For the last five years I have been serving on our local school board. The time I have spent in this position has expanded my views on leadership. Over the years literally every person I have seen elected struggled with the same issue. That struggle is the need to govern instead of direct. As adults, and often we are leaders also, we are expected to direct those areas of our lives we are responsible for. Employees at our workplace, children performing household chores, players on a team we coach, the list goes on and on. Lets refer to this as micro-management. Not in a negative sense but a very practical one.
Members of a school board are called to macro-manage, or in formal terms, govern. The art of governing is very counter-intuitive and often very frustrating. School districts in America are set up to be led by a single person, the superintendent. The superintendent of schools is then accountable to the local school boards. So the school board really has only one employee. Where the confusion comes from is the fact that the school board signs all contracts, approves hiring and all payments. The natural response to this approval of such detail is to jump immediately to micro-management, which can be very damaging and destroy everything a well meaning person wishes to achieve. What most people do not realize is the mechanism of approval is authority given to the school board to exercise as a balance of power. We are not called to understand every expenditure and every person hired, we are called to oversee the general direction the superintendent is taking the district. We are to ask questions and validate the decisions, not to stand in the way or threaten to do so to achieve a personal goal.
The current system lends itself to abuse. We see it all over the country where well meaning people cause great destruction and damage to our youth. I truly believe this ties back in most situations to this issue of governance. When you govern your personal agenda has to go out the door. Your responsibility is to make the best decisions for those you are governing. There will be times that decision will fly in the face of your political affiliations and your personal beliefs. It is possible to be 100% right in a decision and still be wrong. The reason is the difference between governing and directing. When directing your decision goes and everyone is required to move that way. When you govern you make policy and set direction but you do NOT decide how to do it. That is left to the administration led by the superintendent. I have heard too many times the following statement come out of a board members mouth in meetings, “What you need to do is…”. It is very frustrating every time this happens and should be rephrased to say “Our goal is…do you think…would help us achieve that goal?”. The difference is subtle yet profound in its results.
One of the most critical reasons for behaving this way is the empowerment of the administration. These are professionals that we want to be dynamic and innovative. We want them to demand excellence and help our kids achieve their potential. We want them to do all of this yet we also want to tell them how to handle specific issues. I have seen the relationship between a board and a superintendent turn on the most trivial of issues. Trust, once broken, is very difficult to restore. The school board has to trust their superintendent, but, the superintendent must be able to trust his school board. This trust can only happen if school board members stay in the bounds of governance. The future of our children depend on it.