Memo to Seattle Schools: Leadership is not the (only) problem

The Seattle school district seems to be the Bermuda Triangle of superintendents, with a new national candidate search every three years. Could it be that finding the right leader for the district isn't our real problem?

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Susan Enfield, Highline School District Superintendent and former Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent.

The Seattle school district seems to be the Bermuda Triangle of superintendents, with a new national candidate search every three years. Could it be that finding the right leader for the district isn't our real problem?

With Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield’s stunning pre-holiday announcement that she will not be a candidate for the permanent position but will be on her way at the end of her contract in June, the machinery is in motion for yet another national search for a Superintendent of Schools for Seattle.

Including the process that brought John Stanford in 1995, this will be the fifth such search in sixteen years. Twice the School Board has selected the number two person in the schools, Joseph Olchefske in 1999 and Raj Manhas in 2003. When the Board turned to Manhas it was after all the candidates uncovered by the national search had withdrawn. Next time around, when Maria Goodloe-Johnson was the choice in 2007, all the candidates except Goodloe-Johnson had withdrawn from consideration. And this time Enfield withdrew before being, officially at least, considered.

What does this tell us? Some say, it doesn’t tell us much. Only that being an urban school superintendent is a tough job at which no one lasts long. Just the way it is. I think that’s letting Seattle off too easily. Moreover, it underestimates just how costly frequent turnovers are. In an organization as large and complex as the Seattle Schools, there’s value in stability and consistency, and a heavy toll when they are lacking.

My observation is that each time we step on the national search merry-go-round, the call goes out, “Give us a leader.” “We need a leader.” Maybe, even, “we need the leader.” The implication is that if only we find the right leader (this time!) everything will be terrific.

I value leadership — it is the focus on my work, writing and teaching. Leaders are critical to the success of any organization. But they don’t do it alone and they aren’t the whole story. Moreover, there is a pernicious tendency to seek the leader, anoint the leader, then undermine the leader when it turns out that person doesn’t walk on water.

I would suggest that instead of focusing single-mindedly on “leadership” or “getting the right leader” as if that were the answer to any and all problems, the constitutuent elements of the Seattle Schools — board, administrative staff, teachers, union leaders, parents, students and wider community — also pay serious attention to the other side of the coin: followership.

What are our responsibilities in helping a qualified superintendent succeed? What skills do we need to demonstrate and practice for a superintendent in Seattle to have a chance of being more than the next person through the revolving door? 

The last School Board (2010 - 2011) was one of the best we’ve had in a recent decades. Though Enfield is mum on her reasons for leaving, I suspect the loss of two key Board members and the election of two new ones, one of whom promised that Board meetings would now be more “entertaining” as well as immediately lobbying for a national superintendent search, has a lot to do with Enfield’s decision.

When a new Superintendent arrives on the scene, things are often not what they seem. What seems the case is that this person has the reins in their hands and a wagon train of public support from the good, caring folk of Seattle. The truth is otherwise. The deck is stacked against an incoming Superintendent and his or her success, which is probably why so many candidates look at the job and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

A superintentendent faces a very powerful teachers union, a divided board, a politicized district, a city that is split along socio-economic lines, and a state legislature that chronically underfunds education, just to name some of the challenges.

All the focus on the leader allows everyone else to get off the hook.

Time to put Seattle on the hook. Part of that is paying attention to the art and practice of “followership.” Unitarian minister, Paul Beedle, defined that as, “The discipline of supporting leaders and helping them lead well. It is not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.”

These are words worth pondering. I note the following: leadership is a resource that needs stewardship. People and systems actually need to take care of leaders, not just throw them in at the deep end and say “good luck!” Second, some baseline of gratitude for the person willing to take on such work and responsibilities is appropriate. Third, have confidence in the person you choose or call. The best leaders grow on the job and do so at least in part because of constituent’s confidence in them.

Finally, I note the word “discipline.” Supporting leaders and helping them lead well both is a discipline and requires discipline. This means things like managing our expectations. It also means knowing it's not all about you or your group. It’s really about the school system as a whole and its mission.

My observation, from twenty years as a Seattle resident, school parent, and community leader, is that ours is a culture that is very tough on people in leadership positions. With some exceptions, we aren’t very skilled in the practice of followership. We are quick to move into postures of suspicion and distrust. Too many feel entitled to attack early and often, and to do so in highly personal terms (as opposed to focusing on issues or actions).

For sure, the schools and their leaders can and must do better, and in fact they are doing better in recent years. But in an atmosphere that is highly politicized and suspicious, many who might lead here will say, “I’m not sure I have a chance to really succeed in Seattle” and rule out the position. Or, if they are already here they may say, “Who needs it?” and move on.  

A good lead person and team are crucial. A community that creates conditions for success for its leaders, a community that stewards leaders as a valued resource, and works with them to grow on the job, is every bit as important.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.