Navigating the leadership churn: A 3-part guide for a future-ready education system

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd

As the world emerges from the lingering shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic, the educational sector faces an unexpected and ongoing aftershock: a dramatic turnover in leadership at all levels. For the first time in our profession’s history, there has been an alarming rate of retirements and lateral moves within administrative positions, all happening in quick succession. While personnel transitions are not uncommon in any field, the factors contributing to this sweeping change are both diverse and interconnected.

The most obvious cause is the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Leaders who took the helm during the crisis now face the stress of “rebuilding” rather than “sustaining” school systems. The shift has been significant, requiring a completely different skill set. Those who stepped up to lead during the pandemic faced unimaginable challenges, from shifting to remote learning almost overnight to implementing safety protocols, all while keeping the educational machinery running.

However, as the world transitions to a post-pandemic phase, the leadership stressors have evolved from crisis management to reconstruction. Now, the task is not just to keep the ship afloat but to potentially redesign it altogether. This shift in responsibility and focus is significant and calls for a wholly different skill set. Where once the emphasis might have been on maintaining established curricula and administrative processes, the priority now includes reimagining educational delivery, reevaluating long-standing policies and, perhaps most crucially, rebuilding community trust.

Thus, the role has expanded in scope and complexity, requiring educational leaders to be not just managers, but visionaries, strategists and architects of a new, more resilient system. Additionally, societal polarization has infiltrated school boards and administrative discussions, adding an emotional toll to an already exhaustive list of responsibilities.

The ever-growing technical demands, including the incorporation of Artificial Intelligence in educational settings, are an added burden. This is not a value statement of good or bad, simply a recognition of resource consumption. The paradigm shift in required skills has triggered a need for rapid learning and adaptability.

Finally, the gradual transition of the Baby Boomer generation into retirement has opened up positions but has also taken away decades of experience and institutional knowledge. All of these elements create a perfect storm for leadership volatility.

“Turtles on fenceposts”: The emerging challenge

Many years ago, in my first year as a superintendent, I had a mentor who told me I was a “turtle on a fencepost.” He made two important points. First, a turtle in this position didn’t get there by itself. Second, it is only a matter of time until they will be knocked off!

He was a gruff, plainspoken, and brilliant man. His point was well taken and stands true today. The current scenario can aptly be described as a multitude of “turtles on fenceposts,” and paints a vivid picture.

It is helpful to remember that like a turtle on a fencepost, we understand that many of the new leaders didn’t reach their positions without external help. Moreover, like the turtle precariously positioned, they are vulnerable and will eventually need additional support to remain in place and be effective.

The challenge at hand is dual layered. On one level, new leaders often lack the technical skills required to navigate complex educational ecosystems. This gap may include a lack of understanding of legal frameworks, budgetary planning or the integration of new technologies. On another level, these individuals could benefit immensely from executive coaching, aimed at honing soft skills like effective communication, decision-making, and leadership philosophy. In a previous article, I wrote about different networks (social, strategic and growth) where I describe this concept in more detail.

This is not a slight on their capabilities but rather an acknowledgment of the unique and challenging times we are in. Even the most competent leaders can benefit from mentorship and continuous learning to navigate these unprecedented challenges. We find ourselves at a unique crossroads: We have never needed technical and executive support more than now, and we are seeing a mass exodus of that support we so desperately need.

Support Systems: State associations and beyond

Traditionally, state educational associations have served as invaluable support systems, offering localized solutions and resources. These support systems and resources are critical for our success within a local and state context. However, the modern challenges necessitate a more expansive support network as well. One that transcends state boundaries. It is important to point out, I am not describing a “supplant” mindset, but a “supplement” mindset.

District Administration Leadership Institute (DALI) provides a well-rounded approach to this leadership support. Many leaders are first introduced to DALI at a national event, where they find a mix of technical best practices, a showcase of available industry resources, and a healthy dose of thought leadership. Those who dive deeper into the DALI culture recognize the opportunity to secure customized support. You can learn more about this through the website or by contacting any of the folks at DALI.

Call to Action: The imperative of seeking support

Navigating the current leadership landscape without a safety net is not just risky—it’s imprudent. The only wrong move in this volatile environment is not to seek support. Whether through state associations or national institutes like DALI, school leaders have multiple avenues for acquiring the tools they need to succeed.

Your leadership journey is not one you must walk alone. Tap into these support systems to provide your schools, your staff, and ultimately, your students, with the resilient and adaptive leadership they need. Accept that the dynamics of educational leadership are in flux and that leaning on a support network is not a sign of weakness but a step towards collective strength and stability.

Let us shed the precariousness of being a ‘turtle on a fencepost’ by actively seeking support and mentorship. Take the first step; reach out for the help that is readily available. Because in these turbulent times, collective wisdom and collaborative effort aren’t just advisable—they’re indispensable.

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd
Dr. Quintin “Q” Shepherd is a seasoned public-school superintendent with 18 years of experience serving in three states. He began his career in education as a school custodian, became a PreK-12 music teacher, and served as an elementary principal before serving as a high school principal. Q has made significant contributions to the education sector and is recognized for his exceptional leadership skills. In addition to his professional achievements, Q is also an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston- Victoria, imparting his knowledge and expertise to the next generation of educational leaders. He is the author of the highly acclaimed and best-selling book "The Secret to Transformational Leadership", which has been widely celebrated for its insights into effective leadership and is considered a must-read for anyone seeking to make a difference in the world of education.