Whenever I begin to think I understand enough about children and education to be a good father and a good leader, a young child asks me a riveting question, born in the innocence and wonder of early childhood, but profound nonetheless. Recently, a 2nd grader asked me, "What do you do when nobody needs you?"
I was visiting a class of 8-year-old learners. I am their superintendent and they were interviewing me as part of a writing lesson. Each student asked a question, quietly and in order. Questions about my favorite color and whether I have a dog were easy. Then, at the end of the class, from a very thoughtful young boy, came this question that has had me thinking for months. For its simplicity and its complexity, the question is compelling. What do we do when no one needs us? Should a leader be needed?
I spent the past decade of my career fully committed to collaborative leadership. It is not easy to shed the habits of directing others and giving answers. For many years prior, I assured others that I was needed by telling them what to do. When you spend most of your time simply telling people what to do, life is easier. A person who shares leadership is needed by others far more than is a person who tells others what to do. If I am not needed, then I should rethink how I work with others.
Some people delegate authority and responsibility because they simply want other people to do their work. A team-management approach puts far greater demand on the leader's time than does a top-down management style. To carry out fully a collaborative approach requires the patience to be inefficient with time. It requires the confidence to take the time for reflection needed to encourage the involvement of others. And it requires immediate and sustained accessibility to a wide range of people. When a leader is a service provider, to survive, the service must be needed.
The towns of Easton and Redding, Conn., where I practice my skills, have separate school systems for elementary and middle schools; they combine their resources for a joint high school, a highly regarded and nationally recognized one. For these two New England towns and their five schools, I have three separate boards of education and 21 board members. I prepare and oversee three budgets, nine collective-bargaining agreements, three policy manuals, and multiple curricula. Last year, my beloved state department of education sent me 4,767 pages of mail. I counted. My daily real mail approaches six inches in height, and that is after being pruned of the unnecessary stuff. Faxes, both on paper and on screen, e-mail, voice mail, and Internet downloads combine to form a continuous stream of demand. Am I needed?
At the core of a school leader's role is the drive to improve student learning. There are 202 classrooms where good teaching and learning occur in my district. I want to be in those classrooms with the teachers and the children. I want to be a part of the curiosity, the challenge, the enthusiasm for something new.
Here is the problem: It's far too easy for me to create the illusion that I am improving teaching and learning when I clear my in-box, computer screen, phone system, and desk of the day's to-do list. It is in this context that I suggest that being a good writer is an essential part of being a good leader.
Each of us has within us the talent, but rarely the will, to undertake with success a variety of creative expressions. When I was younger, I talked about writing a book and I talked about being a superintendent. I was not doing anything to make either happen. I was simply chatting about what the terms "maybe" and "someday" looked like to me. At some point, I finally realized that doing these things would be a lot more fun that just talking about them.
Now, years later, as both a superintendent and a published writer, I capture the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the two experiences. Must a good superintendent be a good writer? Without question, the writer in me helps me be a better superintendent in at least these four ways:
- Reflection. Reflection is a means a superintendent uses to make connections between daily work and a greater vision. To survive in the superintendency, leaders must make this link to avoid being crushed by the weight of each day's demands. Writing is one way to assure that idle reflections endure beyond the moment.
Writing and leading are both forms of creative expression. Both superintendents and writers face barriers and challenges to their ability to relate thought to action. Writers struggle with finding the time to write; superintendents struggle with finding the time to think.
- Influence. John Harris, my high school English teacher 30 years ago, taught me that if I could not write about an idea, then I had not yet thought about the idea. A good writer is a good thinker. The writer explores unexpressed thoughts, composes them into a form that has meaning, and uses the written word to influence the thoughts and behavior of others. Successful superintendents integrate experience and knowledge into leadership that has meaning for the school community. Through leading a school system, superintendents work with others to put expressed and unexpressed thought into action.
- Power. Power is not a four-letter word. We all have it. We all need it. If nobody reads what I write and nobody follows where I lead, would that mean that I am not a good writer, not a good leader?
The routine computer task of "press enter" applies here. In any software program, working with the tools of a mouse and the keyboard, the writer creates a series of images and words that reflect thought. The final step of turning that thought into action is to press enter. To save, to print, to send, to merge, to copy, to edit, all require one to press enter to commit the thought to action.
Turning thought into action as both writer and superintendent has many common elements. For both, there comes a time to commit. Leading is action. Writing is action. The written word is the writer's commitment. Decisions are a leader's commitment, the leader's way of pressing enter.
- Balance. People read because they want to learn. A good writer is perceptive about past and current experiences and shapes these thoughts into something other people want to read.
The writer in me provides balance to the high stress and commitment of leading a school system. I first considered myself a writer at the age of 36, when I started publishing essays in The New York Times on parenthood. Ironically, this was years after I had completed my dissertation on organizational behavior, a tome of written expression. At the time, I was a principal of a national exemplary school. Before that, I had taught for 12 years. Yet, throughout that time, I had not thought of myself as a writer. That was a troubling self-perception.
Leading and writing reflect experience and acquired knowledge. Through both, I approach a better definition of who I am and what I want to do with my life and the lives of the children in Easton and Redding. Now, at age 45, I do consider myself a writer--and a leader, a father, a husband, an educator, and a friend. I understand the importance of balance. I have the patience and the confidence to take enough time to influence others, so that together we have the power to improve schools.
I fear the day when no one needs me.