POSITIONAL AUTHORITY & LEADERS STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Part 4 of a series of blogs on leadership and the art of decision-making.
I write my leadership blog through the lens of a faculty member teaching leadership and research methods in the education doctoral program at CSUF. I use this lens because as a superintendent of schools, I can easily lose sight of the positional authority I am afforded and write from a perspective that may not resonate with leaders in other positions. Though all leadership positions have some level of authority, whether the position has decision-making autonomy varies greatly from district to district, usually the result of the leadership culture of the organization and the level of trust the person has engendered.
A reader responding to Part 2 of this series made me really think about my lens. His frustrations revolve around discontinuity within the hierarchical structure and decision-making process in his organization. I understand and acknowledge his challenges.
I’ve been asked about my path to the superintendency. Specifically, why I served as a principal for 17 years instead of moving into district level positions such as coordinator or director. In planning my career, I was advised against accepting positions that did not provide significant decision-making autonomy. The belief that leaders grow either by working closely with the primary decision-maker or by being the primary decision-maker is the line-position approach. Stay in a straight line. As a result of following that leadership philosophy my next stop was at the Cabinet-level.
Many middle-management level leadership positions in larger districts may not provide decision-making autonomy, depending on the commitment a district makes to growing its leaders. Growth as a leader varies directly with decision-making experiences. Smaller districts usually provide greater opportunities for district-level leaders to engage at the Cabinet-level, or at least be privileged to be close enough to it to learn from it, given a flatter organizational hierarchy. As both a small-district and a large-district superintendent, I recognize the challenges organizations face in developing leaders in the context of the existing structure.
Intuitive leaders know who to empower, and who to trust with decision-making authority.
Most superintendents are committed to developing leaders by preparing them to be the best they can be, at whatever level they are capable of successfully leading. To be a leader is to know the extent of your reach. Every leader has a point or level at which she or he can competently function. Over-reaching is career suicide, both for the over-reacher and whoever recommended her or him. Helping leaders hit their stride is a responsibility mentor leaders take seriously.
Leaders at all levels have to earn the trust of their superiors. I have challenged colleagues throughout my career to make a compelling argument and convince me to move in one direction or another.
Colleagues who have earned my respect by virtue of their knowledge and thoughtful decision-making capability have influenced decisions I’ve made, regardless of their positional authority. As I noted in Part 3 of this series, leaders who are secure in their position and who are self-aware, subscribe to a John Woodenism that has stood the test of time: “Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you.”
If you’re stuck in the middle, look inward and reflect on what you need to do differently to get the attention of decision-makers who you aim to influence. If they’re unwilling to listen to you, then they are not the type of leaders you will likely grow under. Not all district leaders subscribe to the theory that a key element of our position is to make everyone else around us better than us. Start by finding an organization with a leader who flattens the lines of communications.
Leadership cultures are dramatically different from organization to organization. Some grow their own leaders while others import them. Some do a little of both. Regardless of how leaders are elevated to positions with decision-making authority, once there they have to prove themselves. The higher the position, the fewer chances you get to get it right.