Superintendent Core Competencies

May 24th, 2018 | Category: Lutheran Education Commentary, Research in Education, Secondary Education
By Robert K. Wilhite, Craig A. Schilling, Jeffrey Brierton, and Daniel R. Tomal

This article is taken from Leading With Resolve and Mastery, 2017. It is reprinted here by kind permission of Rowman & Littlefield, publishers.

The concept of leadership traits has been well covered in the literature of educational leadership. The challenges faced by the modern school superintendent demand more than just traits. Today, the effective school leader must demonstrate effective core competencies that get results. While a few of these competencies may be exclusive to the work of the school superintendent, most cut across the broad spectrum of competencies inherent to any executive leadership role.

More directly said, this article presents twelve research-based core competencies that apply to superintendents and executives in leading any organization. Figure 1.1 illustrates the twelve core superintendent/executive competencies. These competencies are interrelated but, under closer examination, also present inherent challenges for the article.

Figure 1.1 Core competencies of school leaders.

Core competency #1: School Governance

Collaborating with school district board members in policy development

Effective school superintendents have always had to be highly competent in managing schools and leading school boards to craft policy and govern the district. This will undoubtedly remain a high priority of all superintendents and school boards into the future. For many, a source of confusion is an understanding of who actually “runs” the district. Is it the school board or the superintendent? The answer is simple. While superintendents are responsible for many aspect of the operation of the district, they report to and serve at the pleasure of the Board of Education. The superintendent is then, the agent of the Board of Education.

Core competency #2: School law

Understanding legal issues impacting district policy and operations

One of the most intimidating dilemmas of school leadership, and any corporate leadership as well, and certainly for the superintendent, is the need to follow the law closely while recognizing their own inadequacy regarding the intricacies of those same laws. Unless the superintendent has a law degree, which is rare, he or she will frequently consult with the attorney who represents school district when in doubt as to how to proceed. When asked how he or she ensures the law is being followed, some superintendents have been known to remark, “I keep our attorney on speed dial.”

Regardless of the access to attorney advice, a core competency for any superintendent is a broad but working knowledge of the legal issues that may impact district policies and operations. This may include laws that impact employment, human resource policies such as hiring, firing, and disciplinary action for students and staff, along with inevitable rounds of collective bargaining negotiations. Special education brings its own byzantine collection of legal issues that can change from year to year. Health and welfare issues regarding immunization requirements, medical and personal records for students and staff and, of course, the need to ensure confidentiality of both must be considered within the context of the law.

Core competency #3: Instructional Leadership

Demonstrating proactive, engaged leadership for district improvement of instruction

The role of the modern superintendent has evolved considerably over the last several decades. Once relegated to largely policy implementation and data gathering, the twenty-first century superintendent faces a plethora of new and ever changing K-12 standards, as well as increased accountability and global comparison. The leadership of curriculum, instruction, and assessment issues is now included in the duties of superintendents, casting them in new roles as instructional leaders. Effective superintendents are wise to recognize that student achievement data will now dominate their professional conversations and can have a profound effect on their schools and district.

It is important to note that even the most effective superintendent cannot be an expert in curriculum, instruction, and assessment for all subjects and all grade levels. In a shared leadership model, subordinate professionals will lead in these areas. But the effective superintendent recognizes the importance of being proactive, involved, and engaged. Most of all, effective superintendents must ensure that effective knowledge delivery systems are being consistently used across the school organization. Figure 1.2 illustrates the integrated nature of the components of the district model for knowledge and skill delivery systems.

Figure 1.2 Comparison of the school leader core competencies and ELLC and ISLLC standards.

To do that, they must know how to identify modern and relevant curricula, best instructional practices, the most authentic assessments, and the technology systems necessary to support these three important elements. The superintendent’s foundational knowledge of all four components will be greatly enhanced by consulting, collaborating with, and engaging those professionals directly involved in that knowledge delivery system.

