Wisdom, Intelligence & Creativity Synthesized

A model of successful school leadership for an uncertain and challenging future by Robert J. Sternberg

The new superintendent strutted confidently onto the stage. There was an elaborate ritual of greeting. To me, a mere observer (and consultant), it smacked of a coronation. This was a man who obviously was used to pomp and ceremony, and he got it.

Seated in front of him were the several hundred teachers who constituted the school district’s teaching staff. They were eager to hear the words of a superintendent most of them had not even seen before, except perhaps in the newspapers.

SternbergCognitive psychologist Robert Sternberg of Tufts University touts a leadership model that combines wisdom, intelligence and creativity.

The superintendent came to the district with great experience. He had just moved to this fairly large school district in the Far West from a school district of comparable size on the East Coast. The circumstances of his leaving the last job were murky, at least to the teachers, but, after all, they had not selected him. They merely had to live with him.

The talk was polished, fluent and forceful, if perhaps a bit grandiose. The superintendent described how he had turned around his last school district, and how he was going to do it again with the new school district. His multipoint plan had worked in that district, and it would work in this one. Moreover, he chuckled, he had made his mistakes in implementing it the last time around, so this time he would do it right, from start to finish.

When the talk was over, the new superintendent received polite applause. No one seemed to know quite what to make of him. They were not used to what seemed to them an “East Coast” manner — a bit more formal, a bit more styled. And they were perhaps a little taken aback that he seemed to have his whole plan in place, even before the first day of the school year.

Failing Relationships
The first year did not go as anyone had hoped. The new superintendent got into conflicts with certain members of the board of education. In fairness, it was not all his fault. The board had had a superintendent who was willing to subordinate himself to the many wishes and perceived needs of the board members, some of which had not served the district particularly well.

The board members thought they wanted someone who was more take-charge, and they had gotten it. But they were not prepared for someone who was quite so take-charge. Moreover, the school board and the school district had developed ways of doing things over the years they thought fit the culture of their city. The new superintendent was not so interested in listening to what these ways were. He had come to change those ways, to transform the district into the image he thought would create a model of what a school district could be. He saw certain board members as more interested in power than in doing good, and he was more interested in getting them off the board than in working with them. A power struggle ensued.

Had the new superintendent acquired the support of the teachers and their union, he might have fared better. But he viewed the union as championing mediocrity and, moreover, he did not hide his views. He had disempowered the union in his last job, and so he thought he knew how to take control and not let the union get in his way. He may have known how in his last school district. Whatever he knew did not work in the new district.

When it became clear things were going south, the superintendent did not define the problem as having anything much to do with him. Rather, he viewed the problem as emanating from the opposition — key elements of the school board and the teachers’ union. He was determined to fight them. He did not view them as legitimate opponents, but rather as troublemakers to be crushed, and he made that clear to anyone who wanted to listen. He bad-mouthed certain school board members and union leaders in what he thought were confidential conversations. In administration, though, one never knows which conversations will be confidential. One could argue that administrators are paid the “big bucks” to know when not to speak. He didn’t.

When his job was threatened, his focus turned to keeping his job. Meanwhile, many constituents in the school district felt neglected by the higher administration. The administrative units seemed to these constituents more interested in their turf battles than in genuinely improving teaching and learning in the district.

I was there the first day of the second year. I had told the superintendent how I saw things. He was not happy to hear what I had to say. But he listened, at least somewhat. He started his opening speech the second year with an apology, a curious opening to a speech. He stated that although much had improved during his first year, there had been some rough sailing. He acknowledged there had been problems and said he was determined to fix them in this, his second year.

My impression was that the audience wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But things only got worse in the second year.

I was not there for the beginning of the third year. Neither was the superintendent. He was gone — fired after two years on the job.

A Relevant Model
The story of the ill-fated superintendent has its particular details, but in its generalities, it is a story played out over and over again. He truly wanted to do a good job. The great majority of his constituents wanted him to do a good job. But few things worked out the way either he or the school district had hoped.

How is it that smart administrators who want to do a good job often find themselves in situations that degenerate and then lead to confrontation and ultimately to termination?

I would like to discuss why in terms of a model of leadership — I refer to it as WICS, an acronym for wisdom, intelligence and creativity synthesized. In particular, how does the model apply to leadership, including both successful and failed leadership?

The basic idea is simple. To be a successful leader, you need (a) creativity to generate a vision for where you want to lead your school or school district; (b) analytical intelligence to ascertain whether your vision is a good one; (c) practical intelligence to execute your vision and to persuade others of its value; and (d) wisdom to ensure your ideas help your school or school district achieve a common good.

The superintendent in question had an honors bachelor’s degree from a prestigious college and a doctorate from an even more prestigious school of education. He was analytically smart. He undoubtedly had high standardized test scores as a high school student. So what went wrong?

For one thing, he left his creativity behind in his old job. His attempt to do in the new school district just what he did in the old district was a mistake. Creativity is not about coming up with a novel and compelling idea one time in one place. An administrator has to fit the idea to the context. The superintendent did not. He also lacked the practical intelligence to successfully implement and sell his ideas to the constituencies that made up his new school district. But, in my view, what he lacked most of all was wisdom.

Wisdom is the use of one’s accumulated skills and knowledge for a common good, which balances one’s own interests with other people’s interests and larger institutional or even societal interests. The leader further needs to balance these interests over the long as well as the short terms through the application of positive ethical values. Good leaders are wise leaders. But many leaders fail because they are the opposite of wise.

