Success is a team effort, and no school superintendent can achieve success in his or her district by claiming to know all the answers: This was the key theme to emerge during the Friday morning general session on Day Two of the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education, being held Feb. 17-20 in San Antonio.

After opening remarks by AASA Executive Director Paul Houston, AASA President Don Kussmaul announced the group’s 2005 National Superintendent of the Year winner, Monte Moses of the Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colo. Moses got a huge laugh when he told attendees: “My dad was a school administrator in Texas for over 40 years. When I told him I was nominated for this award, he said, ‘You must have one hell of a staff!'”

Moses’ point, which was not lost on the crowd, was that school leaders–like leaders in business or any other field–are only as successful as the staff they surround themselves with. He also urged attendees not to lose sight of their districts’ locally stated missions in striving to meet the rigorous demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)–which, despite its good intentions, has created a host of unforeseen problems for school systems.

“Our district’s mission is to encourage students to think, learn, achieve, and care,” Moses said of Cherry Creek. “If we all strive for a better balance between our local missions and NCLB, we have a chance to realize the true intent of the law.”

Success as the product of a team effort was a theme picked up and expanded on by the morning’s keynote speaker, Peter Senge. A senior lecturer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning, Senge stressed the importance of building what he called “leadership communities” as opposed to “hero leaders.”

“Anyone who thinks [former CEO] Jack Welch made [General Electric Co.] successful is absolutely ludicrous,” Senge said in a provocative and sobering, hour-long speech. “Don’t get me wrong–the person at the top is important, but it’s the entire management team that is [ultimately responsible for success]. If your principals and your teachers aren’t leaders, I don’t see how you can be successful.”

Drawing upon his background in “systems thinking,” a discipline in which practitioners evaluate systems or structures by questioning the underlying assumptions behind them, Senge urged the executive educators in attendance to rethink their ideas about what school leadership means.

“If you think you have all the answers, [you should] go get a different job,” he said, noting that successful school leadership requires the ability to listen to others and to cultivate an environment in which innovation can thrive.

But it’s not just the superintendency that needs rethinking, Senge said; the very nature of education today must be reexamined. “I would assert that we don’t know what the goals are–or, rather, what they should be,” he said, arguing that in striving to have all students achieve “proficiency,” policy makers and school leaders are “looking backwards, not forwards.”

We shouldn’t be preparing students for the world we grew up in ourselves as children, Senge explained; instead, we should be preparing them for a whole new world of global and environmental challenges that didn’t exist when we were kids.

“We are fundamentally misdiagnosing our predicament in education,” Senge declared. Citing a long list of evidence, he concluded, “Our schools are actually better than they were 20 years ago–not worse. If that’s the case, why do we feel we’re in a crisis in education today?”

To answer this question, Senge used a technique common to systems thinking practitioners: He drew a series of graphs representing change over time. First, he drew a line sloping gradually upward and labeled it “quality of education.” Then, he drew a line sloping steeply upward and labeled it “global challenges” (such as climate change, economic inequities, and political instability). Finally, he drew a line sloping gradually downward and labeled it “environment,” meaning the environment that kids today are growing up in–a world in which the traditional family structure is dissolving, trust and social capital are declining, and so on.

Drawing a vertical line spanning the gap between the lines representing “global challenges” and “environment,” Senge said, “This gap marks the true crisis. We are profoundly misdiagnosing it as a crisis in education.”

So, how can education leaders address the real crisis? They cannot solve it by themselves, Senge warned–and that’s where “leadership communities” must come into play.

Returning to the notion of systems thinking, Senge likened a typical system (such as education) to an iceberg, with the unquestioned assumptions near the bottom. “How do we move down the iceberg?” he asked the audience rhetorically. “This might sound simplistic–but talk to people.”

And start with students themselves, he added. “Only kids see the totality of the system,” he said, because they haven’t learned not to question the assumptions. “And yet, it’s ironic that we listen to this group the least.”

In concluding, Senge recited a quotation from an educator who said, “If kids don’t learn democracy in school, where will they learn it?” In other words, take the time to listen to what kids have to say–and give them a voice in shaping their education.