Core competency #4: Resource management

Managing financial, facility, and human resources, processes, and regulations

The superintendent is the steward of taxpayer dollars which, in turn, provide the resources necessary to operate the district. Superintendents have a fiduciary responsibility to manage these resources in an ethical and responsible manner. This includes financial resources such as state aid, grants, tuition payments, academic and athletic fees, activity fees, and any other money that flows through the district. While the superintendent may rely on an assistant superintendent for business, or on a business manager, the ultimate responsibility for the proper use of financial resources rests with the superintendent.

It is fair to say that most superintendents who find themselves in trouble do so because of the misuse of financial resources. This trouble typically results from improper co-mingling of money, use of district finances for personal use, improper use of grant money, or failure to accurately and honestly report to the state the manner in which financial resources are being used. Regardless of who has the direct responsibility for financial management, the superintendent, as the chief executive, would be wise to trust, but also verify that trust.

Core competency #5: Vision Leadership

Leading and motivating staff to achieve school and district improvement goals

Of all the competencies, the need to lead and motivate staff, or what some have called the vision thing presents the greatest challenge and, some might argue, is in short supply among too many of today’s superintendents. Vision might be the most difficult competency to explain to the aspiring superintendent. One might begin by saying that the superintendent, as manager, sees only what is, what currently exists. The superintendent, as a true leader, sees the district as it might be. Or, as Robert Kennedy said, “Some people see things as they are and ask why, I see things that never were and ask why not” (Kennedy, 1968).

Visionary superintendents have the ability to imagine what the district can accomplish together. They have the ability to craft a vision with their stakeholders and then articulate and declare that vision proudly and publicly. They provide a compass for school improvement, ensuring that everyone in the organization remains focused on the vision. They are the cheerleader for the vision. The superintendent is the one who lifts the organization back into good standing when failures—and there will be failures—occur.

Most importantly, they inspire. They inspire others toward the vision. Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last, noted that in 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, in his “I have a dream” speech, did not say, “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream” (Sinek, 2014). Truly effective superintendents recognize that vision drives the plan, not the other way around. School improvement begins with vision and a compelling imagination of what the district might ultimately become.

Core competency #6: Change leadership

Leading and managing school and district change initiatives

Closely related to vision is the core competency of change leadership. It is unlikely that a new superintendent will be asked to maintain the status quo. If he or she is  following a failed or underperforming superintendent, they will be asked to repair the damage done and to move the district forward. If they follow a successful superintendent, they will be asked to continue the work and advance the improvement of the district. Either way, change and leading change will be embedded in the work of the superintendent. More than merely introducing change, the superintendent must be able to lead and sustain the conversation about change and convince stakeholders that change is in the best interests of the district and the community.

Effective superintendents will need to understand the nature of change and its likely effect on the entire school community. Many well-intentioned superintendents, who have failed after attempting to disrupt a long-standing status quo, often lament that they did not anticipate the visceral, negative reaction of faculty, staff and, in particular, their unions. By understanding the impact of change on the organization, effective superintendents tap into the school organization’s capacity not only for change, but also for the rate of change. They can anticipate the organizational angst as change occurs. Savvy superintendents understand that old political axiom that perception is reality and that optics matter.

Core competency #7: Communication

Communicating to school district faculty, staff, and stakeholders

Communication has always been a core competency for school leaders, including superintendents as well as leaders of any organization. Examine any book on leadership in the last twenty years and it will surely include many pages on the importance of communication. The effective superintendent recognizes that communication has evolved much like the job itself. Once upon a time, the superintendent communicated by way of staff meetings, memoranda, and newsletters. Today, the explosion of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, automated voice and email messaging, websites, and smart phone technology has opened up a myriad of new opportunities to communicate across a wider spectrum of stakeholders than ever before.

The savvy superintendent also knows that these same technological tools can be a blessing and a curse. Information travels farther than ever before. This may inhibit the superintendent from making prudent, well-thought-out decisions before the people affected by the decision are demanding answers. The need to manage a crisis before it shows up on Facebook or Twitter challenges the superintendent to embed new protocols into the culture of the school organization. Doing so will challenge even the most experienced leaders. Information shared on social media may travel well beyond its desired location. In addition, the over-use of automated calls and emails to parents can quickly numb them to their importance and be ignored much like traditional print messages or letters sent home.

