“Some Advice for My Friends”

Dr. Barry Newbold, Superintendent (Ret.)
Jordan School District (Utah) 

We each hope to learn something of value from those who have “walked the road” ahead of us. One of my first meetings, as a newly appointed superintendent in the spring of 1996, was with the collective group of Utah superintendents - about 40 in number. Unfamiliar to me, it was a “farewell” meeting for those individuals who had chosen to retire at the end of the school year. There appeared to be a ritual of sorts that the retiring superintendents would share their wisdom and advice with the newcomers. I was one of several optimistic, energetic, inwardly frightened-to-death newcomers, so I paid very close attention.

A few of the retiring superintendents distributed handouts. Most made light-hearted comments, made jokes, and ultimately shared some real down-to-earth advice. I kept a file on what was said and referred to it more frequently over the years than I had anticipated.

One of the items in my file from that meeting, is a picture of John Wayne; rugged looking, unshaven, wearing an old, well-worn cowboy hat. He has sun-parched skin and a look of determination and resolve on his face. The caption below the picture reads, “There were a helluva lot of things they didn’t tell me when I hired on with this outfit.” Wow! I didn’t realize how true those words would become! What began as something that made me chuckle out loud at first, soon became prophetic.

Other tidbits of collective wisdom shared at that meeting were: 

  • Attitude isn’t part of it; it’s all of it.
  • Don’t bring your own firewood and matches if the possibility exists of being burned at the stake.
  • Don’t do something dumb.
  • Take care of the customer.
  • Don’t let the naysayers get you down.
  • Armed with wisdom from my more senior colleagues, I headed enthusiastically down the road of the superintendency. After several years in the position, I asked a few more-senior superintendents, “When will this job stop feeling so new?” Their responses were not very comforting. They replied, “It never does. You always end up dealing with issues you’ve never encountered before.” One superintendent smiled and said, “Yea, just once I would like to deal with a problem I created!” 

Fast forward ... 

I recently retired as superintendent for the Jordan School District. A position I held for over 14 years. This summer, I’ll have an opportunity to share some advice for new superintendents in a setting similar to the one that occurred for me a decade and a half ago. 

In anticipation of that event, I’ve thought about what I might share. The life of a superintendent is filled with so many issues and events that it’s impossible to share everything that was helpful along the way, and, because of the rapid-fire nature of each day’s activities, one forgets much beyond having made it through the day. Despite that reality, there are things that serve as bedrock principles and are relied upon day-in and day-out. I share two of them from my experience. 

What is Leadership?

In the early 1990’s, strategic planning was the “hot topic” of the day across the country. During that time, I became acquainted with a certified strategic planner, named William Cook, Jr. The Cambridge Group, with which he was affiliated, published a quarterly journal about strategic planning. The fall 1993 edition proved immeasurably valuable to me. The focus of the article was leadership and the characteristics of true leaders. What he said resonated with me in a very powerful, almost spiritual way. Dr. Cook wrote: 

“Leading is not a matter of the application of skills; it is not even a matter of becoming; it is a matter of being. Four characteristics will suffice to make the point. 

  • First, leaders see things that ordinary people have not yet seen. The seeing of future things is the job of prophets; being out in front is the job of scouts. Sure, leaders possess instinctive foresight, but equally valuable is their hindsight and insight. By hindsight I mean their passionate reverence for the history, culture, traditions, and values that made them leaders; and by insight I mean their empathetic knowledge of who we are that calls us to be true to ourselves. 
  • Second, all leaders I know are committed to a cause that transcends themselves. This translates into two practical expressions: they are willing to subordinate themselves to that cause, and the will attempt things that other people think bold, even reckless. The first expression is an issue of morality; leaders know that if something is not good, it cannot be better. The second expression is a matter of defining reality; leaders by nature constantly push the line separating the possible from the impossible. 
  • Third, all leaders live in risk. I say ‘in risk’ rather than ‘at risk’ because leaders never consider failure and option. The only thing they risk is success. 
  • Fourth, all leaders exist in a state of grace. That is, they personify the value system of the group that chose to set them forth as the embodiment of who they are. Leaders are not assigned; they are not imposed; they are not hired; they cannot be imported – they are chosen. And those who chooses them, reserve the right to reject them if their own image of themselves is ever violated.” (Cook, 1993) 

I reviewed this quote multiple times a year just to be sure I didn’t forget the principles it taught me. Each time, I would remind myself of the tremendous responsibility given me by those who chose me to lead them. 

