The Sword

Not long ago I received an e-mail from an old friend,

“Pete, our administrative team is a mess. We have a new superintendent who is being undercut by one of the principals, who just happens to be head of the administrators’ bargaining association, and is also personal friends with the Board president. We need your help.”

I connected with my old friend for lunch and heard the whole story in great detail. Eventually, after a few meetings with the superintendent, he invited me to work with his team.

I found the team to be very complimentary to each other. They had an extremely high opinion of themselves and they presented a unified façade that said “everything is okay here”. There wasn’t a lot for me to work with, so I set up private meetings each of them.

In these private meetings, the administrators started to open up. It turned out that everyone knew that this principal was undercutting the Superintendent. He had applied for the Superintendent’s job and been passed over. Many of the young administrators expressed fear of this principal who had been in the district for more than 30 years and had a ‘back door’ to the Board of Education. When pressed, they admitted that there was little trust on their team because of the way this principal wielded his power; in secret, rewarding those he liked, and stealthily undermining those he didn’t.

It was clear to me that the behavior of this individual was at the root of the team’s dysfunction. There was no trust. If the superintendent wanted to lead an initiative that this individual didn’t like, he would quietly sabotage it with other administrators, parents, and, of course, the Board President.

I met with the Superintendent and shared with him what I had found in my individual interviews. As I thought, the Superintendent was not surprised. He knew this was going on. He had chosen to ignore it. My suggestion was to remove this person from the team. The individual was of retirement age and maybe we could entice him to leave with “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” The Superintendent wanted to take some time to think about it.

A month later he still had not made up his mind. Later still, he declared that he thought the individual had “turned a corner” and was no longer undermining him or sowing the seeds of distrust with the team. He had made up his mind that it was better to do nothing than to face the problem and take action to fix it.

Many leaders take this route. They have a difficult choice to make and eventually they choose not to act. It’s so easy to live with that status quo, even if it is not ideal. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that things, or people are changing. It’s what we want to believe. It colors our thinking to the point where we ignore reality and find ourselves living in hope.

I’m sure the Superintendent in this story felt, that had he acted, there is no telling the hornet’s nest he might have riled up. The person he was trying to get to retire might have taken it as an insult, he might have stirred up the Board and parents against him. On the other hand, it was imperative that the Superintendent do something to rescue his team and himself from this unacceptable situation. Imagine trying to captain a boat with one of the crew stealthily poking holes in the hull.

So, the new Superintendent decided to live with things as they were. He decided to keep his ‘sword’ sheathed.

When I checked in recently I wasn’t surprised to hear that the Superintendent was not finishing his contract. He was “retiring”. What happened to his old nemesis, the administrator that few trusted?

He was the new Superintendent.

My friend who had sent me the original e-mail of distress let me know that many of the youngest and most promising administrators had “jumped ship”. They were taking jobs in other districts.

Sometimes we need to un-sheath our swords and take decisive action for ourselves, our teams, and most importantly…

…for the kids we serve.



2 thoughts on “The Sword

  1. Well written, Pete. It can be “easier” to lay low, but have much worse consequences in the long run. As Jim Collins would say, get the right people on the bus.

  2. Micheal,
    I’ve found there are some people who, after all our best efforts as leaders, will refuse to “get on the bus”. It is only then, that we have to face the reality of ‘un-sheathing’ our sword. When we use the sword, it needs to be done decisively.

    Sometimes we improve our teams by subtraction, not addition.


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