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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brake

Anatomy of Typical Versus Atypical School Superintendents

Updated: Feb 14

Let me be clear at the outset. I have not physically dissected any school superintendents. (Sorry if this disappoints anyone.)

Metaphorically speaking, I’ve learned some things about the bones of a “typical” school superintendent. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a few superintendents who are anything but typical. It’s hard to explain what makes these superintendents atypical or extraordinary without first considering the basic anatomy of the typical superintendent:

  1. The typical school superintendent is in their job for three to four years. It’s hard to have a lasting impact on a district in that amount of time. We give football coaches more time to build a winning team. Are school boards eager to throw them out after three years? Sometimes, but not generally. Replacing a superintendent is disruptive to all of the stakeholders in a school community.  So why do they leave? In some cases it’s for bigger or different opportunities, but in far too many cases it’s because the interests of the school district stakeholders are not aligned. In other words, the superintendent and stakeholders lack a commonly held aspirational vision of the future. In some cases, the superintendent has failed to effectively engage stakeholders.

  1. Typical superintendents avoid taking risks. As one high-ranking ASSA official once told me: “For a superintendent, risk equals losing your job.” Since hearing that observation about 10 years ago, I’ve had over 100 school administrators and school board association executives privately confirm this observation to be “absolutely true.” Typical superintendents are quick to support strategies and programs that are both safe and low risk, actions that are likely to yield incremental gains without disturbing too many stakeholders.

  1. Typical superintendents can exude confidence and optimism on the outside, but they live with anxiety and insecurities on the inside. Who can blame them? They have to navigate some pretty tough waters on a daily basis. The stakeholders in every school district–a group that includes school board members, teachers, staff, parents, community partners, and even students–often represent diverse and conflicting agendas. In our factionalized society, people tend to hang onto particular beliefs and only embrace or advocate those things that strongly align with those beliefs. At the same time, many of these people marginalize or vilify those that do not share the same beliefs.


Now, let’s consider the atypical superintendent. From my perspective, it comes down to this: they function like entrepreneurial CEOs. (Notably, many stakeholders have a hard time equating the work and influence of their school superintendent with that of an entrepreneurial CEO, fearing, perhaps, that the recognition of such would elevate a superintendent’s ego and perception of power in the school community.) Nevertheless, atypical superintendents do function like entrepreneurial CEOs, title or not. Here’s how:

  • They are customer-centric and actively listen to their customers and other stakeholders in the ecosystem.

  • They gather and use data from multiple sources to inform key decisions.

  • They innovate.

  • They iterate.

  • They delegate authority and hold others accountable to the responsibilities of that authority.

  • They provide a clear vision of where the organization is going.

  • They provide clear metrics showing the progress and achievement toward that vision.

  • They function as “explainer-in-chief” by openly sharing information and educating their stakeholders on the challenges, opportunities, aspirations, and results achieved.

In using the term entrepreneurial CEO, there’s a huge adjective at play here. Our education system is facing unprecedented challenges as schools are forced to transform from a traditional factory model of education to a modern student-centered learning environment. This requires a transformational mindset, something atypical superintendents may already have baked-into their DNA. Nevertheless, the atypical superintendent’s ultimate success cannot be realized without the support and advocacy of those they lead. This is the difference between realizing incremental change versus transformational change.

Sadly, there is not one widely recognized assessment to determine whether a superintendent is typical or atypical. My earnest belief is that while some superintendents are satisfied to be typical, many have the ability to transcend the typical and help the districts they lead embrace the transformational change that is needed to give students a competitive advantage on a world stage.

Doing the same thing over and over again again, expecting different results, belongs in the realm of the typical. The atypical superintendent will engage stakeholders, innovate, challenge convention, iterate, and ultimately elevate and transform. 

Make no bones about that. Comments are welcome. Dissection is a two-way street.


David Brake is the founder and CEO of The Grandview Group, a consulting firm that helps organizations engage their stakeholders and elevate impact. We would love to talk with you about how your organization is engaging stakeholders and elevating impact.

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