Executive Perspective

Sometimes Influence, Not Authority, Works Best
BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH/School Administrator, December 2020

WITHOUT DOUBT, one of my most memorable professional development activities happened when I was the superintendent of the Fairfax County Schools in Virginia.

We had received a grant from The Wallace Foundation that focused on the leadership development of 12 large school system superintendents. Each of us from the selected systems was given the opportunity to participate in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. Led by Ronald Heifetz, we were exposed to leadership concepts and ideas that not only benefitted the 12 of us but the districts we led as well.

Heifetz shared two of his books with us: Leadership on the Line and Leadership Without Easy Answers. Both remain on my book-shelf for easy access. I obtained copies to share with my principals in Fairfax, and we held book club meetings to discuss the books. During the sessions with principals, we discussed the difference between leadership and authority and the strategies for addressing problems that required an adaptive solution versus a technical one.

To highlight the difference between leadership and authority, we revisited the days that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the roles that Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson played. 

In that scenario, King led without authority while the president led with authority. Johnson had the legal power to push for the bill and eventually to sign it into law when it passed in 1964, but its passage might have been dubious without King’s leadership and the public pressure he brought upon the members of Congress. Together both succeeded in the passage of a bill that few thought possible.

Adaptive Answers

Superintendents can lead with the authority that they have. If they say so, it must be done or suffer the consequences of insubordination. However, superintendents are well aware that mandates may not always bring about the desired results. This is where the concepts of technical vs. adaptive solutions come into play.

During my book club discussions, I always asked the principals to share a problem they had recently faced and how they solved it. One of the principals talked about a disastrous fire that shut down the school. The principal acted swiftly, coordinating with her colleagues where the displaced students could be accommodated and the swift distribution of the staff that would accompany the students. The principal received kudos from all over for the swift and effective decision making.

Then, with a smile, the principal went on to share how another decision had not fared as well. Apparently, grading had become an issue with parents. They felt the letter grades the students were receiving were not descriptive enough and did not differentiate the student’s achievement at more incremental levels.

Following discussions with the parents, the principal agreed to move to numerical grades. The principal certainly had the authority to make the change but quickly discovered the teachers were adamantly opposed. The two examples shared by the principal highlighted the difference between technical and adaptive solutions.

Acting quickly and decisively to deal with the emergency of a fire and the displacement of students and staff was a technical response appreciated by all. They were swiftly and safely relocated into temporary quarters while the school was repaired. The grading issue was a different story that required a different approach to what should have been an adaptive solution, not an authoritative action.

Facing Resistance

I love the saying, “The only one who wants change is a wet baby.” Solutions that bring about change will meet resistance from those who don’t want change. In the case of the fire, change had to happen. The building was not usable and students and staff had to be relocated to schools with available space.

The grade change was not an emergency requiring an immediate solution and was opposed by the teachers. While the principal had the authority to make the change, an adaptive solution that sought input from all involved and possible compromise required a different leadership approach — an influential rather than an authoritative style. Recognizing the error, the principal brought the two groups together and came up with a solution agreeable to all.

In this COVID-19 pandemic era, leaders are faced with problems that will require a careful assessment as to when the superintendent should act with authority or lead with influence.

DANIEL DOMENECH is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan