a mid-sized East Coast school district, responded to his nonrenewal by giving an interview to the local press in which he lambasted the school board president and challenged the integrity of some board members. He contended he was not able to do his job effectively because the school board was intrusive and meddled in the administration of the schools.

The article, of course, resurrected in detail the controversy between the board and Jerry going back four years when he was hired on a 5-2 board vote and ended with the allegations by some board members that he did not provide a clear direction and leadership for the district. The article portrayed him as embittered and defeated and gave him a Nixonesque defensive glow.

Anger clouded Jerry’s judgment and cemented the controversy over his leadership style in people’s minds. In addition, it stopped other school boards from interviewing him. Jerry now teaches at a state university and hopes to resume his administrative career.

Fight or Flight

Shock, coupled with anger, leads to a fight-or-flight response. Both can be damaging, for different reasons. These situations call for actions that are in the best interests of the superintendent and the school board. Pure flight-or-fight responses generally do not meet the best interests of either party.

Flight responses—retreating from the situation—if not done in the right way or for the right reason can be harmful. Many times, a flight response is simply not facing the truth of the situation. Not being realistic about the circumstances or the context can lure superintendents into a state of disbelief or rob them of a clear perspective of the situation and their future.

Past achievements flood their perceptions and superintendents get angry about the lack of appreciation for loyal service in difficult times. Despite fantasies about it, the cavalry in the form of parents, community, teachers or staff riding over the hill to save the day with a landslide of support generally does not happen. Waiting for a change of heart on the part of board members—for them to “see the light”—is a pipe dream that evaporates into the mist of wishes and the sobering reality of legal correspondence.

Shirley, a Midwestern superintendent in a district with about 2,600 students, was at loggerheads with her school board, which split 3-3 on extending her contract. One board member was undecided at the time. Susan got miffed at the reluctance to roll over her contract because student achievement improved dramatically over the previous three years, budgets were passed without the usual rancor and local politic ians and parents publicly expressed satisfaction with the schools and her leadership.

Shirley informed the board that she was letting her contract lapse after the remaining two years. To her superintendent colleagues, she said, “The parents, mayor and town officials are going to give the school board hell for not extending my contract.” While people spoke positively about her at the next school board meeting, there was no stampede on the board. Citizens did not understand the contract issue or the process for extending contracts. The board indicated that two years of security in a time of heightened accountability was sufficient for a superintendent, even a successful one.

Sometimes, we think issues dear to us have communitywide passion. Even if the board was pressured into a contract extension, the atmosphere could be polluted and antagonistic to a successful long-term superintendent-board relationship.

Rapid Retreat

Another flight response is running—getting out as soon as possible. When the issue of disenchantment with the superintendent becomes public, it is embarrassing. Egos are bruised. The superintendent’s family is frightened. It is painful to have your career bandied about in public because superintendents invest in their work and are attached to their competence.

So when the bell tolls and it is time to go, some people would like to leave as quickly as possible, get out of the limelight, stop the gossip and withdraw to the solitude of home and family. Resignation over principle sounds good and may have to happen. In doing so, however, superintendents should not run out on their rights.

Wanting to get the public controversy over with should not compromise one’s ability to respond appropriately and responsibly. Resignation from a job is not fleeing if it is done consciously and with a clear destination concerning the terms of a settlement.

Fight responses, on the other hand, can be just as injurious. Somehow, the John Wayne mentality lives in our heads for both men and women. Being a tough administrator has a mythology all its own—making those responsible for the action pay. In hurtful or ego-deflating conditions, seeking payback is the American way in pop culture. Through retribution, redemption is supposedly achieved. But is it?

When a superintendent is under fire and a contract termination is taking place, returning withering fire can be more harmful to the superintendent than those targeted for the hits. Controversies sell papers. They fuel gossip. They justify suspicions, and they crazy-glue allegations to personalities. All are harmful to the superintendent. People tend to believe what is repeated and some newspapers repeat everything—truth, half-truths, perceptions, opinions, misinformation, rumor, perspectives, hearsay, fiction and gossip. Sometimes the truth hurts, and certainly innuendo and the host of false impressions can damage even more.

Superintendents are extremely visible in the community. Weathering the storm of gossip and superficial, simplistic or inaccurate representations is difficult. Superintendents in this situation are frequently faced with proving a negative—that they did not do something.

Harriet is a progressive superintendent who was at the forefront in her state in the upper Midwest in implementing instructional technology. She proposed and passed a major investment in classroom technology in her 7,500-student suburban school district.

Citing an unidentified source, the statewide newspaper reported that the superintendent may have received a major gratuity from the vendor from which the technology was purchased. The allegation in the news story, while somewhat vague, gave the impression that something may have transpired under the table. The newspaper reported that some vendors were peeved that they did not get the contract because it went to a company that just entered the field. There was no truth to the published innuendo, but without knowing the sources or having any specifics, responding was difficult and could just fan the flames of a story without merit. Harriet threw her hands up in frustration and disillusionment.

Similarly, fighting and seeking redemption through retribution can cause a superintendent to become radioactive. The truth does not always come out; real life is not the movies. School boards and communities go on because they are institutions and controversy is a part of doing business. However, a superintendent is an individual, a human being. The publicity that surrounds these situations sticks to the person. Controversy can be personalized to individual superintendents. “Oh, there’s the superintendent who … ;” “Isn’t it unfortunate she had to leave the district this way …;” or “He seemed nice. I never thought he would … .”

