No diplomas, plaques, or family photos adorn the walls of Harold Boyden's office. The sole photograph depicts a serene seacoast fishing village. In the corner on the console, the computer screen is blank. (Is it even plugged in?)
A manual typewriter might look more appropriate, for this is the office of a man who has thrived through 30 years of school district leadership. Over those years, he has seen too many changes to count: in names on office doors, in technology, and in school practices.
This office is certainly no shrine to Boyden's success. It is hardly even a tribute to his tenure, and barely an indication of his leadership in the organization. It is, however, a far cry from his first office as a district leader in the 1960s. When Boyden became assistant superintendent of Chittenden East Supervisory Union, he worked out of an office in the cellar of the superintendent's house. Not a damp, musty cellar, but a cellar nonetheless.
Boyden fondly recalls morning meetings, when his boss would shuffle in wearing slippers and pajamas, having slept in after a late night board meeting. At that time, the district was made up of 3 high schools and 11 elementary schools, and there was no centralized anything. Boyden laughs about receiving seven different paychecks every month, because each town saw him as its own employee. He wistfully recalls the limited expectations of school boards and the general public for central administrators in those days: supervise staff, attend board meetings, file state and federal reports.
Boyden fulfilled those expectations well enough that, after just three years, he had the opportunity to become superintendent. In this day of costly search committees, advertising, and professional headhunters—which often take months of planning—Boyden's advancement was disarmingly simple.
He had applied for and won a principalship in another community. It was a Friday, and Boyden was finishing his final day of work as an assistant superintendent. Unbeknownst to him, his own boss had also completed his last day of work. The superintendent had made no mention of his plans to leave the district.
Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the board chair called Boyden at home, explained the situation, and asked him in that evening for an interview. On Monday morning, Boyden reported to work, not as principal of a new school but as superintendent of his old district. Three days—from Friday at close of business to Monday morning—was all it had taken for this district to claim its new leader.
The good news was that Boyden's office was no longer in a cellar. The bad news was that it had no furniture: “No equipment, no desk, no chair, nothing, zero!”
A Planter of Seeds
Ask Boyden what it means to be a leader, and he shifts uncomfortably in his chair. (The current office has a chair.) He runs a hand across his lined face and hitches his belt before answering:
Actually, I don't think of myself as a leader. The term leader makes me think of a person who makes speeches, and I don't do that. I plant seeds.
I spend time planning where I want myself and the organization to go. I talk with people in the parking lot and in the hallways.... There may be people who don't feel they can stop me in the hall to talk, but I don't think so.
And clearly he hopes not. He wants people to feel his investment and, in turn, to invest themselves: “My role is talking with people, borrowing ideas if they fit. I'm not the idea person. We have lots of idea people.”
Clearly, people are key to Boyden's style of leadership:
I'm not one who motivates through speeches. I work best with small groups. My job is to hire quality people, provide the environment for them to work, and get out of their way.
With visible pride, Boyden says that he “still interviews every candidate hired for any professional position.”
I tend not to hire people looking for a job to retire in—although sometimes they do, and that's OK too.
Diversity, Boyden insists, is important to the district's administrative team. “There's nothing that an entire group of people will agree on, even whether the sun is out.” He actively seeks that diversity and depends on it when processing ideas and making decisions. Quick to deflect any accolades, Boyden adds that he doesn't “have a need for people to recognize something as my idea. I'd rather someone else get credit”:
Like when Camel's Hump Middle School was recognized as a Federal Blue-Ribbon School, and a team had to go to Washington. I was pushed to go, but refused. They eventually selected the school secretary instead of me—and they should have.
Relationships with these indispensable people are a vital ingredient of Boyden's leadership theory and practice. Actually, he would probably dismiss the idea of leadership theory as merely so much equine excrement. To him, leadership is all practice, and good personal relationships are key:
Not just with teachers and principals. For example, when a new custodian called with a problem, I went to the school and climbed up on the roof with him. Well, actually, not onto the roof, just to the top of the ladder ... it mattered to him. It was an investment for me.
Boyden is quick to add that some may view that kind of investment as manipulation. But this is not deceitful maneuvering, he explains, any more than what goes on in any human relationship. In other words, you don't do something kind just to get something in return, but sometimes it turns out that a generous act benefits the giver, as well as the receiver.
On the other hand, Boyden will readily engage in maneuvering in some situations. The example he offers illustrates his values, style, and practices.
