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Follow the Leader: The Beloved Principal
The story is fairly well known. It’s early Monday morning and a worried mother comes in to wake her son. “John” she yells, “It’s the third time this morning that I’ve called you. You have to get up!” A moan is a heard from under a heap of covers as John responds sleepily, “But I don’t want to go to school.” His mother tries to convince him of the importance of his being in school, to which John responds, “But, everyone hates me! The students hate me, the teachers hate me, and everyone in the office hates me!” “I understand”, his mother sympathetically answers, “But, you simply must go!” “But why?” her son replies. “Because”, says his mother, “you’re the principal!”
Some school principals out there reading the above may chuckle and some might even identify a bit with John. The plain truth is that being a principal is one of the most challenging, people intensive, jobs known to man. You are called upon to balance the needs of students, parents, teachers, support staff, boards, districts, etc. Significantly complicating matters is the fact that the needs and wants of each of the above constituencies regularly conflict with each other, and many times even within each constituency there is significant disagreement if not outright divisiveness. Given the above, being disliked (hated is too strong a word, although it happens) is really an occupational hazard if not a job-related certainty.
This is cause for concern. Many educators realize that in order to be truly effective we need people to like us (love is too strong a word, although it would help). Real leadership, and all that it entails, requires that a leader be perceived as someone who is worth following. The plain truth is that if you are not liked, no one will have any interest in being around you, much less following you. Additionally, all of us want to be liked and do not want to be around those who do not like us. Having to work in an unpleasant environment will invariably lead to accelerated burnout and increased health concerns as well.
The solution is fairly obvious. To borrow a simple axiom of parenting, children will follow your lead, even when they do not agree, if they feel they are loved and cared for. Leaders are not disliked because of the content of their message but because of the context of their relationships. When those being led feel they are simply pawns in the grand chess game of their leadership, they opt out of the game as soon as things do not go their way. Making your constituents feel valued and cared for not because of their value to your cause, but because of their value as people, is the secret and essentially the only meaningful barometer of your success as a leader.
To many principals the above may entail a paradigm shift in their thinking. Sometimes acknowledging the birthday of a teacher may be more important than rewarding a good lesson plan. Spending your time solving a challenge in their home may be more worthwhile than solving a problem in their classroom. Expanding your mission to include genuine concern for the welfare of all those in your circle of influence will ensure your success, job satisfaction and longevity as a school principal.