Embracing the Political Challenges of the Superintendency: Thoughtful Entry Can Help

Schroeder PictureBy Joe A. Schroeder, Superintendent, Muskego-Norway School District, jschroeder@mnsd.k12.wi.us 

As leaders in the district and in the community, public school superintendents face considerable challenges, many of which are fundamentally political in nature. For new superintendents, such political trials trigger great apprehension but also present many of the best opportunities for making a significant impact as the district leader.

So how can aspiring and new superintendents meet the political challenges of the job early and head-on? Experience tells me that much of the solution is linked to credibility. The research is clear that the three traits most highly correlated with credibility are honesty, competence and the ability to inspire. Overall, credibility is about “walking the talk” and following through on promises. However, for a person in a leadership role such as a superintendent, these traits take on even greater importance, as the credibility of the leader often translates into the credibility of the system.

Essentially, developing credibility creates the political capital necessary for the superintendent to lead change initiatives. There is no time to be wasted in developing this political capital. In fact, it should be a focus prior to starting the job.

Meeting the Political Challenges Early On

Aspiring and new superintendents should consider the following strategies for developing their credibility during the recruitment and early transition phases of the superintendency: 

1) Ensure you are the right leader for this chapter of the district’s story. Do your homework prior to the first interview.

  • Identify the district context relative to issues people are passionate about and the resources that are available.
  • Assess your predecessor’s style and legacy, the district’s leadership needs, and the school board governance structure.
  • If feasible, seek out an insider to contextualize key information and ensure accuracy of formative analyses.
  • If you are not a right fit for this district at this time, do not proceed with the process.

2) In the second interview, provide a proposed entry plan that paints a clear picture of what your first 3­–6 months on the job might look like. Focus on relationship building and information gathering prior to the official start date, if possible.

  • Hold several listening and learning sessions at district schools and in the community at large to reveal and develop personal credibility through the stories that you share.
  • Create and disseminate a survey to community members and district staff that focuses on identifying perceived strengths, weaknesses and areas of passion in the school system.

These planning and information-gathering efforts build confidence with the school board regarding your fit and create early opportunities to show “following through,” which is key to demonstrating your credibility. 

3) In the first six months on the job, follow your entry plan, expanding it to include some of the following tasks:

  • Meet with civic leaders, union leaders and school board members individually as soon as possible.
  • Set up a school board work session within the first two months on the job to review results of the entry survey you conducted and discuss implications.
  • Set up a fall series of board development/strategic planning work sessions to form a team dynamic and set a direction.
  • Organize cabinet/administrative team retreat(s) to create a collaborative environment.
  • Develop leadership credibility at back-to-school events in August by sharing themes of the surveys and plans to address those themes. Include an inspirational message, if possible.
  • Provide an early mailing to district residents connecting survey themes to initial action steps.

Summary

Wise leaders do not waste “the honeymoon” period of the job. Rather, new superintendents can engage in vital outreach efforts to gain a strong lay of the land before starting or even earning the job. Such efforts help new superintendents quickly identify key stakeholders, issues and resources while also providing an early opportunity to build relationships, identify priorities and begin constructing coalitions that help things get done. 

Moreover, by following through on the information gathering and outreach plan shared during the interview process, new superintendents demonstrate to the watchful public that they are indeed leaders of action—people who communicate to others that they are able to effectively embrace the political challenges of the job through the credibility exhibited early on. This creates political capital that provides support for even more important leadership initiatives to be tackled in subsequent months and years. 

Resources

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1991). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (1996). Social trust: A moral resource for school improvement. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. 

Covey, S. R. (1991). Principle-centered leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Holland, W. R. (1997). The high school principal and barriers to change: The need for principal credibility. National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Bulletin, 81, 94-98.

Johnson, S. M. (1996). Leading change: The challenge of the new superintendency. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1987). The leadership challenge: How to get extraordinary things done in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1993). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Leithwood, K. A. (1992). The move toward transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, 49, (5), 8-12.

Schein, E. H. (1985). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Schroeder, J. A. (2001). The development and maintenance of credibility by public high school principals. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.