Superintendent must be a leader

Published 10:18 am Monday, October 6, 2008

No set of characteristics describes all school superintendents, but one quality characterizes every good superintendent. The more competent and effective the superintendent, the stronger and more recognizable is this quality. I have observed, work for, or worked with more of them than I can number without consulting my journals, but I can assert this much now. Every competent and effective school superintendent I have ever known is, above all else, a leader.

A few superintendents are miserably incompetent and totally ineffective, and every district that hires them, which they do, suffers. The greatest number are marginally competent and minimally effective, and a district is lucky to survive them. An encouraging number are fully competent and adequately effective, and those districts wise enough so to identify candidates and fortunate enough to hire them (and careful enough to retain them) thrive. A much smaller number are remarkably competent and outstandingly effective. They are hard to find and harder yet to acquire.

As I have learned the academic and legal requirements for licensure as a superintendent, recognized the breath of knowledge necessary, and observed the plethora of tasks they are required to perform, I have been amazed we have as many qualified superintendents as we do. Yet, these technical matters to learn and professional skills to acquire, as critical as they are in their own right, are of lesser significance relative to the demands of leadership. This is crucial.

Email newsletter signup

Perhaps the greater number of specific individual tasks use managerial skills, but the most important — dealing with people — demand strong but wholesome leadership. If a school superintendent is not a genuine leader, he or she is simply unable to superintend. This, despite amount of knowledge or managerial efficiency.

A successful school superintendent ought to be an adequate manager, to be sure, but he or she must be an outstanding leader.

The superintendent needs to work with and relate to state officials, local governing bodies, professional organizations, unions that represent professional staff but also support staff, professional staff personnel, support staff personnel, and classroom teachers. The public—oh, yes, we the public. Alumni, parents, voters.

Most important: students. Everything in the education process must be about and for students. A superintendent can be a hands-on superintendent without micromanagement of staff. This originates in the superintendent’s individual valuing, and even love for, students and dedication to their needs and welfare. Such a superintendent will find regular direct contact with students natural, because he or she so loves them, the superintendent can’t stand not being with the kids.

Even more impressive on the students is what they pick up on from their teachers. The kids know when their teachers respect and appreciate the principal and superintendent. They can tell not so much from what the teachers say (seeing through political pandering), but from the way they talk about and even to the principal and supertendent. What the students think of the superintendent is what their teachers think. Parents’ opinion are formed more from their children’s reactions than most are aware.

Therefore, every successful superintendent must be an authentic leader of teachers. The teachers will expect managerial efficiency, but the superintendent they respect and value is the leader.

A leader gains vision for the schools and communicates vision not by pep talks but observable passion for the task and mission. He gains respect from teachers by respecting teachers. Her competence is recognized in the performance of her teachers whom she has motivated to their best.

When the superintendent leads the teachers, the teachers lead the students—and education is accomplished. I urge our school board, at this critical point, to secure a superintendent with managerial efficiency, indeed. Above all else, we need a school superintendent who is a genuine leader.