Lessons in Leadership: Mostly Learned the Hard Way!

by Lew Finch

Lew Finch, retired superintendent, who in retirement supervises interns for University of Northern Iowa and serves as Executive Director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa
At one time in my professional career, I considered myself to be the most effective superintendent in the country. I knew where resources ought to be focused, how to deal with controversy, what to do about less than competent employees, and, critical to those residing in the north, exactly when to cancel school due to inclement weather. Then, I was appointed to my very first position as superintendent. Suddenly, those issues and decisions that previously appeared to be so clear and straightforward became murky and much more challenging.

Today, there are numerous sources, including superb consultants that provide excellent information and advice regarding effective leadership and the role of the superintendent. It is not my claim to be one of the experts. Rather, I’m a practitioner with a great deal of experience, including thirty-five years as a public school superintendent who has made every mistake at least once and managed to learn a few very simple “truths” that may be helpful to those aspiring to educational leadership.

Let’s start with a quote from Larry Lezotte, “School improvement is a moral journey, not just a technical journey.” This applies also to leadership. Yes, there is a wealth of specific more technical knowledge essential to educational leadership, and one should acquire as much of this knowledge as possible. But real success as a leader is imbedded in the application of basic principles beyond technical knowledge. So, let’s explore a few of these.


We hear a great deal about vision. During most interviews, I have been asked about my “vision” for education or for the school district. Vision is, in all reality, a statement of beliefs. We all have beliefs, or a vision if you wish, that we should be ready and willing to share. But it is not just the vision of the superintendent that is to serve as the guide for a district, but a commonly developed and supported vision. Like a work of art, the superintendent should provide the canvass, the brushes and the paint. Together we will create the artwork (vision). This will minimize the attitude so prevalent in many school improvement initiatives so aptly characterized by the statement, “this too shall pass!”


While one needs to adhere to basic principles, effective leadership is most often situational. Like a great coach, strategy is determined by the nature of the challenge, and the strength of the team, including the skills of the coach. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. And what may have been successful leadership in one district may not be as effective for the same person in another district. The bottom line is we can certainly learn from the practices of those whom we feel to be effective, but refinements and adjustments will undoubtedly be necessary.


“If you think you look funny on a horse, you can’t lead a cavalry charge!”

We’re not talking about false bravado or arrogance, but rather, the quiet, humble confidence that adequate preparation and successful experience provide. This also means we must have our own life in order.

It is interesting where students often place the Superintendent in the hierarchy of decision-making. While serving lunch to senior high students, a young man pointed at me and stated, "I know you. You're the one that gives us snow days." "No, God gives you snow days," I submitted, feeling clever. But the student was one better in responding without hesitation, "Yes, but He must go through you to get to us, doesn't He!”

Pledge: Superintendent-Board Relations

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any superintendent is developing and sustaining a positive working relationship with the board of education. A number of years ago, I picked up a suggestion to write out, simple, straightforward statements, to serve as guiding principles for building relationships. These principles are set forth in a written document (pledge) that is discussed with all newly elected board members, and is reviewed with the board once every year. This review is considered a part of the annual performance evaluation. There is no scientific or documented research to support the use and/or effectiveness of such a practice. It is “common sense” but has been surprisingly successful in my relationship with most board members. My suggestion is to develop “your” pledge, in your own words. Here is my pledge:

The Superintendent:

  • Will, as a general practice, provide information requested by an individual Board member to all members of the Board of Education.
  • Will not embarrass Board members.
  • Will praise in public, express concerns in private.
  • Will not, by intent, mislead or misinform Board members.
  • Will provide leadership in identifying major issues that need to be addressed by the Board of Education.
  • Will make every reasonable attempt to keep Board members informed on major issues.
  • Will provide information, rationale, and recommendations on issues considered by the Board of Education.
  • Will not "browbeat" or lobby individual Board members.
  • Will remain neutral in school board elections.
  • Will not demand that all inquiries by Board members be made through the Office of the Superintendent. Would, however, encourage individual Board members to keep the Superintendent informed of concerns, questions, and requests for information.
  • Will encourage Board members to limit requests for information to that which is necessary for them to fulfill their responsibilities.
  • Will support and implement all decisions of the Board.
  • Will make every reasonable effort to protect the integrity and promote the positive image of the Board of Education and individual members.

Looks too simple to be effective? Try it!

Shared/Distributed Decision Making: Trustworthiness

“Dogs and horses are ‘trained’, people are ‘educated’. Training makes people more alike, education makes people different.”

Shared or distributed decision making is currently in vogue, e.g., Professional Learning Community (PLC), and this makes sense. Put into practice, it may lead to some unforeseen challenges for leaders. For example, it is to be expected that the superintendent will receive a complaint regarding the decision of a staff member, more often than not, the decision of a principal. And, for me, this was usually accompanied by a request to override the decision. Upon receiving such a request, my response was always, “if the decision is not illegal, immoral or unprofessional, it stands.”

