A South Philly Philosophy of Leadership

Published by the American Association of School Administrators

By Joseph P. Batory    (Recipient of the Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators)

One of the first telephone calls I received after becoming the superintendent in Upper Darby, Pa., way back in 1984 was from Guido, the neighborhood South Philadelphia bookie when I was a kid. I hadn’t heard from Guido or anyone else from my Philly past for several years. I didn’t return his repeated calls.

Then I made the mistake of telling my wife that Guido had called. She insisted I talk to him. “Honorable people don’t forget their roots,” she reasoned. I was being dishonorable, she chastised. Maybe so. But I also feared that Guido might want to set up gambling operations or some other illegal endeavor with my 1,000 employees or even the students.

Long-term wives, however, are supreme commanders in situations like these. I telephoned Guido the next day.

“Joey, can’t you get out of this?” Guido inquired. “Me and the guys wuz thinkin’ that it’s always best to follow some bum into a job. Then whatever you do will be better than what went before. That superintendent you’re following was too popular. The timing is bad. Just bag the whole thing!”

“Too late,” I told Guido. For better or worse, I was the new superintendent.

“Well, I guess we knew you were gonna do this thing no matter what we say so we all wish you the very best,” Guido continued. His deep voice softened. “All of your old buddies send their congratulations. We always knew you belonged at the top. You got the brains and the guts.

“Don’t be ordinary, Joey. Make some good things happen for them thousands of students you now got! You only go around once in life, and it’s rare that anyone who comes from where we come from ever gets this chance to do what you’re gonna be doin’. We’ll be rootin’ for ya!”

Lighting My Way

The telephone conversation soon ended. So there I was alone at the top and I didn’t like it. I needed some working tools.

So in finest Socratic tradition I put together my own philosophy of educational administration to light my way in the darkness. It was developed from prolific academic reading while studying at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, firsthand observation of a master superintendent, Mike Maines, and some practical lessons from growing up in South Philadelphia.

Certainly nothing was prescriptive about this menu. It was not a how-to list. But it was a firm set of beliefs and principles to guide my thinking and decision making regarding the million or so challenges I would face. That working philosophy went something like this:

  • Remember that the most important task for a school superintendent is to consistently define and redefine his or her school system–what it believes, what it is trying to do and why it deserves public support.
  • Make students the priority in all planning and decision making. The best possible education for every kid is the target. Let nothing derail this objective.
  • Recognize your feet of clay. Getting to be a superintendent does not bestow either omniscience or infallibility.
  • Laugh at yourself. And never be afraid to admit a mistake.
  • Communicate honestly and in a timely way with all of your constituencies, especially the school board as a key to effective leadership. It is also critical to survival in the superintendency.
  • Delegate: Do not try to solve problems alone. Co-opt key players into dilemmas to make solutions ours not yours. Delegate. Complex problems should be layered to uncomplicate them.
  • Give your administrative staff and especially school principals plenty of rope.
  • Encourage them to take risks and try new things. Always take time to listen to people and their ideas. Support! Encourage! Praise!
  • Give credit where it is due. Sharing the spotlight is the mark of a great leader.
  • Establish your integrity and principles on a daily basis through a thousand different interactions. Credibility cannot be built in time of crisis.
  • Avoid confrontations with teacher unions–a sure formula for disaster. Find common ground; compromise and work together.
  • Fight to get money for your students and your schools.

Firm Beliefs

An effective superintendent is first and foremost a philosopher. Through the myriad of decisions and problems and trials and tribulations that I faced during 15 years as a superintendent, my best weapon was a strongly held philosophy.

School leaders need their own set of firm beliefs about public school administration that can be applied to the complicated day-to-day dilemmas as well as the maze of unforeseen situations that grow out of running a people business. Philosophy drives leadership!



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