My View                                                  Pages 16-17


From Mind-Set to Mind Change



As superintendents, we uniquely exist in the gray areas of the organization. We work between the lines, not a part of the governing board to which we report and not fully a part of the administrative team we lead. As a result, we adapt to our ambiguous and tenuous position by adopting an “outsider” mind-set. We adopt a frame of reference that allows for some objectivity and detachment from our organization.

We learn that life as an outsider has its opportunities. Certainly, we are better able to view our school districts as dynamic and ever-changing organizations. We understand that to lead them effectively we need, as Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe in Leadership on the Line, to view our organizations from the balcony, rather than immerse ourselves on the dance floor.

As outsiders, we are better able to work as transformational leaders, celebrating our strengths while confronting our limitations and those areas that need to be addressed. We can respond more objectively to messy situations because we usually are not immersed in them personally.

We are able, or so we hope, to focus on what is best for students without having to align ourselves directly with a specific constituency. We can lead change efforts or, more precisely, enable others to do so, by asking the questions others don’t think to ask and by creating the discomfort that those with an “insider mind-set” prefer to avoid.

As outsiders, we fully appreciate the complexities of leading change and know it requires great courage to think differently, challenge the status quo and move people to places they may not want to go. We can act courageously because we know that even when all the right conditions are in place, including respectful and trusting relationships, there remains an inevitable tension between the insiders, who are expected to effect change, and ourselves, the leaders who are held accountable for that change.

Personal Detachment
We can appreciate the benefits of a “superintendent as outsider” mind-set in moving an organization forward. At the same time, we acknowledge and experience the personal and emotional costs, as well. With this outsider perspective, the superintendent is never fully able to become immersed personally in relationships and in the deep culture of the district, experiences that have the potential to be the most gratifying and rewarding.

The outsider mind-set prevents genuine immersion from happening by creating a certain level of emotional detachment. This detachment may be necessary, one could argue, to accommodate high expectations and the realities of uncertainty and vulnerability inherent in the position. Many of my colleagues believe this detachment is desirable. As one superintendent friend explained, “With highly unpredictable boards, it can be a lot like food preservation. You always want to be aware of the expiration date on the milk carton because you never know when the relationship will turn sour.”

Although the outsider-insider perspective is worth considering and may have implications for job satisfaction, regardless of how we feel, we know we need to embrace both vantage points. We must embody both the commitment and intuitiveness of the insider and the freshness and objectivity of the outsider.

Mental Capacity
This, in itself, is not enough, though. Not only must we examine our self-perceptions in relation to our organizations, we also must explore our perceptions of ourselves in relation to our own mental models and frames of reference. In other words, we need to develop the capacity to understand ourselves and our organizations at a much higher level of mental complexity.

In their book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey argue for today’s leaders to become more sophisticated thinkers who understand that the world is in constant motion and that what makes sense now may not make sense tomorrow.

Kegan and Lahey describe different plateaus of adult mental complexity and assert that the first two plateaus, the socialized mind and self-authoring mind, are no longer adequate for leaders working within the complexities of organizational life. Now, they argue, today’s leaders must develop self-transforming minds, writing: “This new mind would have the ability not just to author a view of how the organization should run and have the courage to hold steadfastly to that view. It would also be able to step outside its own ideology or framework, observe the framework’s limitations or defects, and re-author a more comprehensive view — which it will hold with sufficient tentativeness that its limitations can be discovered as well.”

More Sophistication
In essence then, the discussion is not so much about mind-set and perception as about personal mind change. The change begins with us. As leaders of highly complex organizations in a rapidly changing world, we must become much more sophisticated in our thinking.

If we want to belong to our school districts while simultaneously leading them to constantly adapt and innovate, we need to reframe, stretch and develop our minds to become self-transforming.

Mary Herrmann, who spent 12 years as a superintendent in Missouri and Illinois, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. E-mail: 



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