Executive Perspective

A Balance of Head and Heart

by Paul D. Houston

The superintendency holds an enduring fascination for me. It is a source of pleasure and pain, of peril and promise, of minutiae and mission, of foible and fable.

But what I have been grappling with of late is how little we really understand about the job. I watch great superintendents at work and realize that I am watching artistry. Great superintendents remind me of great athletes who can anticipate where other players will be and who can make a pass that reaches the teammate at just the right moment. The less-great superintendents try for the same play and throw it into the stands. What is the difference?

Not only do we not understand the work, but we also lack a good fix on the context of the work. Most studies of the superintendency are quantitative and focus on the numerical issues. What is needed is more understanding gleaned from case studies and ethnographic studies so we can begin to understand this culture known as the superintendency.

AASA hopes to do some of that with foundation support. We also are working with the University Council on Educational Administration on creating a Center for the Superintendency.

A Revealing Moment
Today we need a more basic set of understandings. Recently, in a conversation with one of our outstanding superintendents, I got a new insight into the role. This school leader has a great focus on the work. She sets clear expectations for staff, implements programs aimed at improving student achievement and has led her school board to new awareness of its role. In general, she does all the things that make her an effective superintendent.


This particular day she was dealing with a child traumatized by the death of her mother in an auto accident. That same day she also had dealt with counseling a staff member with personal problems and a violent act in school.

Each of these issues were matters not of the head but of the heart. I told her she was not just an effective superintendent, but she was also an affective superintendent. At that moment I learned something new about a profession I have studied for 30 years. You can't do the job focused on only one half of the equation. In educational leadership the headbone has to be connected to the heartbone.

Certainly school leaders must be effective. That means they have an unwavering commitment to helping the staff and community stay focused. High expectations for all are enforced. Goals must be clear, concise and pursued with a sense of constancy that lets everyone know there will be no escape.

Further, effective superintendents are communicators of the highest order. They know how to convene and persuade to get everyone aligned to the job at hand. And effective leaders are facilitators. They know how to marshal and organize resources to back up the goals.

But at the risk of being a "bleeding heart," I must say that any school system leader who focuses only on the issues of effectiveness and not on affectiveness is not doing a complete job. Affective leaders have to be about the heart and soul of the organization. They must understand that children who are hungry for food or who are starving for attention will not learn to read until those more basic needs are met.

The affective leader understands that the key to communication is through people's feelings, not through their thoughts. That is why great leaders are storytellers who can use metaphor and fable to help folks anchor their thoughts to their feelings.

Leaders understand that to get folks to perspire, first you have to inspire. And inspiration comes from being grounded in the spirit of the work. That leads to the need for moral courage. Great leaders know what hill they will die on and are clear about which fights must be made.

In this era of accountability, great leaders know that for folks to perform they first must be given the tools and support. Effective leaders worry about skills and the results you must get. Affective leaders know that the process you use to get there must be grounded in how people feel about the task at hand.

While we don't know nearly enough about the superintendency, we do know that it has to have a head and a heart. And that is a good starting point for any educational experience

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org