Core competency #8: Strategic planning

Developing and establishing school district performance goals

Today, a core competency and responsibility of a superintendent is to lead the process of strategic planning for the district. The board of education will look to the superintendent to educate, guide, and lead them and the community in this very important process. The process will require the gathering of needs-assessment data from all stakeholders, convening a strategic-planning committee comprised of a representation of those stakeholders and then bringing them all together to build the plan.

The strategic plan will serve as the overarching vision statement for the district. Once formed, the strategic-planning committee will be tasked with setting goals and a process to achieve them. The completed and board-approved strategic plan will likely span three to five years and if vibrant, will serve as a living document and a touchstone for the entire school community as the work of school improvement moves forward.

Core competency #9: School data management

Interpreting and using assessment and other school data

In today’s high-stakes-testing environment, with so much public scrutiny on both district academic and financial data, the effective superintendent will need a thorough understanding of how data are gathered, interpreted, and used. Data-driven decision-making now anchors most strategic planning in school districts across the country. Data must be gathered effectively. More importantly, it must be easily analyzed and “speak” to school professionals in understandable ways that will assist them in adjusting curriculum, instruction, and assessment strategies. Districts who fail to amass and report understandable data will quickly find themselves drowning in data with no ability to leverage those data for change and improvement.

Today, it would be difficult to find an educational leader who disputes the value of using accurate data in the decision-making process. School professionals across the country are using empirical data to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and evaluation. The challenge for the effective superintendent will be to recognize the need to embed the use of data in the district culture while, at the same time, ensuring the thoughtful and reflective use of less empirical metrics, sometimes called evidence, to measure success and outcomes. Such evidence might include experience, intuition, judgment, collaboration, observational information, and the more artful aspects of teaching.

Core competency #10: Community relations

Developing positive relationships and partnerships with community members

Once upon a time, a primary responsibility, and a board of education expectation of superintendents was their interaction and relationship building with the community. While that role still certainly exists, the emerging role of the superintendent as instructional leader has altered that dynamic somewhat. In addition to a long list of responsibilities, the superintendent is expected to be the chief instructional leader for the district. Ensuring a high quality of teaching and learning, once largely the responsibility of principals, now has been added to the superintendent’s job description. New and better technology and communication tools also have expanded and enhanced the relationship between the superintendent and the community.

The greatest community-relations challenge for the effective, twenty-first century superintendent will be to leverage the power of community involvement to enhance school-district improvement and support. In a very real sense, today’s superintendent is now the chief public-relations officer for the district. With financial resources dwindling, the superintendent must educate the community on the cost of a world-class education and what such an education will do for the future of their children.

Competency #11: Diverse-learner strategies

Ensuring effective instruction for diverse learners

As the chief instructional leader for the school district, the effective superintendent must ensure that the needs of all learners are being consistently and effectively served. In addition to the mainstream group of learners, superintendents and their boards of education face a growing challenge to meet the needs of additional groups of diverse learners who require specialized services. These groups are illustrated in figure 1.3. This includes special education students, gifted students, English learners (EL), and early childhood learners. Embedded in these four major diverse learner groups shown are also groups known as subsets that include minority students, students in poverty, students with social-emotional struggles, and students who consistently struggle for a variety of reasons.

The four groups of diverse learners and their subsets all require awareness, advocacy, and creative solutions to ensure that they are fully included in the broader learning community. Superintendents, as leaders of the whole district, must have both an acute awareness of these diverse learning groups, as well as deep understanding of their needs. They must become the champions of all students by ensuring that curriculum, instruction, and assessments incorporate strategies that fully recognize and meet the needs of diverse learners.

The effective superintendent, as a true servant leader, must be fully prepared to represent and advocate for these and any other student groups in the school who may have been historically under served. Doing so will test the ability of the superintendent to balance the resources of the district to ensure equity for all students. Striking an equitable balance in a world of shrinking resources will require a very special leader.

