Administration & Leadership

School Leaders Who Are Polar Opposites Can Still Collaborate Effectively

A strong working relationship is critical when assistant principals have very different personalities.

February 14, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Abbott and Costello. Kirk and Spock. Bert and Ernie. Arya and The Hound. Lucy and Ricky. They’re all duos… but unusual ones at that. They clash. They’re opposites. But they’re also perfect for each other.  

The same is true for me and my co-leader (we’ll call him Joe). At our small 6–12 college preparatory school of about 750 students, we are the only assistant principals. Unlike larger schools where there are several assistant principals overseeing distinct departments, Joe and I wear all the hats. Consider for a moment all that it takes to effectively run a building: department and grade teams, curriculum and instruction, safety and supervision, progress monitoring and data, compliance, community workshops, outreach, showcases, budgeting, operations, management… the list goes on.  

Cut those roles and responsibilities down the middle, with some overlap, and you’ve got two people who juggle a ton. Now, let’s add another ingredient to the sauce: Joe and I are polar opposites. We’re both educators at heart; we value innovation, collaboration, and the growth of our students, teachers, and school.  

But Joe is a master of organizational systems. He’s diplomatic in his leadership approach. If there were an award for attention to detail, he’d win hands down. He also is more introverted, prefers his space, and communicates much differently than I do. Until you really know him, it’s hard to read him. Prior to being an assistant principal at our school, he was also a teacher. Thus, staff inherently trusts him because of their previously established rapport. 

I, on the other hand, am an outsider. I came from a different building and district, so I knew no one, and no one knew me, when I began working at the school. I had to form relationships, which posed challenges. I’m also quite the extrovert. I wear my heart on my sleeve and could’ve had a career in theater. I live for good conversation, and I’ve got an impeccable sense when it comes to instruction. My leadership style is more participatory. I’m a “jump on in!” type of person who loves to get my hands dirty.  

So, with these vast differences, how did we make it work? Joe and I abided by the following formula, which has helped us in a number of ways. We are able to work through our differences, celebrate one another’s strengths, and find a groove in which we complement one another and positively impact our school. 

One-on-One Meetings

Joe and I reserve a set time each week to work together, just the two of us. Before the school year starts, we look at our calendars and pick the time and date. Then, each week, we prepare an agenda and ensure that during our meeting, we speak about everything on it (even if that means carving out an additional time to address the things that we didn’t get to). As with any strong relationship, making the time to communicate makes all the difference. 

If you’re not sure how to get this routine off the ground, reach out to your colleague and suggest setting up recurring meetings. Offer to cocreate an agenda. Suggest a time that works best for both of you. And use we/us language: “It’s important that we make time to sit, talk, and think together” or “We could really benefit from a touch point during the week!”

Engaging with Literature

Leadership is a practice. And reading field literature is a vital part of that practice. My coleader and I share what we read and try to ground our work in that literature. We treat this like a small-scale book club. Time is valuable, and running a building accounts for a large chunk of our time. Given that pleasure reading is a luxury, we approach this strategically. 

We select a piece to read together that is thematically relevant to our work and choose 10–12 pages to read by a certain date, then discuss what we’ve read together. These conversations are rooted but organic and are important to our leadership journey. They provide us with a place to be introspective and collaborative. And sometimes, our best ideas come from these conversations, not our aforementioned agenda. 

Our top five leadership reads include: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni; Shifting the Monkey, by Todd Whitaker; How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie; The Future Leader, by Jacob Morgan; and Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek.

Radical Candor

Speaking of literature, Kim Scott’s Radical Candor advocates that in order to show that you care deeply, you must challenge others directly. Adopting this idea allows me and my colleague to have tough conversations. It allows us to demonstrate our care not only for the school, staff, students, and families, but for each other. 

You can approach uncomfortable conversations with care, saying, for example, “I know this decision with the schedule was difficult and time-consuming for you,” and then with directness, “but I want us to work together to find another solution. I’m not sure that where you landed is the best possible option. Can we revisit it together?”

We might not always agree, and that’s OK. In fact, we might not always like the decision the other makes, and that’s OK, too. It’s healthy to share that. In fact, it’s necessary to have radical candor to move your leadership practice forward. We know to put our differences aside and lean on each other’s strengths in complementary ways. 

Direct communication with a commitment to radical candor helps us do so. 

Lucy told Ricky in I Love Lucy, “Ever since we said ‘I do,’ there have been so many things that we don’t.” There is humor in this because it’s true. No marriage is picture-perfect. And the same goes for the quasi-marriage of coleading a building together. Differences aside, our goal is the same: We want the best for our school and every individual who sets foot in our building. And so while there might be a ton of things that “we don’t,” the “we do” always comes first. 

Therein lies the heart of our work.

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