School Superintendents at War

Over the past few years we have had the pleasure of getting to know more than a few school superintendents. We have also become very familiar with the landscape of education in the US and in Canada. What we are coming to understand is that there is a war going on.

In this war, there are winners and losers, small skirmishes and large battles. The war is against failure – the failure of students, failure of teachers, failure of home-school relationships, and the failure of the education system overall. School District Superintendents are the Generals in this war and those that fight like Generals are winning.

Interview with a General

In a recent interview posted on ZDNet, Brigadier General, John E. Michel spoke about leadership, by phone, from Afghanistan. General Michel spoke about his experiences leading complex and challenging organizations through equally complex and challenging times. He spoke about leading through the fear of change and the challenges that come with innovation. In short, he provided a primer for school superintendents who lead the charge in the war at home.

General Michel, a self proclaimed “status quo buster” and author, touched on six areas of leadership during the interview. I encourage you to read the ZDNet article and to watch the full CXOTalk YouTube video that includes the entire interview hosted by Micheal Krigsman. The audio is challenging at times but it’s worth the effort to really listen to what General Michel has to say.  He covers a lot of ground, from change fatigue to culture and agility. In this post I want to focus on just a few areas he spoke about beginning with co-creation and collaboration.

Co-creation and collaboration

The education system is going through unprecedented change right now. Many of the changes are being imposed from outside the education system itself.  For many people within the system the imposition of change makes what could be merely uncomfortable almost unbearable. The antidote to this is to involve these folks in the change process – from the beginning.

General Michel suggests that you have to make co-creation and collaboration a “top priority”. He says:

I have been a fan of appreciative inquiry, a way of allowing individuals who are involved in change to co-create where they are going, by asking a series of questions and letting [them] imagine the ways to get there, being reasonable about where they are today and then creating a path forward that they can understand. When people are involved in that process, they may be willing to move into territory that, if you just tried to direct them, fear would prevent them from doing so. ~ General Michel as quoted on ZDNet

You know how we feel about asking questions so I won’t belabour that point. I will however say again – invite people affected by the change into the process of co-creating and mapping out the change process, as early in the process as you can. I will also say that we too are fans of Appreciative Inquiry.

Student focus

In the interview General Michel talks about business leaders and maintaining a “customer focus”. In education the customer is the student. Students provide the “unifying purpose” that we are all fighting for. They are the end users and consumers of our educational products. When we forget that, when we stop fighting against failure and begin fighting with one another, the focus is taken off of students and we all lose.

Exemplary leaders in education understand that. They ask themselves and others – Will “this” benefit our students? If it doesn’t benefit students, why are we doing it? They also fully understand that many of the things they do benefit students indirectly.

They know that how we think about, talk about and treat teachers affects both how teachers are perceived and how they teach our students. Most importantly, they know that they need their forces to be aligned. Parents, teachers, other school administrators, the school board and the community as a whole, need to be allied forces. The leader’s role is to keep these allied forces working cooperatively towards the same end.

Commander’s intent

One of my favourite parts of the interview is when General Michel talks about intent. Intent is critical. Having and sharing clear intentions including a written purpose, plan, strategy and goals is crucial to winning any war. It’s only the enemy that is not privy to these things. If we keep intentions, plans or strategies a secret from allies and troops we create problems and destroy trust.

The goal has to be transparency through ongoing communication and feedback. The result of transparency is a “state of trust”. Trust is the foundation of all healthy relationships and absolutely critical to surviving in the ever changing, complex environment of education.


We know there are some who will bristle at the idea of comparing education to the military or to even mentioning the word war alongside schools or students. We understand that. We also recognize that as humans we seem to do better when we are up against something. Dave Logan, in Tribal Leadership, outlines the five stages of tribal culture and notes that the fifth stage is where we aspire to be. A stage five culture is what Nelson Mandela created during the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa. There is no ego in a stage five culture, nothing to fight against – there is only truth and the only competition is between what is now and what might be possible in the future. We are not there yet.

Achieving a stage five culture requires moving through the fourth stage. The fourth stage is known as the “we’re great” stage. This is the level of shared core values and true esprit de corps. This level works because there is something to fight and measure progress against. There is a named enemy that helps us create a “we” culture.

The mantra “we’re great” has a silent “and you’re not”, hanging off the end. The key is to ensure the foe is not an ally or one of the troops. This is where we need to be right now; aligned, focused, collaboratively fighting the good fight against a common enemy, with our Generals leading the way.

How will you lead?

You can follow General Michel on Twitter and read more great leadership posts by him and his colleagues on General Leadership.

Like this post? Share it with your favourite school leaders.

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Jamie Billingham

Jamie Billingham

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