"The passion of rescue reveals the highest dynamic of the human soul."
- Kurt Hahn
Typical Pathway to School District Superintendent
majority of public school superintendents advance to the leadership position
through a similar internal progression of assignments from teacher, principal,
department head, central office administrator and then on to superintendent
positions. Although they have been
exposed to challenges in a prior school leadership or district level
assignment, they have not experienced the significant and sole accountability
of leading significant change in a complex organization. They must learn this quickly as they
take responsibility for the role of superintendent.
In addition, the
typical model for leadership learned in the internal progression is mostly
predicated on the classroom, i.e., that of leader and followers with little or
no power. The experiential development of these superintendents is that of
hierarchical authority in a system of distributed power. As these leaders
advance through the system, they learn quickly how to navigate the various mine
fields and power struggles shared by bargaining labor groups, school boards,
state departments and community groups.
Often, this means the leader will focus more on management of the organization
in order to be successful with all constituents. This is not strong and effective leadership that is required
to bring public schools to higher levels of performance.
superintendents today are a well educated population with many advanced
degrees, often with doctorates from university education departments. These degrees make them experts in the
area of education and not necessarily in organizational development, adaptive
leadership, or leading complex organizations. As is present in many educational
institutions, recognition is placed on
the academic achievement not in the alignment of skills necessary to be
successful in their role as superintendent. A strong knowledge base in
education, or a knowledge based leader, is preferred in the current marketplace
to a skilled adaptive leader capable of creating long term changes and
superintendents continue to use technical solutions, they find themselves in an
untenable position. Stakeholders
might be temporarily satisfied,
however, they are somewhat aware that the current state of the school
organization is not ready for the future.
Inevitably, this leads to a dissatisfaction with the superintendent as
leader and increases the likelihood of superintendent turnover. What superintendents may believe is
doing their job is only preventing the organization from responding and
preparing for the future changes.
based leader is one that utilizes technical fixes to resolve the issues
confronting the organization. The challenge for a knowledge based leader is
that many of the issues they face as a leader are systemic and adaptive in
nature. Each time they use a technical fix for an adaptive issue, it creates
greater barriers for the
organization to take the necessary actions towards the envisioned future. What happens is that each of
these fixes re-centers the organization back to a state of equilibrium. This
satisfies the different stakeholders for a short time and does nothing to
progress towards the long range vision of the organization.
Yet, we know
that public school systems can improve substantially in as little as six years
of sustained leadership (McKinsey, 2010).
turnover in the position of
superintendent role along with the
elevated stress and discontent of the current role places public education in a
precarious position for adapting to the future needs of students and
communities. Districts are finding that the superintendents are not rushing
back into the position as they were before. Even though the position offers attractive public sector compensation,
passion for something important and local celebrity it is not enough to
continue to attract talented leaders into the profession.
The decline in
the number of talented candidates is placing increased pressure and challenges
on search firms to attract superintendents to vacant positions. Broad
Foundation has recognized this issue earlier this decade and began a program to
develop non-education people for the superintendency. They seek former CEOs and Military leaders to
train and prepare candidates for the position. To date, the track record for
Broad Fellows is significant as it relates to urban school district success,
improvements and increased retention rates. Unfortunately, Broad Foundation produces a limited number of
prepared leaders annually due to strict selection criteria and a limited pool