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The True Cost of Leadership

People who move into leadership positions immediately become targets for critics. Whether it be increased power, higher salary, or more autonomy, people become jealous of the rewards.

As educational leaders, we are taught to be humble, modest, and unassuming.

We are taught to be servant leaders.

So, when others take shots at the merits of our leadership and complain about the benefits of our positions, we bite our tongues and absorb the criticism. At some point, all the criticism adds up and we buy in to the negativity.

Maybe I am doing something wrong?

Should I feel bad about the perks?

Do I really deserve what I am given?

To lead effectively, we must learn how to handle the rewards of leadership.

The key is not forgetting the work it took to become a leader in the first place.


The path to school administration is simple:

Teach for a minimum number of years

Earn a masters in educational leadership

Apply for administrative jobs

Interview for administrative jobs

Accept an administrative position

Of course, this does not mean teachers are beating down doors to get into administration. School leadership presents a whole different set of expectations. Suddenly, you are expected to communicate to large audiences, make important decisions, be available at all hours, and live under the public microscope.

Beyond those duties, the scrutiny of school leadership makes the job especially difficult. In what other profession are you constantly being questioned by students, parents, community members, the press, and the government? Because they once experienced a K-12 education - some of them decades ago - suddenly everyone is an expert on schools. It should be no surprise school administration is one of the most stressful jobs, with principal turnover rates nearing 20%.

So you're willing to take on these responsibilities? Excellent! Let's discuss the investment needed to reach certain levels of the profession.

In addition to their undergraduate studies, leaders must commit large sums of money and time to complete post-graduate programs ... just to be considered for administrative jobs. Using nationwide averages, consider the initial investments for aspiring school leaders:

Masters degrees cost $25,000 and require two years of additional coursework.

Specialist degrees cost $50,000 and require four years of additional coursework.

PhDs and EdDs cost $75,000 and require six years of additional coursework.

Did I mention coursework is normally completed while maintaining a full-time job?


When folks say they are "shocked" by how much school administrators make, one has to question where these people have been. Public employee salaries have been treated as public record since 1949, meaning anyone with access to a newspaper, school board minutes, or the internet has this information at their fingertips.

One place you hear the biggest complaints is with superintendent salaries. "I can't believe they make so much!" community members gripe as they read the local newspaper.

Let me be clear: You will never, ever hear me complain about pay. Superintendents are paid handsomely for a job that is extremely motivating. We get to influence generations of students and transform entire communities. Talk about rewarding!

But when outsiders grumble about district leader salaries they must remember superintendents are essentially CEO's of large organizations. Superintendents oversee hundreds (if not thousands) of employees and operate budgets in the tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars.

To get an idea of how superintendent salaries compare to CEO salaries, consider this: The median compensation for the CEO of a company with a revenue of $25 million is $355,000 annually. Alternately, the total compensation for Superintendent with budgets of around $25 million dollars is typically half that amount. At nearly every comparison level, business leaders make twice as much as their educational counterparts.

To summarize:

The path to administration is no secret.

The responsibilities are fairly obvious.

The compensation is public knowledge.

The pay is much less than business peers.

What is there to be so upset about?

Educational leaders must remember there will always people in our communities who find reasons to complain. In Schools Cannot Do It Alone, Jaimie Volmer calls these people "CAVE" people, or "Citizens Against Virtually Everything." "Facts are irrelevant to these folks," Volmer says. "No amount of research or reasoned discourse will change their minds."

Whether the topic is a new building, standards-based grading, weather-related cancellations, or revised bus routes, these individuals will be question everything. Heck, our district lowered property taxes twice in three years and some community members still believed we were out to get them.

Welcome to school administration.


When I was nearing completion of my doctorate a colleague asked, “Are you really going to make people call you Dr. Smith?” While family members had previously asked this question in jest, this individual posed the question in such a way that suggested by adopting the "Dr." prefix I was self-absorbed.

For the next several weeks, I thought to myself, “Am I full of myself? Do I really need to have others call me Dr. Smith?” In those insecure moments I forgot the effort that went into earning the degree:

Waking early to write before my “day job” started as opposed to more sleep.

Attending weekend class as opposed to tailgating with family at football games.

Completing research at the coffee shop as opposed to nights out with friends.

Spending thousands of dollars on tuition as opposed to buying a new car.

Burdened with I-should-be-doing-homework-syndrome as opposed to living life.

Reminding myself of these sacrifices allowed me to accept the rewards that accompanied the degree, including the new title.

At some point, every leader is criticized about the power, salary, or perks of his or her position. When people question our leadership, we can't forget the sacrifices it took to reach this position in our career.

And if people really push ... gently remind them no one is preventing them from going into school leadership.

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