The profession of providing exemplary education for students is so much greater than those employed in it. Superintendents always need to act and make decisions that will be in the best interest of their students, teachers, and the public who support them. 

Change and Leadership

My doctoral studies at Brigham Young University from 1987-89 were in Leadership, specifically Change Theory. It was during that time that I became well acquainted with the works Peter Drucker, Michael Fullan, and Peter Marris – laced with a little Machiavelli.

Change is at the heart of what a superintendent does. School boards don’t employ superintendents who are content with the status quo, whether that involves student achievement, professional development, or the general operation of the school district. Ray McNulty, President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, said it this way: 

“Only the mediocre are at their best every day.” (McNulty, 2008).

Superintendents who are mediocre don’t remain superintendents for very long. There is always an expectation that they will help the organization achieve things they never believed were possible. That requires change – real, significant change. 

We each become “creatures of habit.” We grow to like the regularity of our lives and want to retain the elements of predictability. Real change, however, is a very complex social endeavor, and is difficult because it disrupts the regularities of life.

Peter Marris, in his book, Loss and Change, said:

A deep fundamental principle of human psychology is the impulse to defend the predictability of life. We defend the status quo because what we have learned is precisely what gives us a sense of worth, usefulness, and command over chaos. (Marris, 1974) 

The greatest challenge of my professional career began in 2006. A new law had been passed by the Utah Legislature allowing a school district to be divided. The law specifically allowed for a vote of only the communities in the district that wanted to secede and create their own school district. An election was held and two school districts were formed out of one.

This was very divisive and created not only contempt and outrage, but very high degrees of loss and anxiety for those who had no voice in the dividing of the school district. People were manifesting all the behaviors associated with real change, namely, loss, anxiety, resistance, and struggle.

My role as superintendent was to implement these sweeping changes in a very short period of time in a school district that had been in existence for over 100 years. I knew that the success of the change would depend on the ability of staff and patrons to assimilate a new set of regularities. My ultimate goal was to have these changes in the district be a “non-event” for students.

A major error on the part of leaders is to rush the process of reintegration for individuals when change is imminent. As leaders, we are likely to be the first to reintegrate and find personal meaning in the changes that need to occur. We then bear the responsibility and duty to assist others through their own process of reintegration.

The following quote by Peter Marris (Marris, 1974) has been the most helpful paragraph to enable me to understand my role as a leader when bringing about significant change.

“No one can resolve the crisis of reintegration on behalf of another. Every attempt to pre-empt conflict, argument, protest by rational planning, can only be abortive; however reasonable the proposed changes, the process of implementing them must still allow the impulse of rejection to play itself out. When those who have power to manipulate changes act as if they only have to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own. For the reformers have already assimilated these changes to their purposes, and worked out a reformulation which makes sense to them, perhaps through months or years of analysis and debate. If they deny others the chance to do the same, they treat them as puppets dangling by the threads of their own conceptions.” 

Individuals will live in a state of disequilibrium until each can find personal meaning within a new reality. Leaders must skillfully and with genuine patience and caring help others create order out of what many will perceive as chaos. As this occurs, disequilibrium will transition into a new, productive state of being.

Conclusion

That’s the advice I hope to leave with my superintendent friends in the near future. Unfortunately, I’ll probably only be given time to say something like:

“My advice is to learn these two things:

  • What it means to be a true leader, and,
  • How to effectively lead others through significant change within your school district.”

There’s so much more that could be shared, but when your professional journey is over, you too will reflect on those few things that made all the difference in your ability to be a successful leader. These two were meaningful for me. I hope they will be for you as well.

References

Marris, Peter. Loss and Change, Pantheon Books, 1974
McNulty, Ray. Model Schools Conference. June, 2008
Cook, William J., Jr. “A Current Quandary.”
Strategic Planner Fall 1993 

Author 

Barry L. Newbold, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools 1996-2010
Jordan School District
7387 South Campus View Drive
West Jordan, UT 84084
(801) 706-6448
barry.newbold@gmail.com