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May 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 8

Principal Connection / Who's a Leader?

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Leaders let us know that they are on our side, especially in a crisis.

LeadershipSchool Culture
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The flight had been delayed again. In fact, the previous outgoing flight was still delayed so there was a throng of frustrated, angry passengers clutching boarding passes at the gate. I was one of them. Air travel is no longer glamorous (if it ever was). The reality is that airlines are in business to make a buck and passengers are commodities. There's a sort of unwritten pact between them and us: They provide minimal services and pretzels, and we get where we want to be, safely, at a reasonable price.
But Mother Nature intrudes. I was ready to go home, but flights were delayed. Although the skies above Scranton, Pennsylvania, were clear, thunderstorms were happening all up and down the East Coast. So we waited. And waited. The gate was small, the seats were hard, and connecting flights were merely hopes. "But I need to get to Portland," one person proclaimed after being told that she wouldn't make the connecting flight. "I am supposed to be in Dallas," said another through a scowl. The crowd was restless.
Still another announcement interrupted, stating that the departure time for my flight was moved back another 45 minutes. A gate agent said that she didn't know when or if our flights would arrive and be able to take off, so they would try to reroute us. She asked people to form a line. Quickly the line was long enough to snake from the agent's table through rows of seats in the waiting area. People were talking on their cell phones—too loudly—and some parents were trying to keep their kids occupied. It was not a pretty sight.

Leadership in Action

Then I noticed the leadership. It didn't come from pilots or an airline executive. It came from the three gate agents, who acted as if they did this sort of thing routinely (which is probably accurate), courteously dealing with the frustrated flyers and calming the room. They were in charge, and we welcomed it.
The gate agents talked with passenger after passenger in a friendly, courteous, and helpful manner, despite the resentment they must have sensed. Slowly, the line moved. After an interminable period of time, I was finally at the front of the line, and the agent greeted me with a friendly smile: "Hi, how can I help you?" I wanted to say, "Can't you tell? I'm stranded like the other 100 people in here!" But her smile and welcoming attitude totally disarmed me. She asked with sincerity and was ready to listen. Mind you, she had just finished dealing with 15 or 20 other unhappy flyers, listening to each of their unique (in their minds) situations and working to find alternate routes or accommodations. She was feverishly running on a complaint treadmill, and she wasn't fazed by it at all.
After my turn, I sat and watched each of the gate agents (I had time on my hands, after all) and saw that their performance was consistently above and beyond what I would have expected and probably would've been able to muster in their position. They not only did the tasks that were necessary, but they did them in a way that caused all of us to settle down a bit. Nothing had changed, yet after talking with an agent, each person looked a bit less harried and angry. We were there for another 90 minutes, but the mood in the room was amazingly different, even though there were no planes and our situations mostly hadn't changed. The difference was that most of us had met with one of the gate agents.

How Did They Do That?

Like those agents, principals sometimes end up operating with limited information in a situation where much of the problem is out of our control—and those we serve aren't happy. So it's worth considering how the gate agents did their job in a way that positively changed the group atmosphere. They engaged in four leadership behaviors.
  1. They listened attentively throughout. I'm sure that my story wasn't much different from those of the score of folks who preceded me, but the gate agent listened and didn't try to hurry me. When she called me "Tom," I felt myself exhaling a bit, and it helped when she said, "I know how frustrating this is for you." I knew that she was doing her job, but those two not-strictly-required comments made me feel that she was concerned about my situation. They changed how I felt.
  2. They made it clear that they were on our side, willing to do whatever they could to help resolve our problem. At one point, the agent I met with was peering at her computer monitor to find possible alternative routes, and it seemed to be taking forever. Becoming impatient, I asked how things looked. "Here," she said, "you can see," and she swivelled the monitor so that we were both looking at it. She began to explain the symbols and layout on the screen. Although I couldn't decipher much, that action removed a hierarchical barrier between us and shouted that she and I were on the same team.
  3. The agents maintained their poise, even when confronted by someone who was neither fair nor kind to them, responding with the calmness that we needed to see and feel. Their actions showed us that they were doing everything possible and that losing composure wouldn't help the situation.
  4. They defined their job in a transformational way. Although they might not see any of us again, they invested time in building rapport. Relationships are at the heart of every interaction, and the ways the agents talked and listened caused us to be more positive and forgiving.
Inevitably there will be times when you're facing an unhappy individual or group, and you won't have sufficient information or authority to change the situation. But like the gate agents, you can have a positive effect by listening, personalizing the interactions, and not exacerbating frustrations. That's leadership.

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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