All of this is difficult and frustrating to superintendents who value their reputations, who are attached to their competence and who hate to succumb to pressure. It is easy to become a victim in these circumstances.

Victims and Players

Having to leave a position on others’ terms is difficult. Retiring or resigning when you feel it is time to go is one thing. You leave on your own conditions. There is closure. Broken-wing superintendents do not get that sense. They leave with unfinished business. It is a difficult situation, emotionally and professionally.

There are two ways to approach the situation. Some superintendents assume the posture and mentality of victims. They act as if they were awash on the waves of circumstance, victims of forces beyond their control. They flail and curse at the state of affairs and feel betrayed. They go through a period of hoping things will or could change.

Victims believe they are impotent and powerless. They adopt a “woe is me” attitude. Hoping things were different is not going to change them, and cursing the darkness does not bring light. Being a bug in search of a windshield will not alter the conditions broken-wing superintendents face.

Certainly, these superintendents face difficult circumstances. Their competence is challenged, their reputations and status are threatened. They can fall into a situation of deflecting all responsibility, as if they were not involved in what was happening around them. Maybe they were not professionally culpable. Maybe there were better ways to address or manage the problem. Not assuming responsibility for what is transpiring puts them into the class of victim—a bystander.

Two levels of responsibility exist here. First, was the superintendent responsible through actions or benign neglect for the events that led to the situation erupting? It does not mean the superintendent did anything unethical or acted with incompetence. It may have meant the problem went unrecognized, the wrong approaches or strategies were applied or the desired results were not achieved. Leaders are seldom benign or irrelevant.

The second responsibility concerns what actions the superintendent took once the situation was out in the open. Was there a way to address this situation beyond having to leave the superintendency? If not, what approach could be taken to become a player in terminating the relationship and not a victim?

Players take responsibility and accept circumstances. They do not naively react to others’ actions and what life brings them. They accept conditions as they are and do not engage in fantasies of the cavalry bugling their way over the hill to save the day. Instead, they see reality for what it is and take action.

Players do not look through the rearview mirror and live in the past. They move ahead, looking out the front windshield to address the obstacles ahead, acknowledging that this may mean leaving their job in the most positive way possible.

They address the situation and use their talents to meet needs and the requirements of the school district to the greatest extent possible. Players contribute and have a role in determining outcomes and events. While he or she may still have to leave the job, a player will at least be a factor in the conditions and circumstance surrounding the resignation. While it does not provide total closure, the superintendent who is a player takes responsibility for working to a conclusion.

Player or victim? This distinction is not intended to diminish the hurt and turmoil broken- wing superintendents face. It does not ignore the fact that injustices occur. Or that fairness gets trampled in political pastures. These things occur. The issue is how superintendents in these situations address them and how they respond. Being a player provides a sense of efficacy, the ability to respond, which is a powerful position.

Professional Actions

Being a broken-wing superintendent is not terminal. It does not have to be fatal to a career. School boards and leadership consultants understand that there is a time to resign on the basis of principle. Sometimes the circumstances and personalities push the agenda faster and more intensely than desired.

Superintendents in this position can do several things that will make them a player, eliminate the victim mentality and move them down the road. Action does not equate with seeking retribution or legal options. Being a player does not translate into a vendetta or acting in kind to belligerent or unprofessional conduct.

First, broken-wing superintendents should forgive. Forgiving themselves is crucial because leaders have a penchant to think they can control external events, and that is just not the case. Many superintendents blame themselves for negative things happening and begin to tear down their confidence in their competence. Difficult circumstances are a part of life and do not always reflect on competence or character. Breaking a wing hurts, but forgiving and moving on as a player helps.

Forgiving others is another condition for moving on. Living in the past, recapitulating transgressions or conflicts, does not help with refocusing on new challenges. In fact, it can cement a broken-wing superintendent to the past.

Second, healing is necessary. Forgiveness is a part of the healing process. But other things can be done to help heal. One is not to obsess about the matter. Constantly dwelling on the situation affects the emotions of the superintendent, family members and others.

In positive terms, see the joy in life. Get away from the situation; turn to others for emotional, physical and spiritual support. Share with those you love. Get out in nature. The natural order of things can be uplifting. Storms occur and winds blow, but they are followed by sun and warmth. The same is true in human conflict. There are better days and great opportunities ahead if you do not carry over negative energy from the past.

Finally, gear up. Get your resume and application letters ready. Celebrate your accomplishments as you update your professional credentials. Examine your assets and be proud of them. Not many people have had the opportunity to lead a school system. You did. If you want to again, put a professional packet together.

Contact recruitment and leadership consulting firms. Be honest, affirmative and straightforward. You are not the only one who has hit the glass wall. Nor will you be the last. Develop a working relationship with search firms so you can get known and get in the loop for job openings. Recruitment firms can help you package yourself and address the issues when you get interviews.

Learn from the experience. There is always something positive that can come from adverse situations. Be positive. Look for the good. Generate affirmative energy because no one wants to be around an angry cynic for long.

And finally, remember Teddy Roosevelt’s axiom: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

George Goens, a former superintendent, is senior partner of Goens/Esparo, LLC, P.O. Box 270768, West Hartford, CT 06127. E-mail: gagoens@snet.net. He is the author of Soft Leadership for Hard Times (ScarecrowEducation).