Board-Savvy Superintendent

A Home Remedy for ‘Controlitis’

by Doug Eadie

As self-help gurus have told us in countless books and workshops since the 1960s, being “authentic” in interactions with others — at home and at work — is key to building solid professional and personal relationships. In a nutshell, when we’re being authentic, we’re behaving in word and deed in ways that reflect who we really are — our character, our core values, even our personality.

 


BSav-Eadie-webDoug Eadie

Being authentic — being true to who you really are — is a sound recipe for living your life at home and work. However, superintendents and superintendent-aspirants need to be aware of what I call the “authenticity trap.” What this basically means is that doing what comes naturally, what feels emotionally true, can be counterproductive if your behavior is motivated by negative emotions you don’t recognize.

A classic example is the malady I call “controlitis,” which I’ve seen seriously damage the working relationships of many otherwise savvy superintendents with their school boards.

Overbearing Executives
Controlitis apparently results from an intense need for superintendents to be in command of situations and relationships, especially when their school board is involved. When their sense of being in control is threatened, they can exhibit some pretty defensive and counterproductive behavior.

One reason controlitis is so common is that taking command of situations, keeping things under control, is a real virtue as you climb the organizational ladder. Ironically, a virtue that can help you reach the top spot in your school district can be a career-threatening vice once you’ve reached the top.

To take a practical example of controlitis at work, board of education members in a school district in Ohio with whom I consulted several years ago had become fed up with an annual operational planning and budget preparation process that put them in a passive-reactive position. The board members found it tremendously frustrating and irritating.

On the one hand, board members had heard the annual budget described repeatedly as their policy document, the vehicle for allocating district resources to specific operating objectives. However, in practice, the board members received the budget as a largely finished document that reflected virtually no front-end input from them. So we had the making of a real clash: Knowledgeable, ambitious and committed board members expecting to make a serious impact in their governing work who were forced to thumb through a finished budget tome, asking nuts-and-bolts questions with little, if any, policy content.

In this case, getting to know the superintendent over a period of months, I realized that being in control not only felt natural to him, relaxing that control even a little bit felt extremely dangerous. When we discussed the need to open up the budget process by building in some front-end board input and direction setting, the superintendent responded as if we’d be opening Pandora’s box, inviting board member micromanagement and dangerously blurring the line between policy (the board’s venue) and executive management and administration (the superintendent’s turf).

What really impressed me was the intensity of the superintendent’s resistance, which was dramatically out of proportion to the potential danger of dysfunctional board involvement. Without question, a deep-seated need for control was motivating his behavior. In his case, doing what came naturally was threatening his working relationship with his pre-eminent stakeholder — the board of education. This story ended happily because the superintendent recognized what was going on emotionally and took steps to overcome his tremendous need to be in control, thereby saving a relationship that was badly frayed.

Therapeutic Cure
It’s probably not realistic to think any superintendent or superintendent-aspirant could rid himself or herself of every deep-seated negative emotion such as fear of losing control. But I’ve worked with a number of board-savvy superintendents over the years who have made the effort to understand themselves well enough to spot the emotions and resist having them dictate their behavior. In other words, they’ve learned not to do what comes naturally where certain feelings are concerned. As a consequence, are they less authentic? Perhaps so, but they don’t really have any choice, professionally speaking.

I recommend you follow a practical, three-step professional survival strategy I’ve seen work for many superintendents when dealing with governing boards:

Make a serious effort to know yourself emotionally. Go inside your head deeply enough to spot and understand negative emotions that can cause dysfunctional behavior if not monitored and checked.

Always strive to be realistic in assessing the risks of taking a particular course of action, even if it feels threatening. Never automatically trust the emotions that a particular situation might call up.

And make a firm commitment to resist letting those negative emotions drive your behavior — to avoid doing what comes naturally where they are concerned — even if doing so causes real discomfort.

Doug Eadie is president of Doug Eadie and Co. in Oldsmar, Fla. E-mail: doug@dougeadie.com