George Lucas Educational Foundation

10 Big Ideas of School Leadership

Middle school principal Mike McCarthy shares 30 years of wisdom on how to run a school well.
By Mike McCarthy, Kathy Baron
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Principal Mike McCarthy.

Credit: Michael Warren

During my senior year of college, I taught math to 26 inmates, none of whom had finished high school. What I faced was 26 examples of the failure of American education. What I did not realize is the profound effect this would have on my career as a school leader. After teaching for five years, I became a principal because I felt that I could help underserved kids better in that role. Here are ten ideas I have learned in the 30 years since I became a principal.

1) Your School Must Be For All Kids 100 Percent of the Time

If you start making decisions based on avoiding conflict, the students lose. This is what sustained me through one of my most difficult decisions. I asked the school district to let our school health center offer birth control after four girls became pregnant in one semester. For this group of kids, the health center at King was their primary health care provider. Although we offer birth control to our students, we are not the birth control school; we are the school that cares about all of its kids. This decision was the right one, and it cemented for all time the central values of King.

2) Create a Vision, Write It Down, and Start Implementing It

Don't put your vision in your drawer and hope for the best. Every decision must be aligned with that vision. The whole organization is watching when you make a decision, so consistency is crucial.

3) It's the People, Stupid

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from those who are still undecided. (That's adapted from Casey Stengel.) Hire people who support your vision, who are bright, and who like kids.

4) Paddles in the Water

In Outward Bound, you learn that when you are navigating dangerous rapids in a raft, the only way to succeed is for everyone in the boat to sit out on the edge and paddle really hard, even though everyone would rather be sitting in the center, where it's safer. At King, in times of crisis, everyone responds with paddles in the water.

5) Find Time to Think During the Day

They pay me to worry. It's OK to stare at the wall and think about how to manage change. I have 70 people who work at King. Even the most centered has three bad days each school year. Multiply that by 70 people and that's 210 bad days, which is more than the 180 school days in a year. So, me, I am never going to have a good day -- just get over it.

6) Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad

If the problems in your school or organization lie below you and the solutions lie above you, then you have rendered yourself irrelevant. The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you.

VIDEO: How Principal Mike McCarthy Sustains a Culture of Collaboration

Running Time: 07:31 min.

7) You Have the Ultimate Responsibility

Have very clear expectations. Make sure people have the knowledge, resources, and time to accomplish what you expect. This shows respect. As much as possible, give people the autonomy to manage their own work, budget, time, and curriculum. Autonomy is the goal, though you still have to inspect.

8) Have a Bias for Yes

When my son was little, I was going through a lot of turmoil at King, and I did not feel like doing much of anything when I got home. One day, I just decided that whatever he wanted to do, I would do -- play ball, eat ice cream, and so on. I realized the power of yes. It changed our relationship. The only progress you will ever make involves risk: Ideas that teachers have may seem a little unsafe and crazy. Try to think, "How can I make this request into a yes?"

9) Consensus is Overrated

Twenty percent of people will be against anything. When you realize this, you avoid compromising what really should be done because you stop watering things down. If you always try to reach consensus, you are being led by the 20 percent.

10) Large Change Needs to be Done Quickly

If you wait too long to make changes to a school culture, you have already sanctioned mediocre behavior because you're allowing it. That's when change is hard, and you begin making bad deals.

Mike McCarthy is the principal of Helen King Middle School in Portland, Maine. The Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) named him as Maine's 2010 Middle School Principal of the Year.

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LT Wood's picture

Perhaps it would make more sense if, instead of saying, "Expect every day to be bad.", we say instead, "Something's going to bite me today ... I wonder what it's going to be." (i.e. Expect something to come out of left field, everyday of your life. We don't know what that something will be, but we know it will require one of the following: quick decisive action; calm deliberation; political savvy; good-listening-skills; etc., etc., etc.) If you expect to be challenged, and bring your A-Game to every situation, you'll rarely be caught flat-footed.

In the words of Robert Heinlein, "Beware the Stobor!" The trick is to never expect the Stobor to look the same two days in a row.

Ty Wood

Jae Goodwin's picture

Mr. McCarthy - Yours is the kind of school I long for in America. Teachers need leaders that will embrace their ideas (even the seemingly wacky ones) join in on their enthusiasm, and grow their innovative spirit. You give me hope for our future students, hope that they will learn in a school where teachers are free to try new things with support encouragement and respect in their ability to do so.
Jae Goodwin
2010 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year

Kathy Baron's picture
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

For Phyllis Muhovich, Mr. McCarthy did mean three bad days a year. I corrected that in the online version of the article.

