By Infusino, Frank
Leadership , Vol. 39, No. 1
In a 37-year career in education, I was a teacher, dean, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent and superintendent. In that time, I worked with and observed many administrators; some were excellent, some good and some not so good. I learned from them all.
For the past several years I have been conducting workshops to prepare aspiring administrators to take the national School Leaders Licensure Assessment, given by the Educational Testing Service. Passing the exam allows teachers and other qualified school personnel to receive a preliminary administrative credential.
While my goal in these workshops is to have participants pass the exam, I also want them to become effective administrators. So, in the course of our discussions on various scenarios faced by practicing administrators, I usually pass on some rules regarding behaviors to avoid. When I introduce them, I invariably get raised hands accompanied by the question: "Guess what my principal did last week?" I can assure you the actions they described violated one or more of these rules and the results were not good.
There have been thousands of books written on leadership. Many concentrate on the personal characteristics leaders must possess, while others focus on various skill sets necessary for success. All of them recognize that a leader does not operate in a vacuum; that he or she does not only need to possess a vision for the organization but must work with others to achieve that vision. Some even acknowledge that not all stakeholders wish the leader well and may actively seek to undermine him or her.
Leaders walk a tightrope every day, without a net, and one misstep can plunge them into an abyss from which they may never be able to climb. And that misstep can be as simple as an ill-advised e-mail or a unilateral decision to change a well-established practice.
Educational leadership is particularly precarious. Educators do not "control" many aspects of teaching and learning. Their success depends on their ability to forge positive relationships with all stakeholders both inside and outside the organization.
In the beginning, those relationships are fragile and must be nurtured carefully. But many new administrators don't have the experience or knowledge to understand this. They have spent only a few years in the classroom, view leadership from that perspective and are unaware of the risks and challenges they face. So it is particularly important that they avoid some of the common mistakes that can quickly undermine their ability to lead effectively. New administrators who adhere to the "Cardinal Rules" below will keep their feet firmly planted on the tightrope of success.
* Rule No. 1: Never send e-mails or memos to staff on critical issues such as evaluations, classroom observations or changing a school's established practice. Discuss these issues with staff personally. Then you can explain your concerns, clarify points, receive their feedback and gauge their response. Changing a school's established practice, for example, by notifying staff through an e-mail is certain to undermine morale, create uncertainty and even engender hostility toward your leadership ability.
It should be clear to all by now that memos or e-mails, even if intended to be so, are not kept confidential, can be misinterpreted or misread and generate rumors and second-guessing. They can appear on the staff bulletin board, in the local newspaper or on an Internet blog. Out of context or standing alone, they can make the sender appear foolish, dictatorial, inept or all of the above.
It takes courage to talk to people face to face. But you must do it. It will enhance their trust in you as an individual and in your ability as a leader.
One caveat: I am not talking here about e-mails or memos reminding the staff of upcoming events such as parent nights or afterschool meetings. …