School & District Management Opinion

The Superintendent’s Paradox: Time vs. Complexity & Ethical Behavior

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 22, 2018 3 min read
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Our modern world has become more complicated than years past. People move faster through the world. We are more mobile, and communicate in a variety of ways that make quick work. Speed has contributed to a diminished amount of time and energy to process thoughts. Even drive time, the commuting time that used to be thinking time, is now just an extension of the office. We are always Bluetooth or Internet connected. Public leaders say what’s on their mind, in whatever words come first. Not so educational leaders who often think before they speak, who consider whether saying or doing something will have a desired outcome or an unanticipated one.

Tweeting is not the only vehicle for this but it is a good example. Perhaps it is also the growth from editorial to op-eds to blogs that has also fed the beast. Each has her or his own thoughts and slant. But respectful behavior toward others has declined. This makes the role of educator more difficult in the classroom, the hallways, the principal’s office and the office of the superintendent.

A Leader’s Moral Rudder

The ability of a Superintendent to lead with a moral rudder cannot become a lost or irrelevant quality of leadership. Rushworth M. Kidder published and article in 2008 in which he stated “The hardest choices arise when both sides are right."(The School Administrator). Moral decisions, like other things in the world of schools, have become more complex. In that 2008 article, Kidder wrote, “Today’s superintendents also sense that the values-driven issues themselves are growing increasingly complex.”

That was in 2008...what might he write in 2018? The values that are embedded within the superintendent, the morals and the resulting ethical behavior are revealed in two ways. One is in the immediate. How does the superintendent react immediately to a situation that requires an immediate reaction...an argument or news of an accident or incident within the school community? These responses arise almost without thinking but still reflect the moral compass of the leader.

Then there is the other kind. The other is one that takes longer. They keep us up at night and come into our heads when we are least expecting it. They agitate us inside. Those close to us know we are struggling with something, preoccupied. Most often these are the decisions that involve what Kidder called “Right vs. Right”. Some of those are individual vs. community, truth vs. loyalty, and short term vs. long term impact. No matter what a leader is facing, when both sides hold strong and in their own way are right, it takes time for a leader to resolve within her or himself how to proceed. Some will look for others to make it for them but those are no the leaders we are talking about here.

Time is an Enemy

Reflection takes time without pressure and complexity doesn’t reduce well to 140 or 280 characters. So it is time that may have become the enemy of ethical behavior. Even for those leaders with a strong moral and ethical foundation, time has become the enemy. The speed with which everyone expects answers, resolutions, and responses, runs counter to the human ability to process.

In that same article, Kidder quotes a superintendent from Vancouver, British Columbia. In reference to the mounting complexity of the job Superintendent Chris Kelly said,

That’s why for me the role [of superintendent] exists...The reason you would be in that role is to address that tension, to recognize it as an essential tension that characterizes how life proceeds, how meaning is found, how tragedy is understood and hopefully avoided at times, but at least embraced.

An Open Heart

Yes. Struggling with that tension that “characterizes how life proceeds, how meaning is found, how tragedy is understood”. It is the job of the school leader, modeled by superintendents everywhere. It is from that office and person that the values of the organization flow. So, superintendents and principals too, don’t overlook this little often spoken truth. Success isn’t just about what one knows, or the skills one can access or the network of political support one has established. When the crisis comes, those things will all matter but not as much as this. Who is the man or woman who steps into the roomful of angry people or walks out to cameras? They will listen to your words but try to see your heart. Do the work to keep it open. And, just like physical exercise, it takes work every day. You have to make it that important and give it the time and space it needs.

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.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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