School & District Management Opinion

2 Requirements for Longtime and New Leaders Alike

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 18, 2017 4 min read
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There are common advantages to having a leader who has been in a district for decades and bringing in someone new. There are common challenges as well. Why might some districts hold on to their leaders for the long run and others feel the need to reach out to new ones with regularity? Do causes lie within the leader or the district or the board? Forthrightly, we have a bias here. We strongly believe that the chaos of rapid turnover in the superintendency eventually takes a toll on students, on faculty and on the community itself. Superintendents typically get three year contracts yet there is a body of research indicating that systemic change takes approximately 5 years to achieve in a sustainable way. What does this say about leadership purpose in districts where leaders change every three years...or less in some places?

Relationships Matter

All leadership requires a capacity to build and maintain relationships with their colleagues, faculty, staff, students, parents, members of the community, and business and higher education partners. A leader who has been in the district for years may or may not have established these relationships but she/he at least will know the players. It is only in the cultivation of these relationships over time that a leader accomplishes the required dimension, a coalition of active support. If a leader has done so, longevity reaps the benefits. If not, they place themselves at the same starting line as a new leader. This does not mean it is time to part ways. It is an indication that the feedback a leader receives needs to include a focus on relationship and coalition building. It is an indication that a leader needs to pick up a ball that has been dropped. If coalitions do not exist, how can they become a priority and become foundational to the future work of the leader?

Vision Matters

School districts, like all organizations, require vision. Establishing a vision requires information and a sense of where the horizon line lies. It also requires someone who knows how to encourage others to make the journey out of the comfort zone and into the frontier toward the horizon. Many visionaries don’t inspire others to follow, yet a school leader does not have the power to force others on the journey. Followership is primarily a choice. Leaders do not find success without those who follow. In this sense, it is important to be clear not to diminish the meaning and role of followers.

We recently overheard a parent speaking to their young son saying “Being a leader means not being a follower.” We disagree. Leaders and followers are interchangeable and interconnected. The dance between the two roles is essential in forward movement. The difference for the leader is, however, is the capacity maintain attention on the objective without distraction. “Leaders must not become subject to the diversions that disrupt and distract them” (Myers & Berkowicz. p. 60). When hiring a new leader, a district is often looking for a new set of eyes, new ideas, new frames of reference, or even someone to disrupt the status quo. It may be time. It may be a good idea. Or not. When leaders are invested in learning about other models and new ways of doing things and they have established their relationships and coalitions, longevity helps and new leaders will pick up where predecessors left off. Otherwise, it is a new beginning in all ways...for better or worse.

Boards of Education Matter

Those governing boards responsible for the hiring and supervision of school leaders have an obligation to contribute to the success of the school leader. Whether engaged in a long-term relationship or hiring a new leader, the standards are the same. Maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable for this century’s educational settings. Change is happening quickly and we need to be prepared to respond with new and dynamic opportunities for teachers and students. Descriptions of the attributes expected may need to be revisited and changed. No matter a long-term leader or a new one, key attributes are the capacity to build relationships and inclusive coalitions in order to develop new vision and scan the horizon line. For leaders already established in districts, this may mean a reboot. For leaders being interviewed for positions, clarity about what the expectations are regarding these attributes should definitely be part of the conversation. For both, feedback and follow-up are key.

No matter the tenure of the leader, relationships and vision are essential for leading and leading implies movement of followers and of the system itself. When a leader leaves, will there be notable differences associated with the time served? In an interview, candidates can hear whether a board wants to move forward or whether they are resting on a reputation acquired long ago or a culture of chaos that has become beneficial to some. They can hear whether a board is more political than educational, and whether the board wants to govern or mange district affairs themselves. But, give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe. Do they know the role of the board when a real leader is the superintendent? So, here’s the deal: listen well whether you are just being hired or have been there for a long time. Bring the value of relationships and of vison. Then choose carefully the place where you can lead and serve most effectively. It can require shaking the status quo and beginning anew for an established leader, or it can be as a new face to the district.

Myers, A. and Berkowicz, J. (2015). The STEM Shift: A Guide for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.