April 23, 2021

The Essence of Leadership (Part 3 of 3)


The Leaders’ Corner (Managers, Principals and Superintendents)

In the last two blogs (April 9th & 16th) on leadership involving “the art of energizing”  we relied on Leonard Sayles’ leadership behaviours including direction, representation, and responsiveness.  All three of these deal with behaviours or actional expectations from a leader.  The last two are from a different kind of typology in that they deal not with observable behaviours per se but rather with the various orientations a leader supports in carrying out those behaviours noted above.  For want of better terms, let’s call these servant orientation and ethical orientation.  Both can be harnessed effectively to the notion of energizing a staff in 2021 and beyond.

The term “servant orientation” is not totally new in meaning although it may be in form.  In research on professionalism, one of the most common characteristics cited is “service to clients” as the earmark of a professional.  Typically, in literature on education, the term “student” is substituted for client — and there is no doubt that a focus on students and learning is and should be the prime orientation for any teacher or principal or superintendent.  However, the principal has a secondary client beyond the student — and that is his/her staff.  As the most important professional in the school, the teacher must be, and must feel he/she is, actively supported by the principal.  This means support with children and parents, support with career aspirations, support with professional development and support with fair, judicious, and honest feedback on performance.  In other words, a principal must go out of his/her way to provide a level of service to his/her teachers as clients in the same way as he/she does for the students in a less direct manner.

If the teacher feels that support, it is far more likely that he/she will become engaged in the school’s initiatives and go along with the high expectations of staff a principal needs to set.  Here’s an example of what form service to clients can take in terms of the teacher-principal relationship.

In a large urban school district, because of the wording of the collective agreement, all teachers on temporary contracts were placed on a “surplus” list as the staffing process began.  This was done so that accommodations could be made for all permanent teachers coming back from leaves or declared surplus to their school (but not the system) could be placed first.  It was a difficult time for young teachers.  Several of the principals decided that the staff process was a “district problem” and wanted no part of dealing with the issue — so they simply had the office coordinator place the “surplus letters” in the mailboxes.  That letter was the way a teacher found out about his/her status.

One principal decided to do it differently.  He asked the office coordinator to hold the letters and to make, immediately, individual appointments with each of the teachers slated to receive letters.  He also told the coordinator to keep a list of the names at her desk and asked that, should any one of the teachers want to meet with him, to clear the schedule so that the teacher had priority.  In meeting with the teacher at the scheduled session the principal did the following:

  1. He gave the teacher time to read the letter and to digest it. It many cases there was shock, alarm, and tears — which is why the principal wanted the information handled in private where a teacher was free to show emotions and not be on display to others.
  2. He outlined the staffing process and confirmed that most of the temporary contract staff would be placed back in their schools once the process ran its course.
  3. He then gave the teacher an in-school form to complete which asked the teacher to identify his/her preferred placement should that teacher not be retained in his/her present school.
  4. He informed the teacher that he would do everything possible to keep the teacher on staff but, if that were not possible, he would actively lobby other principals on the teacher’s behalf in keeping with the teacher’s stated preferences.
  5. Finally, he told the teacher that he/she was free to come to the office any time until the process was over to discuss the situation — and he confirmed the office coordinator would adjust his schedule to meet with the teacher immediately.

That principal, by having a servant orientation to his staff (for reasons of compassion as much as anything) ensured the loyalty and support of the teacher and others who respected what the principal had done.  That is service or client orientation and it paid dividends in terms of involving staff in the life of the school.

The last orientation is in ethical orientation.  This, of course, can take many forms and changes as the world around the school changes.  In 2021 the issues of the environment and inclusivity are major concerns — with students, with staff and with communities at large.  A principal is, by definition, a leader in that community.

In today’s world with movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and the prevalence of organizations working with partners in the government and industry on the environment, people are expecting those in leadership positions to play a role in advancing solutions to the problems of the environment and social justice as two of the most pressing issues facing the country.  This is especially true of the younger staff members who find themselves setting up clubs and organizations within schools to foster those sensibilities in students.

It is, therefore, important that the principal mirror those ethical concerns in the decisions he/she makes, in his/her pronouncements to the student body and to the staff and in his/her active encouragement of the staff and students to play an active role in supporting these universal concerns that go far beyond the classrooms of a single school.  As one trustee commented to this writer, “Principals must understand that for the community the principal is the District and therefore must represent the district in all that it stands for — and in today’s world, equity, fairness and environmental betterment are touchstones all districts embrace.”

What does this have to do with “the art of energizing?”  The short answer is “Everything.”  Beyond the set curriculum, the principal must be a powerful vehicle for helping students and staff understand that education supports, above all, change in the human condition.  That is ethical orientation.

To return, finally, to Kennedy’s call to action, the call “to engage”,  an effective principal sets direction, responds to his/her clients’ professional and personal needs, and helps set the course for social change.  That’s leadership in the broadest sense of the word and that’s one way to energize the school as a community.

Dr. Dan

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