The position of school district superintendent is complex, situational and nuanced.
Hiring a superintendent is often simplistic, universal, and one-dimensional.
That delta may be one reason the average time on the job for superintendents is so short. Maybe district leaders look for the wrong things when they hire a CEO.
If you were to compare school district superintendents to the general population, I strongly suspect you would find that they are more likely to be tall, attractive, white, male, poised, extroverted, and articulate. Here are photos of the first eight superintendents I could find who serve in El Paso County, Colorado—the greater Colorado Springs area. Certainly, our community contributes to the more homogenous nature of this pool, but many more diverse locales are led by a group of similar constitution.
I'm not trying to reinforce a superintendent stereotype, but these folks have a lot in common. They are generally photogenic, confident, good in front of a group, extroverted, etc. I have no quarrel with anyone pictured above, though I know some of them personally and work indirectly for one of them. Their names don't matter. Their characteristics do. Superintendent folks are almost always "alpha's" both in the sense of being a leader of the wolfpack and in the sense of coming from the highest caste, à la Huxley's Brave New World.
Among the group above are politicians, athletic stars, award-winners, journalists and authors. They tend to be verbal and insightful—especially with limited preparation. They shine in the kinds of interviews and open houses that are common in most superintendent hiring processes.
But are they the best fit? Some say no.
Superintendents are educational CEO's. As such, they are subject to the myth of the charismatic, heroic CEO. As Collins and Porras point out in Built to Last, their brilliant study of industry-leading firms, the best companies in each industry were six times more likely to promote insiders than their high-performing competition. (Emphasis in the original) Community members, teaches, and especially board members have a long-standing preference for hiring people that fit the image. Although these leaders are more than teeth and hair, I'd be willing to bet that they are not the presumptive leaders on paper. In fact, in my limited experience around two dozen superintendent hires, the best candidates on paper almost never got the nod. The best candidate in the interview—the most likable or inspirational—that's who wins.
In fact, if you want to hire a traditional superintendent, I'll save you a lot of money. Simply have candidates submit a two-minute video in which they explain their vision for the district. Post the videos online, have people vote, and there's your sup. Do diligence with references and a background check, but you'll probably end up hiring the same person you would have hired after a traditional process anyway. Why is that? (For one answer, refer to "Thin-Slicing" as explained by Gladwell in Blink.
For another perspective, think about how we arrive at the board vote.
The start is almost always selection of a search firm. Search firms cast a wide net, filter aggressively, and then present a short slate of candidates. Boards interview, present to the community, solicit feedback and select finalists. They choose, negotiate and hire. By the time the process narrows to a few candidates, the system has usually weeded out those slow to speak, "unimpressive," reserved candidates who don't sparkle in large-group settings. The betas are gone and the alphas survive. Usually, if a person is more reserved and not charismatic they don't have a chance—unless that person is an internal candidate who has proven his or her worth over time.
Depending on the life cycle of the school, and the particular challenges of the district, a solid, administrative-minded candidate might be just right. I've written and presented for years on the importance of recognizing and adapting leadership to life cycle dynamics. For example, your strategic planning and strategic hiring should vary greatly depending on whether your school is in a growth cycle or a stagnation phase. Based on that insight, it is highly unusual to find a circumstance where the celebrity superintendent is the best choice. Although their focus is on business, Collins and Porras found only 4% of the CEO's at great companies came from outside the organization.
If you are involved in the decision about hiring a new superintendent, first examine the process. If you follow the traditional model I can predict with high certainty that you will hire a traditional candidate—one who looks right for the role. Please go deeper. Even if you don't get it right, you can reset and look again.