Laura Metz's picture

We complete team norms at the beginning of each year. We have always chosen consensus as our decision making model. Wow... this is part of the reason we never make a decision... So many times I leave my planning meeting wondering why no one really spoke up and made a decision.

Allan Petersdorf's picture
Allan Petersdorf
Principal, Discovery Bay School

Certainly you read far more into the comment then I intended. Fighting the 20% also means listening to them and working with them to make things happen. Hence the prior comment giving people the right to make decisions and to take chances. Education is not a cookie cutter business. We all need to be on the same page to make change happen. My comments are directed more to those that no matter what the exercise, never want to participate. They got their degree and are determined to wear it out without regard to changing populations, changing curriculums and changing standards.

Morgans218's picture

I am fortunate enough to have had Mike as the professor of my administration course, and he is a pragmatic, understated principal who isn't afraid to tow the line for his students and teachers (and they know this.) King Middle School stands as an exemplar of what a middle school can be when you have the right people on board.

Catherine Koos's picture
Catherine Koos
Head of Lower School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy

I found several good things to take away from this article I found on Twitter this morning. #3 spoke to me the most clearly. I was fortunate enough to hire a new teacher at my school this year that teaches Chinese. She has done a phenomenal job. As you wrote, she supports the vision of my school, she is a bright, shining star and she loves kids. It is hard to go wrong when you are surrounded by teachers like that!

Alvaro Serra's picture

Here are some of my reflections on each of the 10 ideas.
1) Your School Must Be For All Kids 100 Percent of the Time.
I agree 100%. This idea has been written for thousands of years, but sometimes not much used. I like to refer to this idea as "Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno"*

2) Create a Vision, Write It Down, and Start Implementing It.
Again I agree 100%. Einstein would agree too. As he said, nothing happens until something moves. And leaders are responsible for making things move...

3) I would say hire people who agree with WHY you do things**

4) In a leadership training course I did once, a British trainer suggested that sometimes we had to pretend to be swans: smooth on top, but paddling hard underneath. In American English duck seems to be used instead of swan***

5) I do NOT agree with this! Leaders do not have to have a bad day when their underlings have one. And even if teachers had a dark magic power to force their principal follow their mood (sometimes they do) there is a mistake in the calculation. 180 can be bigger than 70 times 3..... if many teaches have their bad day at the same time.
A very good coach**** showed me how different the Spanish words "ocuparse" and "preocuparse" are. Ocuparse means to do something actively. Preocuparse means to worry. They both sound similar in Spanish, but they mean different things. Winners do the former, losers the latter.

6) Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad. I agree with this. The same very good Spanish coach I mentioned earlier **** encouraged me to use the word "responsibility" and avoid the use of the word "guilt". This trick works very well regardless of who is responsible for something and whether the outcome is positive or not.

7) You Have the Ultimate Responsibility. I agree. Winners assume responsibility. Loosers waste the time finding out who was guilty. See trick above.

8) Have a Bias for Yes. YES!! I agree 100% with this. Yes makes us move forward, a "no" just stops things. If you just want someone or something to move in the other direction then the trick is indeed to think, "How can I make this request into a yes?"

9) Consensus is Overrated. I agree with this, and I think this can be extended to other contexts. Politics are everywhere.

10) Large Change Needs to be Done Quickly. I do NOT agree. Sometimes quick changes do not allow time to adjust. I would correct the sentence and say "If something needs to change, then it better start ASAP".

* Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno is a Latin phrase that means "One for all, all for one" in English. It is known as being the motto of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers and is also the traditional motto of Switzerland (,_omnes_pro_uno).

** See Sinek's TED talk "How great leaders inspire action" (

***(From a news story about Louisville) Mayor Jerry Abramson's first day on the job as mayor of the newly merged city and county government: " 'How's it going?' he asked, reaching for his lunch, from a cafe nearby. 'How wild and crazy it is?' 'Like a duck on water,' Deputy Mayor Joan Riehm replied. 'That means we're smooth on top but paddling like h. underneath,' Abramson explained." The Courier Journal, Louisville, Ky., Jan. 7, 2003.

**** A. Cortes, from

Paul Sinjani's picture
Paul Sinjani
School Principal, Grace Academy

There is a lot sense from this article. I will definitely use some of these ideas.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I'm going to put this in the hands of the students in our School Leaders program at Antioch. It sums up just about everything that really matters when it comes to leadership. Thanks for sharing it!

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