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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

5 Behaviors That Can Sink Leaders

By Peter DeWitt — October 23, 2014 4 min read

  • Being told to hand in plan books every other week, even though the leader doesn’t ultimately “check” the plans of the “good” teachers...
  • Getting a group e-mail demanding teachers are on time to pick their students up from lunch, even though there are only a couple of teachers who are ever late...
  • Being asked in the hallway where you are supposed to be, even though you are the teacher and not one of the students...
  • Sitting in faculty meetings not feeling allowed to offer an opinion when new initiatives arise...

It’s annoying, and counterproductive to moving forward in a positive direction.

Let’s face it, we have all worked for a poor leader before. I’m not talking about transformational leaders who manage the building instead of working with teachers on instructional practices. Managing staff and students was a fairly popular leadership style, and many of the principals who did that well were just following the role they were taught.

I’m referring to leaders who don’t seem to understand the difference between working with a group of staff, students and parents, and hammering them into submission. More dictatorship...less democracy.

Leadership is at the heart of every discussion we may have from teacher tenure, school climate to accountability. A great leader can rally the troops and get staff through any bad situation. A poor leader can sink the ship and make morale go from bad to worse...instead of good to great.

There are five characteristics, and probably more, of bad leaders. It’s important that new and prospective leaders understand what schools need, and it’s not a dictator who scares all stakeholders; it’s a strong leader who can build consensus, help find resources to improve teaching and learning practices, and someone who can build strong relationships with all stakeholders...even the ones they may disagree with from time to time.

The five I believe can sink ships are:


  1. Insecure - Don’t get me wrong. Everyone is insecure from time to time. Most school leaders have spent hours up at night not getting a good night’s sleep because they are worried about making a bad decision...or worried about a decision they have already made. However, leaders who are insecure all the time question themselves too much, and their staff way too much. When strong leaders move forward, insecure leaders micromanage everything their staff does in order to control every situation.
  2. Overconfident - As much as insecurity can be at the root of a problem leader, overconfidence can be as well. Any quality leader questions and reflects on practices. They are even known to change their minds when things are going wrong, but overconfident leaders push through even though bodies are flying from side to side, and some of them blame their staff when things go wrong.
  3. Inflexible - John Hattie talks a great deal about the need for dialogue instead of monologue. Inflexible leaders believe dialogue is when they talk and others listen. The power of any school community are the collective thoughts of all stakeholders. Yes, leaders need to “Stand up and be a leader (Bennis)” but they move forward after listening...really listening to all stakeholders.
  4. Inconsistent - This is my decision! No, wait...I read a good book and now THIS is my decision. We all know that fair isn’t always equal, but inconsistent leaders are the ones who change their mind all the time, and provide different answers to the same question on a regular basis.
  5. Unaware - There is nothing worse than a leader who doesn’t know, nor takes the time, to know what is truly going on in the classroom. Leaders need to check in on staff, students and parents. They need to talk to their counselors, school nurse and secretary to keep their thumb on the pulse of what is going on in the lives of stakeholders. They may not always be able to change the situation but they can certainly help make it a bit better. Additionally, school leaders need to know what their staff is teaching, what kids are learning, and how well students and adults are getting along. Being clueless is not the trait of a good leader.

In the End

This is not meant to pick on leaders, because all leaders have some of those traits from time to time. It’s when they exhibit those traits regularly that problems occur. As we talk about the need for teaching and learning to change, we must make our best attempt to get leadership to change. Great leaders work with stakeholders and communicate regularly using more than newsletters. They provide and take feedback from students, staff and parents, and really try to make changes with that feedback in mind.

The power of leadership isn’t in getting the big office with all of the decision making or the bigger salary that may come with the position. The power of leadership is getting people together, creating strong relationships, and caring about what adults and children believe about school when they are within the walls of the building, and after they leave to enter the next phase of their lives.

We should expect a lot out of our leaders, and I believe that because I have had the experience of working with many great leaders. Not only did I have the good fortune to work with a few who I could call at anytime to ask for their insight, I have had the good fortune to work with some who were the epitome of great leadership. They were the ones we looked up to, listened to when they talked, and listened to us when we needed support. They told us when we were wrong, and celebrated when we were right. They brought people together and didn’t spend their time building coalitions in an effort to divide a group.

We need great leaders. We need men and women who are willing to take the time to work hard, listen to others, and learn from those around them. Our focus should always be on learning, and great leadership will get us there.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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