Real Leaders Sit in the Back Seat of the Car

They say leadership is not about position, title, or authority. Instead, it’s about influencing others and bringing out their best. Yet, when I became a school district superintendent, I noticed people started treating me differently than I had ever been treated, and I knew it had everything to do with my position, title, and line of authority. My values hadn’t changed, but people didn’t know my beliefs. They didn’t know who I was, where I came from, or how I came to be their leader, really. They only knew what they read and what they had heard. But that was all so cursory. I felt if they could come to know the real me, they would understand that differential treatment isn’t something I desire or appreciate. If they could come to know me for who I am as a person and not just my title, they would understand that I am about people – all people – sharing a sense of belonging, value, and purpose. If they knew this about me, they would be on board with my ‘why’.

So to build this bridge of understanding, I met with staff members at each school and in every department early on, explained my small-town, humble upbringing, and clarified the reasons I wanted everyone to call me JoEtta instead of Dr. Gonzales. I let them know I could be called Dr. Gonzales when being addressed in front of students, as I wanted our students to know and understand the superintendent had a certain level of expertise about leading their school system. But I wanted to be called JoEtta when we worked collaboratively or ran into one another casually in the school setting or out and about in the community. I tried to impress upon people the beliefs I have about importance; and how we are all equally significant in achieving our mission of ‘success for every one’. I wove in stories that grounded my beliefs in examples folks could see themselves in, and genuinely tried to paint a portrait of myself as a leader who cared about bringing out the best in others. But the truth is, it didn’t matter what stories I told or what words I chose to use. People had developed patterns of expectation for their school superintendent, and they were going to continue with their traditions until I was able to prove my actions matched my words.

In many school district leadership structures, the superintendent holds a position of power that is seen as ‘higher up’ on the organizational chart. In fact, an expression I’ve heard a number of individuals use as they’ve traversed a number of positions within their career in education is they worked their way ‘up’ to principal, director, and superintendent roles. I’ve also heard the superintendency called the ‘top’ position in the district. The idea of positionality comes to mind as I think about the role of superintendent. Where it sits within the organizational structure has implications about the person occupying the position; their personal values, views, and how they come to understand the enormous responsibility and power they hold over others.

In my experience, I’ve seen this power cause leaders to become overly obsessed with outcomes and control, and as a result, employees can feel like they are taken for granted. This distance causes teachers and education support professionals to feel as though the superintendent is out of touch and unconcerned with their day-to-day reality. As a consequence, people stop feeling positive emotions about their workplace, and their drive to learn and go the extra distance is stifled. This type of top-down leadership is outdated, and more importantly, I believe it is counterproductive. When school superintendents focus too much on control and results, and not enough on the people within our organization, we are making it more difficult to achieve the equitable outcomes for students that we desire.

The key is to create the conditions so all can feel purposeful, motivated, and energized. There are lots of ways to go about this, but one of the ways I’ve found to be best is to adopt a humble mindset and pursue the principles of inclusive leadership. Superintendents who are humble and inclusive focus primarily on the growth and well-being of their employees and students. While traditional school district leadership is generally more concerned with the power held by the individual at the “top of the pyramid,” inclusive leadership is about sharing power and putting the needs of others first in order to achieve school district goals.

Now, some might see humility and inclusive leadership as flimsy or weak. These are the individuals consumed with power and control. I’d argue they are steeped in management paradigms instead of the principles of quality leadership. Inclusive leadership emphasizes the responsibility the leader has to increase ownership, autonomy, and responsibility for the collective whole — to encourage ALL to think for themselves, try out their own ideas, and contribute meaningfully in order to strengthen the organization. Humility creates space for improvement and brings people together. A humble and inclusive leader understands that s/he has a great deal to learn about people and ideas that are different.  Top-down leadership slows or even stops the learning process, but humility and inclusivity promotes it.

Superintendents that have the humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others at various levels of the system, actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve; including those who have been disenfranchised. This is how they create a culture of learning and an atmosphere that encourages teachers, staff members, and students to become the very best they can be. It is also how they inspire individuals to invest in and own the change that needs to occur.

Here are some steps to get you started:

Confront the Status Quo

If leadership is truly about bringing out the best in others, then leaders need to be prepared to confront the culture that sets them apart, treats them differently, and rolls out the red carpet when they come to visit. Do so by being familiar and showing up unexpectedly. Reinforce those who demonstrate the same respect for you as they do others.  Make sure to enlist the ideas of others when making decisions – and truly listen and give credit when those ideas come from someone outside the leadership hierarchy.

Most people would probably agree that integrity demands that all of us try not only to “talk the talk” but to “walk the walk.” Humble and inclusive leadership demands that we call out these behaviors, and seek to ensure that all individuals are treated with high levels of respect and dignity. Do this by thinking about how underrepresented groups feel each day as they come into your buildings. What is it about your workplace culture that silently restricts them? Are there policies or practices that make them feel unwelcome or unappreciated?

Take some time to have a conversation with new employees. Learn from them about what it’s like working in your school district from their perspective. Get the facts, put processes in place to dismantle the status quo, and create better approaches that reflect your vision.

Be Humble

Humble leaders acknowledge the value and worth of those that work for and with them. Do so by demonstrating respect, and stepping into their shoes, even for brief periods of time. The results can be win-win! In the district I lead, our district-level leaders fill in for school level personnel several times a year. It is an expectation that we substitute teach at least three times throughout the school year, and it is not uncommon to see one of us jump in to sweep the cafeteria, pick up trash from the sidewalk, or cross students in the parking lot after school, if needed.

By being willing to step in and do the duties of another, you have the opportunity to demonstrate that every job is important and valuable. You also get the unique opportunity to work alongside employees with whom you might not otherwise get to see or interact. And perhaps even more important, as people see you in a different light, you have the opportunity to convey your own humanity.

Ride in the Back Seat of the Car, Truck, or Van

When traveling in a group to a meeting, conference, or to visit a school, subordinates will have a tendency to defer the front passenger seat to the most senior leader. They do this as a sign of respect. They do it because it has become a cultural norm, and they don’t want to break hierarchical rules of order. However, this is only true when leadership is about ego. It should not be a given.

Insist on sitting in the back seat. This is not symbolic of watching and waiting for things to happen. Nor is it a metaphor for the backseat driver who micro-manages; paying excessive attention to minor details while destroying the mindset of the driver. No. In this instance, occupying the back seat is conveying your desire to dismantle age-old rules of etiquette and blaze new trails. It’s about sending a distinct message about your style of leadership, and your desire to ensure a level playing ground for ideas and creative insight. Finally, it’s about expressing a leadership philosophy that demonstrates shared importance and a willingness to set ego aside for the betterment of the group.  

Next time you’re with a group of leaders, pay attention to the front passenger seat, and see if it is filled automatically or if there is some negotiation about who sits there and why. If you are the most senior leader in your group, encourage someone else to sit in that seat and see what reaction you get. You might be surprised at how the relationship dynamic starts to change for the better. I’d love to know how that works out for you. Stay humble, my friends!

Author: leadershipsoup

I am a learning leader, educator, and equity advocate. I am also the proud Superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District located in Central Arizona. I believe we need to empower students and families by dismantling deficit ideologies and embracing practices that are truly inclusive in nature. I look forward to learning with others as we embark on this journey together.

8 thoughts

  1. Thank you Joetta for having the courage to speak out and lead with integrity. I continue to admire
    Keep up the right fight!


  2. Hi, Joetta! Your article is trending in the WCSD! We are all sharing these words of wisdom to continue to inspire others and re-energize ourselves. I hope you’re smiling and doing well where you are! We miss you.


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