While visiting a fifth grade classroom, I was invited by the teacher to share what a superintendent does. Always a challenge! After explaining that the superintendent can’t do everything or be everywhere, I often designate others to represent me at various meetings or functions. One very perceptive young man asked what I would do if the designated representative made a decision on my behalf that I would not have made. My response was to support the decision, even though it may differ from the decision I would have made.


“Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes talent to build a barn.”President Lyndon B. Johnson 

Serving as a strong advocate for our public schools should always be a high priority for any superintendent. Given the partisanship and current trend of extremism coupled with critics of public schools, this has proven to be an especially challenging venture for me. Aggressive advocacy under such circumstances carries the certainty of “lightning”, particularly if one is bold enough to speak out. Let me share a few examples from my Colorado experiences in the 90’s, a time and place where Outcome Based Education was branded by some as Satanic, Communistic and Anti-Christian.

Following recommendations of a citizen/staff task force to adopt basic student learning “outcomes”, members of the task force were identified and disparaging literature deposited at their residences. This was tantamount to psychological terrorism that greatly concerned and frightened some of the citizen task force members. As always, the first victims of the propaganda campaign were accuracy and truth. The challenge under these circumstances is to distinguish between extremists and those holding legitimate convictions. Interestingly, those “outcomes” would be referred to as “standards” today.

During this period, a Colorado election included a number of ballot initiatives. One was to approve a recommended one-cent increase in the sales tax to support public schools, but a second was to place taxing and spending restrictions on public bodies similar to California Prop-13, and a third was to ban spring bear hunting. If approved, the taxing and spending restrictions would require a twenty-three million dollar reduction in our school district budget. The proposed sales tax increase failed, the spending and taxing restrictions were approved as was the proposed ban on spring bear hunting. When asked by the Denver media for my reaction to election results, I stated, “The results of the election can be summarized in a simple statement, and that is better to be a Black bear in Colorado today than a public school student.” Needless to say, reaction of the anti-tax, anti public school folks was less than cordial.

“Never get into an argument with a fool, lest bystanders not be able to distinguish which one is which.”

Also subject to Colorado voter approval during the 90’s was a school voucher proposal. I was asked to debate the leader of the voucher initiative who was an ardent advocate for “education choice”. During the debate, he exalted the benefits of choosing among better private and charter schools. My response was to simply point out that many, if not most, private and public schools “choose you, you do not choose them, and even with a voucher in your pocket, you may not be selected.” The proposed voucher system was not approved by voters that year.

While having lunch with one of the most volatile anti-public school citizens, an ill-fated attempt to establish some common understanding, I suggested that teaching children good decision making and thinking skills was a major challenge for our schools. The immediate response, while pounding the table, “It’s not your job, Dr. Finch, to teach children decision making or thinking skills, it’s your job to teach children to obey!” My response, “Well, Beth, I believe that is what David Koresh told the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX?” Not sure she grasped the comparison, but our conversation certainly gave me perspective about the perception of some critics.

My responses as a strong advocate for public education may not have been entirely “diplomatic”, but certainly they did form a clear statement. 


“Not all change is positive, but progress is impossible without change.”

Leadership during crisis is particularly challenging, and inevitably, every superintendent will face some sort of crisis. Fortunately, most do not face the extreme crisis such as the Newtown, CN or Columbine HS, CO tragedies, but there will be other troublesome situations. We’ve all learned the value of a crisis management plan, but there will always be unexpected contingencies. A personal example if I may: 

Minnesota had just granted public school teachers the right to strike. As negotiations with our 3,000 teachers broke down, the Association determined to call for a strike. In hindsight, both sides failed to exercise good judgment during the process that led to the walk out. It was a very difficult time, as we passed through bitter pick lines, with several personal threats left as messages at our home. These were teachers of our own children for whom I had great respect. But their behavior was more akin to that of Longshoremen than professional educators. However, let me share a couple actions that, I believe, ultimately assisted in the recovery.

Interestingly enough, some parents and other citizens sided with the board and administration, and they proceeded to form “anti-teacher” picket lines. This was a major concern for how citizens view teachers is reflective of how they view the entire district. Principals were instructed to remain neutral since the relationship between principals and teachers would be crucial once the strike ended. When interviewed by Twin Cities media, striking teachers or the Association were never criticized, rather, I consistently stated they deserved the increased compensation sought, but the district did not have the resources to grant their request. These actions minimized animosity following resumption of school. 

One rather interesting event occurred when it was recommended we shorten the holiday break to make up instructional days lost due to the strike. A few creative students displayed a banner in front of the superintendent’s office reading, “The Finch who stole Christmas!” Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Lew Finch (lfinch@mchsi.com) is a long time superintendent who in retirement supervises interns for University of Northern Iowa and serves as Executive Director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa.