One of the most interesting jobs that I had over the 38 years of my career in public education was being a superintendent of a school district. I loved the job, very much, but it was certainly a stressful, challenging role to fulfill in spite of being one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had.
My son is a member of the United States Air Force, and when I was promoted to the job of superintendent he called me a “general”. I never thought of the job in that manner, but I suppose the literature could equate my role as a commander of a division, or an army, so to speak. And, being in command situations as a “superintendent” , it is conceivable that in many ways, there were many similarities to the role of being a general (although, instead of stars being on my shoulder, there were usually stars circling around my confused head!).
I have been reading a compelling book recently released by reporter and historian Thomas Ricks, entitled The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012)1. This read has been very interesting and quite compelling since the author reviews how the US Army had a stringent practice of relieving their generals in World War II for command failure and incompetence on a regular basis, but as the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the removal of incompetent leaders has been slow to occur, if at all. The thesis of his book is how did this level of accountability of senior command officers change, and why.
In many ways, school superintendents are in the same leadership mode as command generals in war time. They are answerable to civilian authorities (Board of Education), and have a challenging mission to accomplish (the education and preparation of children for the future).
From Tom Ricks book:
Being a general usually involves being able to impose one’s will on a large organization engaged in the most stressful of human activities. It is almost always driven by the twofold ability first to anticipate problems and devise solutions and then to get people to execute the resulting plans. (Ricks, 2012, 19).
One could very well superimpose the word [superintendent] for [general] and the meaning of the job would be quite clear. War and education are very stressful human endeavors. The job of a school leader/general is to design a plan, decide on potential solutions and move an organization of people in the direction of fulfilling that mission.
The job performance of a school leader/general is assessed by achievement of the very goals, as stated above. If the goals are not met, someone is to be held responsible by a higher authority. Accountability plays a large part in the practice of continued employment, so to speak, or as it should.
Generals [superintendents] are born, and generals [superintendents] are made. The promotion from colonel [teacher/[principal] to general [superintendent] is one of the largest psychological leaps an officer [educator] can take. ...they are expected to control and coordinate different branches [departments], such as artillery, cavalry, and engineers [curriculum, budget and finance, operations and maintenance, transportation, food service]- that is to become generalist.(Ricks, 2012,17).
Invariably, questions of competence and succeeding at the mission, will always be prevalent. But, the superintendency is a noble profession, and the people that fulfill these roles have great responsibilities that matter most importantly to each student attending school, each day.
1. Ricks, T.E. (2012). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: The Penguin Press.