The Parable of the Principals

Posted on January 20, 2012


Hand-fed Hummingbirds

The other day a friend, whose work life changed dramatically with a new boss along with the new year, sat across from me reborn, excited once again to be a teacher. She glowed and bounced as she talked about her day, laughed at the various trials of an overcrowded classroom, and grinned as I responded to her almost unrecognizable enthusiasm. “What happened to you?” I laughed incredulously.

She has always been dedicated, but I hadn’t seen enthusiasm for years. She would steel herself to return after vacations and the number of years until retirement always came up in a conversation. She didn’t complain or gossip or do less than her duty, she just didn’t like her job. Last December, in one of those cascading midyear promotions, the district shifted a number of administrative positions, and her former boss went elsewhere, bringing someone in who was being promoted from a smaller school. The result was obvious.

Teachers are unique employees. They are rather like the contracted self-employed. To use overworked business lingo, they are “self-motivated” – to the point of possessive of their little kingdoms. Administration least seen is often considered the best form. I asked her to compare and contrast the changes. The examples bubbled out of her.

The first thing the new principal did was to send a note to all the teachers explaining that she didn’t plan to make any changes this year, and didn’t have any plans at this point to make changes next year either. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because new administrators often feel the need to conform an organization to themselves fairly quickly to consolidate power. Nobody likes that kind of uncertainty, but teachers become apoplexic in that environment.

Next she began inviting classes, one by one, to meet with her, where she talked to the students, told them something about her life, and greeted them with warmth. With obvious respect and a quickly growing fierce loyalty, my friend stated that she wouldn’t put it past this principal to know the names of all 700 students by the end of the year, and noted that most of the students couldn’t pick the former principal out of a lineup.

Finally, the principal sent a note to all the teachers asking them what they needed, vowing to get it for them if at all possible. In a climate of rigid cost-cutting, where they were rationed crayons and had to beg for whiteboard markers, they were being told that the storeroom would be stocked and there wouldn’t be an armed guard posted. She isn’t going out back and twinkling her nose; those supplies have to be paid for somehow – she just wasn’t going to let money dictate her support of the staff.

Less than two weeks in and she’s a hero. If changes do come, as they often must, she will have their loyalty.

My friend raved about how the very air had changed. The teachers and staff joked with one another and laughed as they worked. The kids were more relaxed and causing fewer behavior problems. Everyone was on task. And she loved being a teacher again.

Food for thought if you’re a boss. You matter. You make the environment. Autocracy doesn’t work. Trust does.

Empowering people is another great term that’s been worked to death, partially because we interpret empowerment as giving people the latitude and the resources to do their jobs. It’s so much more than that. If that were all it took, we could shut people in little rooms with their supplies and leave them alone. Empowerment comes from a relationship combined with a shared stewardship. Empowerment happens when we care about people, make ourselves available to them, expect them to succeed, and let them do it. It’s a flexible relationship which offers as little or as much direction as the situation warrants, but is always founded in profound respect.

I met with someone today who is a good and qualified person. Unfortunately, he doesn’t create relationships. Most of the people he leads are pretty sure he doesn’t know their names. He is perceived as insulated. I don’t think this is his fault. He is trying. Unfortunately, our corporate fallback is that inclusiveness detracts from personal power and that collaboration is evidence of not doing our own work and hence not being fully qualified for our job. This mentality tends to make us jumpy and defensive, which makes us careful and risk-averse, which makes us arrogant and rigid, which makes us ineffective. One rather important aspect of being a leader is that someone will follow you.

My friend’s former principal was considered arrogant and rigid – autocratic and uncaring. Her staff didn’t feel protected, didn’t have her loyalty, and didn’t give her theirs. Her new principal is considered respectful and inclusive, and her subordinates are opening up, shifting from staying “under the radar” to unfolding their creative wings. Everyone benefits. Imagine what would happen if all of us, in our various roles as “the boss,” focused more on empowerment by creating relationships and sharing stewardships.

The boss matters. Be a good one. You can’t make hummingbirds do what they’ll do all by themselves with a bit of trust.

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