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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Cabinet of Rivals: What Would Superintendent Lincoln Do?

By Guest Blogger — February 19, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Becca Bracy Knight, executive director for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems.

Each time I work with a superintendent or other school system leader through my work at The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and the Broad Superintendents Academy, I am once again reminded of the enormity of the tasks they face.

On any given day, inner city superintendents confront challenges so daunting they make your head spin. They decide how to deliver essential programs even though the state has just unexpectedly cut millions in funding. They oversee multi-million, if not billion-dollar organizations. They manage thousands, or tens of thousands of employees. They try to translate state and federal directives into action. They appeal to taxpayers to support school facilities. They try to find ways to help high schools compel hundreds of dropouts to return to class. They work with community members deeply upset by impending school closings. And on sad occasions, they may even have to publicly address the untimely death of a student. Starting the day at 5 a.m. and ending after midnight is typical.

These men and women are singularly responsible to students, teachers and staff, parents, school board members, taxpayers, area businesses, the media, and local economies for leading complex organizations, many of which are deeply struggling. The budgets they manage are complicated, drawn from many different sources that are constantly changing and these days, most likely declining. And each decision they make affects thousands - sometimes hundreds of thousands - of students, teachers, and families.

For all these reasons, being a superintendent is one of the most important jobs in America. Superintendents work for and on behalf of the public. They are always on the job. They are point in moments of celebration and crisis. For all these reasons, the job in many ways parallels that of being president of the United States. Except superintendents receive little of the power, prestige, and presidential perks -- like never having to sit in traffic.

The day after Presidents Day, it’s worth considering how the leadership styles of some of our past presidents harbor lessons for superintendents today. For example, just imagine if one undeniably “cage-busting” lawyer from Illinois was instead tapped to lead the Chicago Public Schools? What would Lincoln do to improve our schools? Chicago Public Schools, by the way, existed before Lincoln’s first term as president.

Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and his portrayal in the Oscar-nominated Lincoln, it seems likely that one of his first priorities would be to assemble a whip-smart cabinet to advise him on decisions with such major consequences for the country.

Given how much time a superintendent spends trying to develop and administer particular policies, most would expect that he or she choose a cabinet of loyal supporters who share the same professional background, educational philosophy, and approach to the work. But what would Lincoln do?

As president, he assembled a “team of rivals,” including men who ran against him in the presidential election and men who openly disliked and criticized him. Lincoln’s ability to identify talent, understand what motivated people, connect with wildly different personalities, negotiate firmly while maintaining relationships, make smart compromises, and remain constantly focused on what mattered most allowed him to harness the skills and diverse career experiences of his rivals. His approach enabled him to hire the best talent for each position and to keep those talented leaders and their respective constituencies working on behalf of the Union.

As a school superintendent, a “cabinet of rivals” could, for example, include others who pursued the superintendent position. When Heath Morrison was appointed superintendent in Washoe County, which includes the cities of Reno and Sparks, Nevada, he hired another finalist, Pedro Martinez, to be his deputy. Rather than feeling threatened by their status as former rivals, Morrison recognized that Martinez’s background in finance, technology, and business complimented his own background as an expert in teaching and learning. Combined, they made a great team. To a lesser extreme, a cabinet of rivals could include leaders with different professional backgrounds and points of view.

I encourage school system leaders to learn from Lincoln as they build their teams. I push them to resist the urge to assemble a “safe” team that will always echo or support the same ideas. A cabinet of rivals may seem risky, given that rivals might, out of self-interest, act in ways that can undermine or overshadow a leader, but the reward is that fresh perspectives to chronic challenges arise.

At the same time, I encourage everyone else to support their superintendents’ efforts to put together the best possible team. They may take time to fill key posts, and it may be worth it to bring in people who don’t fit the traditional mold. “These were the very strongest men,” Lincoln said about his unusual choice of cabinet members. “I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Of course, school districts will always need teams of leaders with deep expertise and experience in teaching and learning. Similarly, professionals who are experts in the areas that support teaching and learning--like finance, facilities, food services, human resources, and communications--make great additions, because the effective management of those areas will allow the rest of the team to be focused on what matters most: improving teaching and learning, rather than expending energy unnecessarily worrying about things like the school bus schedule.

For example, as superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, N.C., Pete Gorman took time to assemble a cabinet of leaders that included career educators, lawyers, nonprofit and business leaders, and a communications expert. The combination of skills and experiences created the conditions that enabled teachers to boost student achievement and reduce achievement gaps between white and African-American students in reading and math at all school levels. At least four of Gorman’s cabinet members have gone on to become superintendents themselves.

Regardless of who’s at the helm, a cabinet of rivals will have a greater chance of coming up with new ideas and solutions that help students learn and teachers thrive. And given the monumental responsibility facing these system leaders, they need all the help they can get.

-- Becca Bracy Knight

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.