A social climate pervaded by culture wars, tribalism, and identity politics, has put school leaders under fire from radicals on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as legislators, parents, and other individuals who no longer respect the very difficult job of educators. In his new book, Leading in Chaos, Dr. Jim Largent draws from his 21 years as a superintendent to offer guidance on issues faced by education leaders today. His approach includes a blueprint for obtaining your desired job, with a focus on leadership roles in public education and the transition steps needed to set yourself up for success. 

The book presents concepts and anecdotes to show you how to work with a variety of people from bus drivers, to board members, to irate parents. Additionally, it provides a series of strategies that take leadership back to the bare bones of what actually works. The most effective leadership methods stick to the common sense and time-tested principles. 

Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum. I’m excited to be here today with Jim Largent, author of Leading in Chaos: A Common Sense Blueprint for New and Aspiring School Leaders. Jim, thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Jim Largent: Thank you, Drew. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.

Drew Appelbaum: Jim, help us kick off the podcast. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?

Jim Largent: Sure. I spent 31 years in public education. Started out right out of college as a teacher coach, I was a baseball coach, football coach, athletic trainer. Quickly got into school administration after about seven years of coaching and the final 21 years of my career, I spent a superintendent in three different school districts, three different sizes of schools, and retired about four years ago and the short version of the career. 

Drew Appelbaum: After 21 years, as a superintendent, why was now the time to write this book?

Jim Largent: Well, I had time to put my thoughts together and not worry about being on call 24 hours a day like I was as a school superintendent. 

Drew Appelbaum: Sure.

Jim Largent: That’s the main reason. I finally had time to put those thoughts down on paper that I had actually been working on for some time, but it just felt the right time to finally put it all together.

Drew Appelbaum: Now all of those thoughts you had on paper, all the experience you had, when it came down time to actually write the book, did you have any learnings or breakthroughs along the way? A lot of authors will have this when they’re just putting their thoughts down and organizing everything, maybe by doing some deeper research.

Jim Largent: I don’t know if I run a revelations that I had, it was more or less once I started outlining the things that had, I guess, led me throughout my career, it was pretty interesting seeing all the different aspects that go into the job that you really might not even think about when you’re in the middle of doing it. The chaos that is involved in running a large organization like a public school, so that’s probably more of anything is just seeing it all on paper coming together and realizing that, “Wow, that’s a pretty big job that we were able to organize and put together at one time.”

Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you started writing the book, in your mind, who are you writing this book for?

Jim Largent: I was really writing the book for, as the title says, New and Aspiring School Leaders, people who think they want to be a school leader, they want to be a district level administrator, they want to ultimately become a superintendent. The reason for that is, there are no playbooks out there. I wanted this to be the playbook for someone that was entering this business and these top jobs, where you really can’t prepare for being a superintendent until you’re a superintendent. 

It’s one of those jobs that you’re the only superintendent in the community, or you may be the only high school principal in the community. There’s not a lot of people to turn to. I thought this playbook would be good for someone entering the profession and maybe to bounce some ideas off of or get some ideas from or inspiration from. That was the impetus for writing the book and who my target audience was.

Drew Appelbaum: Now you did set this straight in the book. I’d love to give you the opportunity here. What is this book, not?

Jim Largent: Well, this is not some research-based propaganda. It’s not some business in a box. It’s not some new rubric or great findings from research done in some think tanks. It’s really based on common sense leadership and just lessons that I’ve learned over those 31 years. 

Drew Appelbaum: What is the goal for readers that they should have coming into the book, or what is the goal you hope they’ll have after reading the book?

Jim Largent: Well, what I’m seeing right now, especially as it relates to public school leadership is, as the title alluded to, there’s a lot of chaos out there. People are getting bombarded by these culture war issues, and being threatened, and being told that we’re indoctrinating kids with communism, and there’s a lot of noise out there, and a lot of chaos. So the purpose of the book really was for those new leaders who found themselves in the middle of this chaos to slow down. Let’s bring it back to common sense leadership. Let’s turn off the noise for a few minutes. Let’s think about some of the best things we can do to run our organizations in a way that will make them successful and, at the end of the day, have our students thrive.

Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. Will you set the bar and maybe expand on that a little bit? What is the state of affairs for school administrators, right now?

Jim Largent: Well, unfortunately, schools have been in a target of political culture wars. There are playbooks out there from far extremist groups who basically have playbooks to take over school boards, take over school leadership positions, and they’re doing a really good job of spreading that propaganda. So that’s what I see now in public schools that I don’t think we have seen at any other time in our history. This is a pivotal time for public schools.

Drew Appelbaum: You talk a lot in the book about common sense leadership. Is common sense leadership the way to combat the chaos, or are they two separate ideas?

Jim Largent: No. I think common sense leadership is maybe the only way to combat the chaos, because I see people get caught up in this nonsense. They get caught up with these people coming to board members, to board meetings to disrupt and to threaten and to make accusations. 

Common sense tells most people that this is not happening. When someone stands in front of your school board and says, “You have a group of teachers who are trying to turn our kids into communists, socialists.” 99% of the people in the public know that that’s absolutely a lie, because they go to church with them. They’re in clubs with them. They see him at the neighborhood grocery store. They know that 99% of – that’s an absolute lie. Sometimes if you watch the news and you see what makes the internet and what makes social media videos. It’s these people making these accusations and threats that get all the time. That’s where I see it, right now. 

Strategies for Administrators

Drew Appelbaum: You also talk in the book a lot of the meat, the details of the book is on giving school administrators proven time tested, winning strategies. Can you give us an overview of what some of the strategies are in the book?

Jim Largent: Well, I think just the main thing about leadership is having a connection to the people you work with. So communication is probably the biggest thing that I see that some people just don’t get, right. If your staff doesn’t know where you are, they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re talking about, they don’t know why you made decisions that you made. I think it can be the downfall of organizations. So communication was a big one. I think the culture of a school and how to do some things to tie the culture to the school to your local community is a big one. I think networking with professionals, with students, with your staff, with other people who have the same job as you. I think that’s an important part of it. I’m just trying to break it down into small chunks, but here are some really important pieces of leadership or what I call common sense leadership.

Drew Appelbaum: I think every parent, everyone in the community will hear the word school budget a lot. It is a point of contention, I think for a lot of people, but it seems something that you have mastered. Can you give us a few facts on how much does your knowledge of the budget play in the success for someone in school leadership and to any tips and tricks you’ve learned along the way?

Jim Largent: I think when it comes to school budget, most people don’t realize it. You’re really limited on the amount of what we would call discretionary spending. I mean, you’re going to pay a set amount for buses, you’re going to pay a set amount for your buildings, you’re going to pay a set amount for the electric bills, so by the time your budget comes together, there are only a certain amount of dollars that you really have control over how that can be spent. 

So some of the strategies I have in there are around budgeting, and taxing, and how you set a tax rate, that kind of thing. The point of talking about money is that, no one likes to be taxed, no one likes paying taxes, no one understands why their taxes go up or down each year, which they very seldom go down. So I’ve tried to give some pretty simple explanations of that in the book, as well as how to build a budget to meet the needs of the students and staff and still set yourself up for success.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, being a school administrator, it means you have to deal with sure the outside media, but the parents. So what does that relationship look like with parents these days? To an out setter like myself, it seems like, there’s a lot more, they’re becoming a lot more vocal, a lot more active, and maybe a little bit more entitled, these days.

Jim Largent: I think you’re right on track. I think that’s what we’re seeing is like, I keep saying culture wars, but as the culture war issues continue, you see more and more parents come to the school, making demands, saying things, that are to be perfectly honest, but you are not true in a lot of cases. So the relationship that we have with parents is becoming volatile, which is why we go back to common sense. Treat people with courtesy, you want to listen to what they have to say, you want to take notes and make sure that you understand what they are asking for or complaining about, you want to regurgitate that back to them. 

Then you want to try to have a conversation about here’s what the school policies are. Here’s what you said versus what our school really does. Here’s what you say, that was really not true. You have to use language that doesn’t send them off the rails. You have to talk to them like a person and let them know that you do want to listen, but at the same time, you’re in charge of the school, and you have to make decisions sometimes that they may or may not agree with.

