When our oldest child was nearing high school age, my wife and I debated whether to send our Catholic daughter to the public school for the district in which we lived or to a nearby Catholic high school. The decision was made after attending an orientation program at the public high school and was influenced almost entirely by the principal who spoke to us one mid-summer evening.
This man began his presentation with the words, “I am big, and I’m black, and I’m ugly!” and in the next ten minutes he successfully sold himself and his school to us. He was far and away the best principal that any of our three children were blessed to know.
What was it about this man that distinguished him from his colleagues over the twenty-year period during which we had children in public schools? He was a communicator. He sold us on his mission and his belief that our kids were special. During the several years that he served as principal for two of my children, it was obvious this man had a special gift.
He spent time in the halls and classrooms and talked to students and he would listen, also. At every opportunity he talked to students about pride and about respect and they listened, black kids, white kids, and Hispanic kids. He expected much from his students both academically and how they conducted themselves and they listened. Whether it was true or not, every student in the school believed that they had a relationship with this man and that he had a special interest in them. The school was a special place, indeed.
No doubt, not everyone comes to their role as a principal in possession of a special gift but what this principal accomplished, through his positive leadership, illustrates just how much of a difference positive leadership can make. Every principal should strive to model this man. They should be evaluated on the effectiveness with which they perform to these expectations. They should be selected based on skill sets that would make that possible. They must be involved in incessant, ongoing leadership development.
One of the most import keys to effective interaction with people in the workplace, and especially students in a school setting, is for leaders to remind themselves it is not about them. Kids are quick to pick up on even a hint of arrogance or braggadocio in the adults with whom they interact. This is true for administrators throughout the school and for teachers in the classroom. Developing empathic listening skills is essential. There is a simple truth in working with kids. Every child needs to be able to trust that there is at least one adult in the school who has their back.
Principals have no business hiding in their offices any more than managers in business organizations belong in their offices. The challenge of organizational leaders everywhere is to help people be successful and to satisfy their customers. In the business of education our customers are the students, parents, and communities we serve, and our people are the professionals who teach those children and the other administrators and staff who support both students and faculty in that process. Any school district that allows administrative paperwork to obscure the mission and purpose of its principals will surely fall short of fulfilling its potential.
Every principal and assistant principal in the district should participate in a variety of leadership development programs to hone their skills in selling mission, vision, and values to all the players in their school community. They must know how to effectively develop the skills of their faculty through observation, consultation, and feedback; they must be able to relate to the kids through face-to-face interaction, getting to know as many of them as possible and forming genuine relationships with them; they must be able to communicate directly with parents, always selling the mission, vision and values of their organization; always doing whatever they can to pull those parents in, both physically and emotionally.
In both learning and leadership, relationships are the difference maker and principals must strive to forge the same sustained, nurturing relationships with their teachers and staff as we ask teachers to do with their students. The quality of any product or services, whatever the venue, is a function of the quality of leadership provided by people in leadership roles throughout an organization. Similarly, the quality of leadership men and women in any organization provide is a function of the quality of the relationships they develop with people throughout both their organizations and supply chain.
Colleges of education with programs for administrators, whatever the level, should make the principles and practices of positive leadership a core component of their degree programs. The principal referenced above went on to serve as principal of another high school, served as superintendent for two school corporations, and later served as President of Martin University, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Notwithstanding all the awards and honors bestowed on him, his greatest legacy can be found among the young lives he touched.
His name is Dr. Eugene G. White, Ed.D.
As we will see in our next post, powerful positive leadership is not limited to people at the top of an organization; they can come from anywhere!