Public School Superintendents Need Superhero-Sized Skill Sets. So Do Administrators.


Photo Credit: Jason Parrish

I applaud shining a big spotlight on what it takes to succeed as a public education leader. In other sectors and industries, few leadership roles are as complex and demanding as those in education.

“The realities of the job are monumental—often managing billion-dollar budgets, hundreds of facilities and decisions that affect tens of thousands of teachers and other employees as well as hundreds of thousands of students and their families,” writes Christina Heitz, managing director of The Broad Academy, in her recent piece, “What does it take to be an urban schools superintendent? A whole lot more than you think.” (Disclosure: The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems is an Education Pioneers partner.)

Yes, superintendents have massive jobs and need a sizable depth and breadth of skills to be successful. And they need managers and leaders at every level of their organization who excel in functions as diverse as community engagement and finance, and who have mindsets that enable continued success. 

Expecting that the person at the top will be the only one to lead meaningful change enables us to assign accountability – and too often, blame – to someone else, and this distracts us from creating school systems in which there is effective leadership at every level and broad accountability for results. 

I’ll say the thing here: if you work anywhere in education, you’re accountable for student results. (I’m right there with you, by the way.)  I think of Kendra Washington, who’s responsible for school leader development in Gwinnett County Public Schools who told me in Gwinnett, “there are two kinds of people in the district—those who teach and those who support teaching.”

At Education Pioneers, we identify and develop thousands of education leaders and managers to work across the education sector. What makes our Pioneers successful in their roles parallels with the research that Christina Heitz cites in her article.

Last July, EP released the report, Master of Complexity: Leading Effectively in Public Education to start the conversation about what next-generation education leadership looks like. We identified five traits that effective leaders share, and these complement the skills Heitz outlines in her article. 

Masters of complexity:

  1. Think of the whole picture, not just an individual piece, regardless of role.
    Instead of focusing solely on their individual role within a school, an office, or a school system, masters of complexity shift seamlessly between an on-the-ground orientation and broad, system-wide thinking. As they shift their view, successful masters of complexity also exhibit both humility and boldness by recognizing their individual place in the organization and striving for radical improvements.
  2. Know and appreciate what others value and need for success.
    Masters of complexity are committed to understanding what motivates different stakeholders—including their aspirations, values, goals, priorities, constraints, processes, incentives, skills, and capabilities. This sophisticated stakeholder knowledge means the ability to see differences and parallels between groups and individuals. Understanding what is common and what is different can help a leader appreciate the reasons for people’s conflicting points of view and remain sensitive to how potential solutions will impact others.
  3. Rely on diversity as the means to higher quality decisions and outcomes.
    The master of complexity not only embraces and understands differences, but also intentionally convenes people with wide-ranging backgrounds and perspectives and successfully compels them to achieve higher quality outcomes. While bringing together diverse groups often means that they are more prone to disagree or argue about work processes than non-diverse groups, the outcomes of their collaboration can drive significant and sustainable organizational impact.
  4. Nurture and leverage a wide-ranging personal network from different groups.
    To thrive in and maximize impact in a multifaceted environment, masters of complexity actively use their professional and personal networks as a resource and share what they learn. In education, that means looking for members from business, law, and other industries, where fresh or diverse perspectives can lend new insights, and then bringing those insights to the organization.
  5. Act as courageous catalysts who constantly search for and see real opportunities for change-and have the courage to initiate them.
    Being a “courageous catalyst,” one who seeks and initiates timely and priority-savvy opportunities for change, requires the master of complexity to become a committed change agent. He or she has to be willing to bring big ideas—changes involving many people—to the organization, while always remembering that the goal is to create dramatically better outcomes for all students so that they become career- or college-ready.

I’m excited about the work The Broad Center, Education Pioneers, EdFuel, and other organizations are doing to reshape our understanding of leadership in the education sector. Let’s keep practicing habits and mastering the skills that will ensure success for all students.


Frances McLaughlin Frances McLaughlin is the President of Education Pioneers and is responsible for implementing the organization's strategy nationally to achieve EP's ambitious goals. She believes deeply that effective management and leadership – in addition to high quality instruction – are necessary for all students to reach their academic potential.


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