My View

Confident Leaders Don’t Fake It
BY CARRIE E. HRUBY/School Administrator, October 2022

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, a veteran superintendent lectured a group of aspiring school administrators about the qualities that make up the best leaders. He shared story after story about the difficult decisions superintendents face in the landscape of political undertones.

The seasoned superintendent told the educators they must enter the superintendency callused, with a sizable ego. He said a big ego is necessary because superintendents are questioned regularly and must unwaveringly make unpopular decisions that will be challenged by some or many. I watched as the attentive aspiring leaders nodded and took notes about his lesson on ego in leadership.

I recall thinking if he was right, then the superintendency must not be for the empathetic of heart like me. But my experiences have told me the best leaders are the empathetic and understanding leaders. I recall politely asking him after the presentation if he thought perhaps confidence was more important than ego in leadership.

He didn’t appreciate the critique or didn’t want to change his presentation slides because he didn’t acknowledge my perspective. Not surprisingly, I later learned he struggled to build relationships with colleagues and staff. With ease, he could make challenging decisions and stick to them. Little could shake his stance. But those who followed him did so based primarily on fear and intimidation.

A Pretentious Attitude

I recognize that leadership requires courage and strength. A confident leader is poised, trustworthy, flexible and willing to show vulnerability and seek input from others. An ego-driven leader is fueled by insecurity and fear and feels the need to be the smartest individual in a room. 

A confident leader is courageous, empathetic and just, while maintaining a strong presence. An ego-driven leader tells others how it must be done, is rigid and self-interested and feels the need to display dominance.

I believe superintendents should outwardly wear confidence and check their egos at the door. Those who approach leadership wearing a big ego might subsequently subscribe to the “fake it ’til you make it” model. This implies that one must pretend. The approach may work well with low-level tasks such as managing protocols or outlining steps for a new set of paperwork. However, leaders cannot and should not feel compelled to fake their work.

Using the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” implies a leader’s only choice is to pretend. This, in turn, undervalues the skills and expertise of the leader. While every leader has something to learn, it’s not necessary to pretend while learning. Effective leadership can’t be faked, but it can evolve and grow.

Personal Growth

Superintendents should promote what they do know while acquiring new knowledge or skills and adopt the phrase “show it ’til you grow it.” This narrative highlights the skills the superintendent has while spotlighting a need to learn or grow additional skills. There will always be something to learn and skills to develop.

A confident superintendent is secure in knowing there always will be more to learn. It’s not possible, for instance, to fake an under-standing of an intricate school district budget or complicated state-funding formula. We should not feel compelled to fake our under-standing of a complex subject or task. Doing so would be disastrous because of the spread of misinformation that would follow.

Rather, as superintendents, we must model our expertise in other areas while growing an understanding and mastery of an unfamiliar issue through resourcefulness and research. The notion of “show it ’til you grow it” places a strong emphasis on the value of personal learning, which requires checking the ego at the door while developing new expertise. As leaders of learning organizations, we too must commit to our continuous learning and professional growth. The best leaders do.

CARRIE HRUBY is superintendent of O’Fallon School District 90 in O’Fallon, Ill. Twitter: @carrie_hruby