The Many Styles of Principals

seymour_skinnerPrincipals are not necessarily the lynchpin of a school–just ask Seymour Skinner here, Principal of Springfield Elementary School on The Simpsons. Springfield Elementary runs in spite of its principal, not because of it.

However, a good principal can make a school an efficient, exciting and pleasant place to work in and to learn.  Bad principals turn into Seymour Skinner.  An indifferent principal can make a bad situation worse, or make a good situation better due to a staff that, unlike their leader, has a clue.

I got to thinking about principals and their leadership styles when I was listening to colleagues over the past couple of weeks.  Many feel that the problem is not overbearing leadership, but rudderless leadership–especially in maintaining morale among teachers.  There are incidents of infighting, gossip-mongering, and undercutting at any school, to be sure.  Yet it seems that in my school there are people out to make sure no one is outperforming the others, either through gossip, subterfuge or downright sabotage.  There is little, if any, response from the administration, although a similar attempt at dissinformation was tried by a disgruntled staffer years ago and was thwarted adeptly by the principal.

At first, I thought that this was an attempt to be “above the fray”, to re-focus energies on more important tasks, like children’s education.  However, I began to think of other systems that had infighting and gossip as a common practice. You wouldn’t believe it–Nazi Germany.  Hitler, for all his numerous faults, knew how to keep control of his minions.  There was no one office that answered to Hitler; Nazi government consisted of competing agencies of equal status and power that would compete and undercut each other for Hitler’s favor.   For example, to actually communicate to the Fuhrer, there was the Office of the Reich Chancellory, the Office of the Party Chancellory, the Office of the Presidential Chancellory, the Privy Cabinet Council or the Chancellory of the Fuhrer.  They all had the same job–keep the boss happy.  With such a chaotic situation among the lower managers, Hitler safely asserted his authority.  It is similar to “divide and conquer”, but it’s more like a pack of dogs trying to please their owner.

Now I’m not saying my principal is Adolf Hitler–in fact, he’s probably one of the better principals I’ve seen.  I have a good rapport with him, and he has genuine affection for the kids.  It’s just that his style can best be described as “soft authoritarian.”  While he makes a point to delegate authority and spread the workload, he makes it very clear who’s in charge–and the faculty know this.  Hence the undercutting and gossip; it appears meant to maintain control.

I hope that’s not the case.  Control and leadership are two different things.  Hitler may have been in control, but he was not a good leader.  His system lent itself to the most radical and extreme ideas, without any way to debate or discuss them.  Principals that attempt games with their staff can fall into the same trap–instead of the best and most innovative ideas, internal division can lead to stagnation, or radical changes with little foresight.  Principals in control are not always good leaders.

Educators cannot choose the administration of a building.  However, their actions are tied to the actions of the administrators.  This interaction is vital to the development of functioning schools.

Just don’t get too close.  Ask Mr. Skinner and Ms. Krabappel.

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