Competency #12: Collaboration

Building a collaborative culture across the school organization

Of all the superintendent competencies, none is more important than the ability to foster collaboration across the district. The concept of professional learning communities, when effectively implemented, has transformed many school districts into learning organizations where professionals gather together to analyze and act on data and evidence. The superintendent must be able to clearly articulate what it means to be a professional learning community. He or she must clarify what it means to be a learning organization and define collaboration as co-labor where professionals share effective practices and are mutually accountable to each other for positive outcomes for students.

The effective superintendent recognizes that consensus will not be achieved by mere declaration; that it is not enough to simply announce that the district will be a professional learning community where collaboration will be the key. Consensus must be actively and consistently fashioned over time. Martin Luther King once remarked that, “a genuine leader is not a seeker of consensus but a molder of consensus” (King, 1967).

Richard Dufour, noted author on the topic of professional learning communities, explains the professional learning community phenomenon this way: “The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools” (Dufour, et al., 2010).

Use of common language to describe the professional learning community is important, especially when it comes to understanding the integration of the professional-learning-community model across the district. Effective superintendents understand and can clearly articulate this model to all sections of the school organization as well as its stakeholders. As the model in figure 1.4 shows, the district as a whole makes up the greater professional learning community. The building is comprised of smaller learning communities comprised of grade levels, or departments or divisions. More deeply embedded are small teams of teachers acting as professional learning teams who are laser focused on curriculum content, instructional delivery, and assessment development and analysis of the data they generate.

The effective superintendent knows that this model reflects a true professional learning community. It is a process, not a program, and defines the inter-relational nature of the professional work of educators. As the professional-learning-community collaborative culture evolves over time, much of the decision-making is driven down to a small team of professionals. Within the larger community, the superintendent utilizes smaller teams of teachers, professional-leaning teams, to gather, analyze, and act on the data. Building-level school leaders, also acting as their own collaborative team, guide the professional-learning teams and ensure accountability for collaboration and outcome.

The professional-learning community/professional-learning-team model takes time to develop. However, the most effective superintendents foster a district culture where professionals possess a sense of urgency, a bias for action, one where they recognize that every professional is accountable, first to one another and then to the broader community. That each member of the team has a responsibility to honor their commitment to each other and by extension, to all of their students.

Effective superintendents must ensure that there is a deep and common understanding of the collaborative model across the district; that there is a shared commitment to creating a learning school as opposed to a teaching school. A learning school is focused on and serves the needs of students. A teaching school focuses, either accidentally or deliberately, on the needs of the adults in the organization. Superintendents must drive out the fear in the organization so that faculty and staff are empowered to speak truth to power, are not afraid to innovate, and are comfortable engaging each other honestly and with candor.

The core challenge for the superintendent, then, is to foster a culture where everyone in the district recognizes a common accountability for collaboration. Effective superintendents foster a collaborative culture where all the professionals in the district recognize that the era of the independent educator is over and that twentieth-century schools in our new, flat world must become laboratories of shared commitment, true collaboration, and bold innovation. LEJ


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Author Information

Robert K. Wilhite, Ed.D. is a Professor of Leadership, the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University Chicago and former Chair of the Department of Leadership. He serves on the Illinois Licensure Board, Principal and Superintendent Review Panels, evaluating the design of university principal and superintendent preparation programs in Illinois.

Jeffrey T. Brierton, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor of leadership at Concordia University Chicago. He is a former teacher, administrator, and high school principal, and interim superintendent. He received his Ph.D. in American History from Loyola University. Dr. Brierton teaches leadership courses and is a university supervisor for the CUC principal internship program.

Craig A. Schilling, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Concordia University Chicago. He has been a public school administrator, systems analyst and CEO. He has consulted with numerous school districts. He is a past president of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

Daniel R. Tomal, Ph.D. is a Distinguished Professor of Leadership at Concordia University Chicago. He is a former school administrator, high school teacher, and corporate consultant.