I’m all for moving on from admiring problems to finding solutions. Generally, it’s better as a school leader to focus on joining forces to improve rather than getting stuck on what brought us to the point of needing to problem-solve.
That said, in my many years of work with hundreds of principals over the past several years, I’ve noticed particular practices that lead to ineffectiveness and inefficiency—and drain much of the joy from being a school leader.
To be clear, I’ve made these mistakes myself and know how high the stakes can be: The wrong decision can create a cascade of additional problems. But if you keep the following fundamentals in mind, you can be better prepared to head off unnecessary confusion and stress, for everyone.
Choose Courage Over Comfort
When I’m working with my team or with other principals, I often have them share with me one conversation they need to have that they have put off (or even dread), whether it’s something they need to discuss with another individual, the staff, or the entire campus. Then I ask them to reflect on why that conversation hasn’t happened. Knee-jerk reactions abound: “I’m too busy,” or “It won’t help anyway,” or “It’s not worth the political capital.”
I sit silent. Before long, they realize there simply is no good reason why the conversation has not yet happened.
I don’t apologize for my directness in how I coach from there. I say, “Every time you choose to avoid a difficult conversation, it is a selfish decision. Why? Because the only person who could possibly benefit from avoiding a difficult conversation is you. And that win is only emotional and temporary.”
It is vital that when we engage, we do so through the lens of helping others and the organization grow. Every possibly uncomfortable conversation represents a possibility for us to lead—and an opportunity for the other person to better serve our kids and community. When we fail to engage, we rob them of that opportunity.
Prioritize People Over Policies and Programs
A strong and compelling vision for the future is requisite to being an outstanding leader. Sometimes, however, the benchmarks, strategic plans, and initiatives become the end instead of the means to the end.
For example, just recently I worked with a principal who is driven to ensure that his building has highly effective PLCs (professional learning communities) in place within the next 18 months. That’s an amazing, worthwhile goal.
The issue is when the focus becomes on the protocol instead of on the people executing the protocol. The best principals are not the principals that implement the best programs; rather, they’re the ones who empower their people to lead, grow, and execute. When this happens, the protocol is just the icing on the cake.
I have learned this the hard way. Getting a ton of stuff done and implemented, without growing the humans responsible for executing, is a way to short-term success and long-term failure. The only path forward to sustained school improvement is through the investment in developing the growth and capacity of the humans you serve as a leader.
Keep Control of Your Day
While the job description of “principal” is similar in the inner city of Chicago and in rural Alabama, it is common knowledge that no two days are the same for any principal. Each position and its unique context brings forward its own challenges. Highly effective principals, however, always make it a point to do the day and not allow the day to get away from them.
When the day does you, you are on defense. The angry parent, the sick kid, and the upset teacher all occupy your time, and suddenly the classroom observations and meetings that were a priority are all but forgotten.
If you are unsure where you fall in terms of owning your day or having it own you, answer this question: In which of these three areas do you spend the most time?
A: Responding to other people’s needs
B: Doing the paperwork and protocol parts of your job
C: Leading and doing work of significance (e.g., growing others and establishing a vision)
If you are doing anything besides C, you are likely on a one-way train to Burnoutsville.
A highly effective leader attacks the day. They align their schedule with their priorities and do not deviate. They lead from their strengths and never allow the tyranny of the urgent to drive them from their primary purpose.
It’s easy for any school leader to fail to delineate between their own impulses and feelings and what’s best for the people or school they serve. Too many principals, for example, come back from a conference so fired up with new ideas that they can’t see how those ideas do or don’t fit with the direction of the school. Their energy and emotional state supersede their focus.
We also have a tendency to project when we are fatigued or our emotional bucket is not full. There have been times in my career as a school leader when I pushed myself to exhaustion, and then I’d cancel or postpone important meetings, citing the mental health of my staff and the need to give them a break.
It took me years to realize this, but those postponements had little to do with me reading the room; rather, I was serving my own needs. Not only did this derail the progress being made, but I learned later that my actions were also interpreted by some as selfish and tone-deaf.
I’m not saying don’t ever cancel a meeting for the well-being of your staff. Rather, it’s a reminder to be very conscious of the difference between what’s good for them and what’s good for you... and then choose wisely.