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What Causes Leadership Transitions to Fail?

By Paul Pendleton, Owner/Consultant, Finding Leaders

Our public schools have a serious challenge. In a nutshell, the challenge is this: without strong support from the biggest advocates of the school district, newly hired superintendents tend to have a brief honeymoon period. Within a year or so of being hired, they begin to become a lightning rod for negative-thinking people, eventually lose favor with the public, and ultimately get replaced by new superintendents, starting the cycle over again.


This turnover carries a hefty price tag, both financially and educationally:


  • Changing superintendents cost the taxpayers money.

  • Turnover in superintendents makes it difficult to sustain and scale up educational programs that are working.

  • Lack of continuity in educational programs and initiatives creates a morale problem for school employees who condition themselves to the fact that whatever they are doing educationally will probably not last long.

  • Finally, some of our most promising educational leaders are deciding not to seek administrative positions because of the lack of personal support they feel they will experience if they become superintendents.


Often there are things done during a typical search process that actually compromise the success the district is seeking. There are also beliefs that are held and perpetuated by board members and other stakeholders that result in a less-than-desirable outcome after a superintendent is hired. Among these actions and beliefs are:


  • Waiting until the last minute to begin the search.

  • Not involving school employees in the search process.

  • Discounting qualified internal candidates.

  • Ignoring school district issues and concerns that are likely to limit the honeymoon period for the new school executive.

  • Creating a blue-ribbon committee to represent the community in the search process and calling this action “public engagement.”

  • Finding someone you can control.

  • Finding someone you want to change.

  • Hiring a change agent.

  • Throwing out what is working along with what is not working.

  • Hiring whoever interviews well.

  • Believing your job is done after you hire the new person.

  • Failing to create a transition plan.

  • Relying upon existing job pool.

  • Making saving money your top priority.

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