Families & the Community Opinion

Herculean Challenges for Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 24, 2013 4 min read
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“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.” Warren Bennis

An editorial in the January 1, 2013 edition of the Sarasota Herald Tribune called for a Manatee county superintendent who was ready for the “Herculean " challenges of the job. The full context of the editorial addressed those public leaders in and around Sarasota who had departed from their roles in 2012. It cited the need for leaders who could work with governing boards, ensure accountability, restore public trust, and generate positive staff morale. Aren’t these issues found everywhere?

Issues in Brief
Boards of Education are traditionally made up of elected community members who are most often dedicated to the district for the good of the children, may have limited experience in the public education arena, and may have never had the experience of supervising an administrative leader or working in policy development. The successful superintendent is always balancing working for the Board and keeping the Board informed while working along side as they develop policies that support the district’s vision. This calls for continuous attention in order to build and maintain healthy, productive, and successful relationships.

The new accountability systems arising from the RTTT call for much attention with testing, time, new curricula, new evaluation tools, and public accountability to name a few. Across the country, the students’ test scores are included in the evaluation of teachers and principals at a rate ranging from 20% to 50% . How and how much of the information gathered about a teacher’s or principal’s performance needs attention. The regulations about what can be shared is legislated. In addition to managing the impact of time and worry this accountability system has on the teachers and principals, the superintendent’s decisions about the manner in which the information is shared is a crucial one.

Restoring public trust and generating positive staff morale are enormous tasks that involve extraordinary interpersonal skills. In the current climate, with politicians, athletes, coaches, public employees, and clergy disappointing the public, it is understandable that a general lack of trust has surfaced. The successful superintendent works to develop open, honest communication, creating relationships that build trust within the district and the community. Only then can positive staff morale begin to grow.

Into this Environment, Few Step to Lead

Amidst warp speed change and significant public responsibility, leaders must find time for reflection. This does not mean merely rear view mirror reflection; it also means looking within. This is especially true now as another thread weaves into the field. In schools across our nation, those within our workplaces are experiencing loss...loss of colleagues through job cuts and attrition, of the old way, of security and of respect. The demand is to perform better with less. Otto Scharmer of MIT suggests that fear and cynicism will arise, and they have. These are powerful forces, undermining forward motion. They are the enemies of leaders. Yet, leaders, too, can fall prey to them. If that happens, it will inevitably happen within our faculty as well. There it destroys classrooms and hurts children.

If we have not spent time knowing and becoming ourselves along the way, we might be found figuring it out while we are tossed about in public. There seems to be a voracious public appetite for such stories. So, what is the anecdote? It is found in our hearts. Consider that a remedy can be as contagious as illness. Warren Bennis writes about the skills and qualities the next generation of leaders needs to possess and demonstrate. Among them are curiosity, risk taking, commitment to excellence, broad knowledge, and devotion to long-term growth. When combined with others, like boundless enthusiasm, contagious optimism, empathy, authenticity, belief in people and integrity, they become descriptors of those who lead from the heart. These leaders must find their place and use their voice. The moment is critical and the stakes are high.

In Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times, Patterson, Goens, and Reed postulate that school districts exist to improve teaching and learning. Very basic educational values center on what leaders value about excellence in teaching and learning. Therefore, we suggest that a constant challenge is to remember why we began this leadership journey in the first place. We enter each day with the hope that all will go well, that everyone will remain safe, that classrooms will be active, positive and rich with learning opportunities, that students will be happy and engaged, that all will be respectful and that teachers will be resourceful and committed to every child. Indeed, this meaningful work has Herculean challenges. That is why we wanted to do it.


Patterson, Goens, and Reed (2009). Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Education

Bennis, W. (2009). On becoming a leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books.

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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.