Widening Our Lens

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

June 01, 2024

Superintendents amp up their skills in change leadership through connections to organizational psychologists, behavioral economists and researchers in other sectors

As I reflect on my tenure over 12 years in the superintendency, it is the weight of the work that resonates with me most. The responsibilities, creative tensions, wide array of decisions and tremendous opportunities to make an impact on the lives of all learners define the position in innumerable ways.

So much of the work of the superintendent is about making choices and shaping the conditions for others to flourish.

To construct meaning while immersed in the constant messiness of the position, I was drawn to the work of organizational psychologists, behavioral economists and researchers from other sectors (including business and health services), who spoke directly to the leadership challenges of decision making, problem solving, navigating complexity and leading change.

These writers challenged me to think differently about who I was as a leader, how I prioritized my work and, most importantly, how my leadership impacted others.

Today, in my work at a major state university with aspiring superintendents, I continue to grapple with my understanding of effective leadership and am inspired by the following subtle shifts in mindsets and practices.

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Mary B. Herrmann

Teaching associate professor of education policy, organization and leadership

University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign

Aiming High with Lessons from Michelangelo

By Noreen O'Neill

A headshot of a White woman with shoulder length brown hair wearing a white top and black glasses

“The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our work." -Michelangelo

Lessons from the past can change our vision for the future. As our innovative educational services team in Chester County, Pa., was developing goals for this school year, I encountered Michelangelo’s reference to setting high expectations. I became intrigued by his life and the perspective it offered our team as we carried out our work as education leaders.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a celebrated sculptor, painter and architect of the Italian Renaissance who influenced the time in which he lived and left a legacy that inspires us today. After studying his work, I challenged our team to deliver on several inspirational lessons.

See potential. Michelangelo was 26 years old when he began sculpting his statue of David. He was given latitude to carve the figure as he wished, but he had to use an existing block of marble that had been botched by a previous sculptor. The huge marble block had been abandoned for more than 30 years in a work yard and was nicknamed “the Giant.” Michelangelo transformed the Giant into a masterpiece.

As leaders of an educational service agency, our team committed to seeing the potential in others, especially when their potential had been overlooked. We agreed to remove obstacles and sculpt people into great leaders. We recognized that we once were the blocks of marble and others had seen our potential. We wanted to view the people we led as Michelangelos and committed to helping them do the best work of their lives.

Innovate infrastructure. Michelangelo reluctantly agreed to paint the Sistine Chapel in spite of recognizing its significant challenges. To create this masterpiece, he designed innovative solutions. Michelangelo devised scaffolding to avoid leaving holes in the ceiling, which allowed the chapel to be used as he worked. Ultimately, his frescos challenged contemporary thinking of religious art and attracted thousands of visitors when they were made public in 1512.

As leaders, we recognized the need to develop new supports to accomplish our goals. The tools and processes we used in the past had to be adapted and refreshed, so we determined we would design new structures. Inspired by Michelangelo, we redefined our goals without thinking of the obstacles and then created the infrastructure to accomplish them.

Be learners. Michelangelo’s career as a sculptor is framed by his pietas. His first pieta was displayed in Rome in 1500 and brought him fame as a talented artist. In 1564, during his last days, he worked on the Rondanini Pieta, which depicts Mary as standing rather than sitting as she holds Christ. This sculpture illustrates a shift in perspective to a familiar concept.

In his final hours, Michelangelo said he regretted “dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession.”

As leaders, we committed to be like Michelangelo by developing new skills and by taking on new challenges. We decided to take risks and capitalize on opportunities. We would look to the future and be open to change. We agreed we would be willing to fail. Our common message: There is learning to be done.

Studying Michelangelo’s genius challenged us to think differently about our work ahead. As a result, we set goals that were aspirational, both in their outcomes as well as for us as leaders. The goals we set pushed us to have a lasting impact. By seeing potential, innovating and learning, we realized we could create our own legacy.

Noreen O’Neill is director of innovative educational services at the Chester County Intermediate Unit in Downingtown, Pa. An earlier version of this article was published in the PASA Flyer.