Several years ago, Boyden maintained that the district should keep standardized testing “until something better comes along, but some principals believed very differently, two in particular.” Boyden didn't want to lose his point, but he did want to avoid a potentially harmful battle with the two administrators. He chose instead to maneuver the system at the policy level:
I managed to get the Executive Committee to reassign the board committee so that the policy for testing came to a committee I sat on. I was able to deal with the board members at the policy level without banging heads with administrators. I then talked to the administrators who cared the most, and we worked out a compromise.
A Legacy of Leadership
This example reveals three tools that are important to Boyden as a leader: picking your fights, knowing when to compromise, and delegating when appropriate. About the first, he cites two personal rules of thumb: (1) “Is it worth the fight?” and (2) If it is worth it, “I don't take on the whole group unless I have to. I'll talk to key players to see how strongly people feel and why.”
Doing this can often lead to his second tool: compromise. “I was more like a dictator when I was younger,” Boyden recalls, “It's still not a complete democracy, but somewhere in between.”
He still plays the benevolent dictator, however, if necessary. For instance, recalling a continuous two-year cycle of report card revisions, he says, “In my biased opinion, the one that worked best was when I just decreed a change.”
Delegation is the third tool Boyden relies on, although he admits it is not his strong suit: “I delegate more than I used to, but you can't delegate and forget.” He designates authority within certain parameters, but not many surprise entrepreneurships spring up around him. Boyden knows what's going on, and he wants you to know he knows.
Knowing what's going on, he adds, is geometrically more complex now than in the halcyon days of his cellar office. But it's still important to him. And it is a challenge compounded by the public's ever-increasing expectations:
Parent and community involvement is awfully important, but it's a double-edged sword. You have that many more voices to help make decisions. We've got groups for everything. People today have more commitment to their causes.
The flip side of that coin is that there are more voices to disagree and to block decisions from being made in a timely manner. “There's no one way,” Boyden says, to successfully deal with those publics and their issues. The annual school budget is an obvious issue that brings many voices to the decision-making table. In Boyden's view, budget not only “dictates what we do,” but “expresses our philosophy of what is important.”
Consequently, Boyden believes that the budget must belong to the board: “I don't feel a need for it to be my budget. I want it to be theirs.” He pauses, then chuckles, “Of course, some boards take that too literally!” Once again, he prefers to spread out the ownership, the responsibility, and, presumably, the commitment.
It is Boyden's sense of ownership, responsibility, and commitment to goals that illustrates another vital ingredient of his leadership. As he said earlier, he spends time planning where he and the organization want to go: “How do I get the group from point A to point B?” Even with his desire for shared goals, Boyden would “hate to win all the battles; I'd have nothing to work on. That's like saying, 'We're there.' Educationally speaking, I don't think we should ever feel that we're there.”
Wrapping Up a Lifetime in Schools
Boyden's personal sense of goals and his need to set goals slightly beyond reach is poignantly clear when he talks about the end of his final year as superintendent. “I hope that at the end of this year, I have just as many things I didn't get to and wanted to” as at the end of any other year.
For Boyden, part of leadership is never being satisfied, though he proudly claims huge gains for the profession as a whole:
We're 400 percent better educationally as a profession than 20 years ago—despite so-called experts claiming we haven't done anything right during that time.
Whether he's talking about the last 20 years of the profession or the last 30 years of his tenure as a school leader, he constantly returns to what is obviously the theme of his leadership sense:
It's the people you work with. What else is there? I enjoy the day job; I enjoy the night job. But having both lately is too much.
When asked to reflect about his legacy, he says:
They'll only remember, talk about my work for a year or two. I know it's a better system than when I got here, better than five years ago. And I hope it will be even better five years from now.
As the Applause Fades Out
How will Boyden handle his retirement the final few months? Is he counting the days? “Hell, no. I'm counting the meetings!”
“The worst part,” he anticipates, “is the parties and the standing ovations at school meetings. I'm much more comfortable with criticism than with compliments,” he says.
As the applause accompanying the final standing ovation drifts out the windows of the high school auditorium, what will he be thinking about? Perhaps the tranquil seacoast fishing village depicted in the only photograph on his office wall?
Boyden makes explicit, with only a few words, what the lack of diplomas, plaques, and photographs in his office only suggests about his self-image as a leader. “All I've done is what I thought I could, and they paid me for it. That's it.”
Edward R. Wilkens, a prinicipal in Vermong for 11 years, is a Staff Associate at the Northeast Regional Resource Center. He can be reached at RD 1, Box 200, Enosburg Falls, VT 05450.
Harold Boyden is a retired superintendent, P.O. Box 103, Richmond, VT 05477.