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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

The Principal Connection / Can Leaders be Popular?

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Must good leaders be popular? For that matter, can good leaders be popular? Conventional wisdom is that popularity can contribute to as well as interfere with leadership. Perhaps this tension is best captured in the admonition "If everybody's happy, then you're not doing your job."

The Necessity of Hard Decisions

Recently, a principal talked to me about some steps she had taken that had upset her teachers. In talking about the criticism that came her way, she said, "It gets old, but I was hired to lead them, not to be their friend." Most principals can cite many times when they've made unpopular decisions. It's an unavoidable part of the job, and possessing a thick skin becomes a survival skill. We must make hard decisions. We will compromise our effectiveness if we pander for approval.
This is easy to say, but it's hard not to take the rejection personally. How does it feel to walk in the teachers lounge and hear the room get quiet? Are social invitations only for teachers? We understand the dynamic behind these events, but none of us likes being left out.
Seeking approval is a natural tendency, particularly in organizations with an ethos of camaraderie and nurturance, like schools. I try to focus on the difference between being liked and being respected. If I do my job well, my teachers will respect me because they know that I am considering what's good for our school, not just what's easy—for them or for me.

School Leader Perspectives

I asked some other school leaders how they've grappled with this tension. No surprise—they were aware of this tension and felt it was far more important to be respected. "Leaders lead from mission or principle, not popularity," noted Keith. "Leaders earn respect when they help everyone define the paths they need to travel, are consistent in decision making, communicate well, and model in their personal and professional life the ideals the institution stands for."
The interactions between popularity and leadership can be subtle. Sande said, "Good leaders build good relationships. This may appear on the surface as popularity, but if one looks closely, the approval stems from very specific actions. People respond positively because their needs have been met, their work has been valued, and they are led to see the effects of their actions."
Great principals help create a school culture in which everyone learns. No matter how high a school's test scores or how joyful the learning, good leaders want their school to be better. Mike observed, "We need leaders who push the dialogue to move beyond the status quo." Advancing the school's mission is also important for Sarah, who said, "If a leader is focused on a set of goals we admire, we will like what that leader is doing." Billy's comment echoes these sentiments, "If our work as administrators is grounded in our mission, then we must do what is right whether it's popular or not."
I can recount numerous times when I've hadto say hard things to teachers. It wasn't an option. To be true to our school's mission, to the teacher, and to myself, I have had to give teachers feedback so they could learn and grow. Good leaders push people, including themselves, out of their comfort zones. Although this can come with a cost, it also earns respect for the leader. Vince noted this when he said, "In a strange way it is only through the risking of popularity that a leader can actually build trust and confidence among his colleagues. Leaders who strive for the popular decision risk losing the support of the risk takers in the group who are willing to support unpopular decisions in times of need."

The Crucial Balance

Year ago, in writing about the role of newspapers, Finley Peter Dunne made a statement that applies to good leaders in every setting. Their role, he said, is to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." I like the passion, intensity, and tension captured by the wordscomfort and afflict. Good leaders make hard calls, but they also support those whom they lead. Finding that balance is necessary for survival and for emotional health—and for earning respect.
Remember, being a good leader means that someone will always be unhappy with you. And if you think it's tough leading a school, consider the comment of Baseball Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel: "The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided."

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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