Superintendent = Impossible Job

In my capacity at the Educational Service Center, we routinely do superintendent searches for local Boards of Education.  Having the pleasure of personally conducting four searches and being involved in one capacity or another in eight others some common themes certainly emerge.  Almost always at some point in my conversations with board members, I think to myself “a super hero could not please these people or be all the things they want in the next school leader.” Almost always they construct a leadership profile that would intimidate even the most seasoned CEO’s.

I have constructed this sample leadership profile that typically accompanies a brochure as they advertise for the next school leaders:

  • Provides visionary, innovative leadership; has a servant leadership style;
  • Builds a culture of openness, trust and respect with students, staff, board and community members; values transparency;
  • An inspirational leader who is accountable, responsible and bases decisions on what is best for students;
  • Is an agent of change and understands 21st century education.
  • Successful teaching and administration experience, with a pattern of increasing responsibility in education administration
  • Demonstrates strong decision making, problem solving and conflict resolution skills; able to make difficult decisions without being divisive
  • Highly visible and actively participates in school and community activities
  • Demonstrates strong financial intelligence and a long-term vision for fiscal stewardship; allocates resources according to district and board goals
  • Effectively delegates responsibility to others
  • Recognizes the importance of student learning in all academic areas and involvement in extra-curricular activities
  • Ability to identify, select, motivate and evaluate high quality staff
  • Promotes, develops and monitors sustainable long-range plans for school and district technology; makes informed decisions
  • Advocates for students of diverse abilities, interests and cultural backgrounds
  • Working knowledge of current state and federal education laws; experienced with bonds, successful labor negotiations and human resource administration
  • Demonstrates outstanding communication skills, is articulate and communicates regularly with the community, staff, students, parents and the board of directors
  • Develops, cultivates and maintains positive relationships with the business community, higher education institutions and local agencies
  • Is approachable, personable and listens to all parties with an open mind
  • Demonstrates high ethical standards and leads with integrity
  • Desires a long-term involvement with the district; willing to become an integral part of the community
  • Possesses a good sense of humor

I have seen leadership profiles with twice as many qualities but basically they all look the same. They don’t just want a superintendent they want a super-hero.  If you read between-the-lines in the leadership description they want someone who can be all things to all people. The expectations boards have of superintendents creates conflict and confusion before the person is named.   Not one person can fulfill with fidelity all the things listed which makes doing the job almost impossible.

Why does this happen?  One reason is superintendents make decisions.  When you make decisions you have a winner and a loser and often the winner or loser is a stakeholder — a parent, a family, a teacher, a student, a board member, a principal, a business leader etc….decisions often are not “win win” despite a leaders best efforts.  I remember a wise superintendent looked at me after securing my first superintendent job and said in a serious tone said–” just remember your friends will come and go but your enemies will accumulate.”  I just laughed it off but he was prophetic — as superintendent you manage to create plenty of critics and enemies.

5-7 years on average is the length of stay for a superintendent.  All kinds of factors are in play as to why this happens, sometimes a board change, a crisis, superintendent takes a another position, pay, location etc…but we truly underestimate the power of stability in education.  Stability in the top leadership roles matter to the success of school districts.  If districts have stability in the administrative team you often see gains in student achievement.  Districts with high turnover in those key positions often cannot make huge strides because as each superintendent is named they have different ideas, install a different plan, undo what the last person did etc….We all know if you have a long-term plan and you stick to the plan you have a shot at actually accomplishing your goals.  If on the other hand that goal or plan is constantly changing you have no hope of accomplishing any goals.

What group holds the key to administrative stability?  Boards of Education hold the key!  They are the elected leaders of the community and are often the reason superintendents leave or stay.  If the superintendent has a “good board” they stay regardless of pay or other opportunities.  One or two board members who do not understand their role can sour a superintendent quickly.  I have had the pleasure of working with a few very good boards and unfortunately also had some pretty nasty and horrible board members.  The best boards are the ones no one can name, who do the job without controversy, self-interest, or selfish motives but those kinds of boards are not the norm.  Google “School boards behaving badly” and spend a couple of hours reading the antics of bad boards.

School boards of days past often made critical decisions in the areas of curriculum and instruction. But given the landscape of today’s state and federal mandates most of the board decisions tend to be

perfunctory in nature.  The truly most important decision a board needs to make is selecting and hiring a superintendent. We need to revise our expectations to be more realistic and find ways for boards to retain the very human superintendents they hire.  Maybe just maybe boards need some qualifications like actually possessing a high school diploma? Maybe we need easier and faster ways for boards to remove bad acting board members.  If we improve the quality of those boards, I believe we can improve the long-term stability of superintendents.  In the end, students win when the adults truly keep their best interest at heart.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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