Cognitive Fallacies
The opposite of wisdom is foolishness. What doomed the superintendent, I believe, is foolishness. Oddly, smart people are more susceptible to foolishness than not-so-smart ones, precisely because they think they are not susceptible. Therefore, they are not cognizant of their own risk for behaving foolishly. Foolishness, in part, takes the form of six cognitive fallacies.

The first fallacy is unrealistic optimism. This fallacy is reflected in the belief that, because one is so smart, one is not susceptible to one’s ideas going wrong. The superintendent felt he had had smashing success in his previous school district. He, therefore, optimistically expected to be assured of equal success in his new school district.

Perhaps it is worth noting here he had not had quite the success he recalled. He had been essentially forced to resign his last job because he had had problems with his school board. Maybe he had two bad boards — or maybe he just failed adequately to accommodate them. Most boards have problematic members. Part of the superintendent’s job is figuring out how to work with them.

The second fallacy is egocentrism. Leaders often start out their jobs wanting to do what is best for their full range of constituencies. Over time, their field of vision may narrow. Ultimately, they may become more concerned about themselves than about those they have been hired to lead.

This is what happened to the mayor of a large city in the Midwest, who last fall resigned from his elected position and agreed to serve a prison term. In the weeks leading up to his resignation, his main concern seemed to be keeping his job and staying out of prison rather than serving the people of his city. It also happened to Kenneth Lay, ex-CEO of Enron but before that an economics professor, and to Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron and a Harvard Business School graduate. In the case of the superintendent, he too found himself, at the end of his term, doing more to protect his job and his ego than to serve the constituencies he was supposed to lead.

The third fallacy is false omniscience. This is the belief that one knows everything, or at least, everything of importance. Leaders who are falsely omniscient do not learn from their mistakes because they do not see themselves as making mistakes.

The superintendent did not view his problems in his previous job as of his own making nor did he view the problems in his new job as being his fault. Rather, the problems stemmed from the “idiots” (his term in conversation with me) with whom he was expected to work. He did not learn from his mistakes, either in his past job or his next job, because he did not recognize them as mistakes. He thought he knew exactly what the new school district needed and was not much interested in what others might have thought it needed.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was one of the most respected military leaders in the history of the country. Then he gave a talk to the United Nations on the hidden weapons of destruction possessed by Iraq. The talk was given with great authority, as though he and his staff knew much or all there was to know about these weapons. His reputation, after that talk, was severely damaged. There were no weapons of mass destruction, hidden or otherwise.

Feeling All Powerful
The fourth fallacy is false omnipotence. This fallacy occurs when one starts to believe one is all-powerful. The superintendent was determined to assert his power as chief executive of the district. He viewed others as having to work with him, not him as having to work with them. The members of the board who opposed him were people to be crushed. He felt the same for the opposition in the union. After all, he was the chief, and the rest had to learn how to deal with him. He viewed listening and compromise as signs of weakness, and he was determined to project an image only of strength.

National leaders who have believed themselves to be omnipotent, from ancient Rome to Napoleonic France, usually have suffered crushing reverses precisely because of their false beliefs. Napoleon believed he was invincible when he invaded Russia. Instead, his folly was the beginning of the end of his rule.

The fifth fallacy is false invulnerability. This fallacy occurs when leaders believe that no matter what they do, no one can get back at them. The superintendent believed his position would protect him from retaliation by disgruntled board and union members. He was wrong. A recent U.S. president found himself in the extremely awkward position of being impeached. In a series of government jobs, he had involved himself in extramarital relationships, apparently believing his high position would render him invulnerable either to being found out or to being harmed. When he was found out, he appeared to lie under oath in court. He discovered he was not invulnerable after all.

A candidate in the 2008 presidential primaries also seemed to believe his exalted position would protect him from being found out and made to pay for his sexual indiscretions. He too was wrong.

The sixth fallacy is ethical disengagement. When people believe they are invulnerable, they may start acting in ways that are ethically disengaged, as in the above scenarios. When the superintendent was threatened by his opposition, he took to bad-mouthing them behind their backs to almost anyone who would listen. He only made his situation worse because, of course, his disparaging comments got back to them. He was acting unethically because they had not, in fact, done anything wrong other than disagree with him over policy and power issues.

In administrative jobs, wisdom is as much about knowing what not to say as it is about knowing what to say. The superintendent should have kept his views to himself. His behavior did not reach the levels of some televangelists, however, who, while exhorting people to behave morally, themselves have behaved in ways that have brought upon them disgrace and even prison. They are extreme examples of ethical disengagement, preaching ethical behavior while believing it applies to everyone except themselves.

Future Directions
In the end, good leadership is about the synthesis of wisdom, intelligence and creativity. Schools, from the primary level onward, place a great emphasis on the memory-based and analytical aspects of intelligence. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, this emphasis is greater than ever. But the schools are emphasizing memory and analytical skills at the expense of creative, practical and wisdom-based ones, arguably the skills one needs the most in later life.

The risk for our country is that we will end up with future leaders and a future citizenry who lack the wisdom they need to move us successfully into an increasingly uncertain and challenging future. With all the problems our schools, our society and our world face, can we really afford to have citizens or leaders who are unwise or even downright foolish?

Robert Sternberg is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. E-mail: robert.sternberg@tufts.edu