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February 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 5

Principal Connection / Four Tips on Leading Adults

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    It takes thick skin, clarity, compliments, and grit.

    EngagementLeadership
      I've supervised kids of all ages. I've been there for lunches, assemblies, overnights, games, and, yes, lessons. The techniques I used—set clear expectations, be consistent, use positive reinforcement, and separate the mischief makers—were effective, but it was never easy. Thank goodness, the school Valentine's Day parties only occurred once a year! Then I became a principal, and I realized that it's much more challenging to supervise adults.
      Today, in my work with prospective and new principals, I visit schools, teach classes, and lead workshops. Although much has changed since I first led a school—back then my staff bulletins were mimeographed—the challenges associated with supervising adults have become even more difficult. Schools and teachers are under increasing public scrutiny and pressure, employee attitudes about authority have become more recusant (no one wants a boss), and the instantaneous connectivity of the internet has complicated communications protocols—everyone wants an answer now! Despite these changes, people are people. They have the same needs regardless of their age, organizational position, hierarchical status, or other variable, and everyone wants to be successful. With that in mind, I have identified four themes appropriate for leaders, whether the people you're leading are 5, 15, or 55 years old.
      1. Toughen up! Our hard skin needs to be harder. You didn't become a principal because you wanted praise and positive reinforcement—and that's a good thing. Compliments will come your way, but it sure feels like there are more critics than cheerleaders, or maybe it's that the critics are louder (or that I hear them better). Of course, we cannot ignore complaints. Perception is reality, and we need to know why someone is bothered. But we mustn't overreact. We need to remember that unanimity is rare, whether it's what to put in the staff lounge vending machine or what kinds of assessments we should use to measure student progress, so inevitably some person or group won't get their way. Particularly on important issues, if everyone is happy, chances are we aren't doing our job. I look for the smile ratio when I visit schools—I want to see students and adults smiling—but principals cannot let our efforts or job satisfaction be based on making people happy.
      2. Set clear expectations. Be clear on what you expect—and make sure others heard what you think you said. Sometimes I follow up and ask, "Please tell me what you think I said." Too often, that question yields a surprise. That tells me I need to be clearer!
      We also need to be thoughtful about when to compromise. That's when, not if. Few decisions (important ones, anyway) should be the principal's alone. Teachers have specialized knowledge, hands-on experiences, and unique insights that should be factored into any solution. Further, if we want people to have ownership, they must have a voice in solving the problem. So, prior to any dialogue or public meeting, determine where you'll need to stand up for certain absolutes and where you're willing to compromise. Knowing our boundaries ahead of time enables us to be clear and reduces the likelihood that we'll become tangled in an inconsistency.
      3. Stay positive. Positivity counts for a lot. There is power in the Rule of Five, and school leaders should try to give everyone they work with five positive comments for any negative comment, or even for a question that might be interpreted as a negative. The positives need to be valid and specific. I've tried to attain a 5:1 ratio for years and, believe me, it's difficult (but seeking to identify positive things also has benefits). It's too easy to take the positives for granted and only comment to teachers about things that need to change. Yet, by trying to achieve a 5:1 ratio, I might get to 3:1—and that's a lot better than would normally be the case.
      4. Admit that it's hard work! Principals' jobs require lots of grit, and we should be open about this. Our grit enables us to stay focused and not give up. By consciously sharing how we are feeling and what we are doing, we can model this attitude and behavior for our teachers.
      When a superb performance looks natural and effortless (think of Olympic gymnasts), this can be a disservice to observers. It's easy for people to think that others' successes come without the effort the onlooker knows he or she would need to put forth, and that can be demotivating. If school leaders aren't careful, we can contribute to this feeling by always smiling and always making ourselves available. For sure, we should smile, and we should be available. But we also need to let the faculty know that hard work is part of our success formula. We want everyone to get the message: Success doesn't come easily.
      As you think about these four themes, remember that transparency is important. When I led New City School in St. Louis, just as I advocated for developing grit in our students and ourselves, talking about grit at faculty meetings and writing about it in parent letters, I also talked about the Rule of Five ratio with faculty and parents. I told everyone that we needed to be conscious of the 5:1 ratio as we interacted with one another, both with children and adults, and that I would try to do so with them. That transparency created accountability among us. Everyone benefitted.
      What about you? Which of these themes are already part of your leadership style? Which ones might you focus on—and strengthen?

      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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