Drew Appelbaum: You said that’s so calm and cool, but I can imagine in the moment, it’s not that easy to do.

Jim Largent: It is very difficult. I think, I wrote in the book that when I started my career as a coach, and I was a fiery, extremely competitive, vocal, loud, really got into my games and my kids. I was a very vocal coach. When I got into administration, I quickly learned that that type of demeanor doesn’t work nearly as well, when you’re dealing with parents who were upset about something going on at school. I had to learn to pivot and learn how to change that demeanor and make it a little more suitable to being a school administrator.

Lessons Learned

Drew Appelbaum: What were some of the bigger lessons or bigger wins in your career that really you think defined your success and got you to where you are today? 

Jim Largent: Well, I think one of the, one of the biggest wins, which I outlined a little bit in the book, is that I went 31 years in a career and was never fired, never asked to leave a job, and was always offered new contracts. In today’s world, that’s saying something, I was doing something right. I had a lot of success, being the competitive person that I was, I always looked for ways to compete. Obviously, when you’re coaching, that’s really easy, but when I became an administrator, I still wanted to compete with area schools, whether it was test scores or the programs are being recognized as one of the best school districts in the state or the country. 

We were named – two of our high schools actually were named US News and World Report, top 10% of high schools in the country, which is a pretty big deal. I always tried to find ways to compete no matter what I was doing, and at the end of the day, I was trying to give the best opportunities to our students to become the best version of themselves that they could become.

Drew Appelbaum: For our readers who are working in schools now, at the end of the book, you have a blueprint that teaches how to really advance in a school, in a career in school administration. Can you give a brief overview of what that blueprint looks like? 

Jim Largent: Sure. I included this in the book because I see so many people who are not prepared to take that next step. They don’t know where to start. They don’t know what letters to send or how to interview. I go into a pretty detailed description of from the first time you send the interest letter to the school district looking for a new person to how to follow up with an interview. How to go through the interview process me tips to make that interview success. Then even to the second interview, and how to talk about a contract and actually starting the job. Also include some first steps, once you have the job, now what do you do? So we go through some details about things that you need to do once you get the job.

Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. I think everybody’s always looking for those immediate wins and leadership. So for readers and listeners, what to say they go halfway through the book, or you actually suggest reading the book front to back and then keeping it around to using it as a resource, but what impact do you hope it will have on a reader? Are there any immediate steps you hope they’ll take after finishing the book? 

Jim Largent: Well, the impact I think is, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes a school administrator is a lonely job. Like I said, there’s not many people in your community doing the same job as you normally. So having that book on your desk or on your bookshelf that you can reach for and look up something, I have a chapter index in the back. If you’re looking up something on culture or dealing with teachers or parents, you can quickly go to that chapter and it might spark some tips, or it might give you an example of how I dealt with some things during my career. I’m just hoping that it can serve as a resource for people who are looking for a little boost or a little help or a little wise counsel in times that they may not be able to reach out to some of their colleagues or not have anyone that they can go to, to ask those kinds of questions, too.

Drew Appelbaum: Sure. Jim, I want to say we just touched on the surface of the book here. There’s so much more inside. I just want to say, writing this book, A Guide for people who want to further their career, who have been working hard, working for years and really looking to take that next step and giving them that guiding light, is no small feat. Congratulations on having your book published. 

Jim Largent: Well, thanks, Drew. It was fun writing it. I certainly hope it is helpful to people who are in the same boat that I was 30 years ago, new and aspiring school leaders. I really hope it resonates with them and can be a help to them as they move forward in their careers.

Drew Appelbaum: Jim, this has been a pleasure. I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone the book is called Leading in Chaos, and you can find it on Amazon. Jim, besides checking out the book, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you? 

Jim Largent: Sure. They can find me on Twitter at @DrJimLargent. They can find me on Facebook, two different places actually, Jim Largent or Largent Consulting LLC, both of those sites. You can find me on social media and all my contact information is there as well. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, Jim. Thank you so much for giving us some of your time today and best of luck with your new book. 

Jim Largent: Absolutely, Drew. It was a pleasure. Thank you.