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School & District Management Opinion

6 Leadership Strategies for Principals

By Andre Benito Mountain — December 19, 2019 4 min read
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Parents were filing out of the cafeteria after a meeting when a mother I knew well from dismissals approached me. I had remarked weeks earlier on her daughter’s impressive report card grades and test scores, and the mother had beamed with pride. She had also seemed a little surprised that the principal was following her daughter’s progress that closely.

On this evening, she had something she wanted to share with me. “I have to tell you that when you first came here, I had to get used to all of the changes,” she said, smiling. “But now, after three years, I can see what you are doing.”

Then a look of concern replaced her smile. “You know, some of your own teachers were really working against you last year, too. But most of them have moved on,” she added. “Keep doing what you are doing. We see the difference you are making.”

I liken a school to a large sailboat traveling through rough seas. Nearly the entire crew is on the deck shifting sails, trying to help the captain steer the ship to safety. Missing are a few crew members who should be on deck helping. Instead, they are down below complaining about the captain and the storm, and they are drilling holes in the ship to hasten our demise. Somehow, these sailors fail to understand that they are working to sink the vessel they are aboard.

Why do folks drill holes in their own ship? Pushing people beyond their comfort zones can evoke resistance. Other times, that push can help a good teacher make the leap to being exemplary. What I’ve termed the “Cloud Principle” suggests that the best teachers, like clouds in the sky, are always shifting and adjusting as technology and information change the profession.

In thinking about resistance to change, I’ve been helped by the now-classic “Choosing Strategies for Change,” an article that first appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1979. In it, Leonard A. Schlesinger and John P. Kotter outline three steps for managing change successfully: analyze the situational factors, determine the optimal speed for change, and consider methods for managing resistance.

Why do folks drill holes in their own ship? Pushing people beyond their comfort zones can evoke resistance."

The authors provide leaders with six methods to overcome resistance to change—to address the drilling of holes. The methods are education and communication, participation, facilitation, negotiation, manipulation and co-optation, and coercion.

1. Education and Communication: An honest conversation about the reasons to support a new initiative can go a long way. Sharing divergent perspectives can help everyone embrace a change.

Recently students at my school, who normally wear uniforms, suggested “free dress days.” The idea wasn’t popular with my staff. I suggested to them it was valuable to create spaces where students can advocate for themselves, demonstrate persistence, and effect change. Students who think critically and negotiate with leadership are poised to become politically active students, voters, and citizens active in their communities. We decided that money from the special day would benefit our urban agriculture program, and the staff was on board with the innovation.

2. Participation: I was once told that the best leaders “run to their resisters.” It’s a good idea to call resisters onto the deck and ask them to help lead the other sailors. The resisters can share their perspective in a way that is tied to the overall mission of the school. Sometimes, I devise a plan to have them as part of the agenda of every meeting.

3. Facilitation: I recently hired a teacher who came into the classroom with a wealth of experience and Power Point presentations aligned to the 5th grade math standards. He could have stuck to those Power Points for years. Instead, when I introduced him to Canva, a graphic design software that allows you to create dynamic presentations, obtain a shareable link, and make edits to the linked material in real time, he added the app to his repertoire. He became a stronger teacher because of his openness to new ideas.

Sometimes people resist a new approach or new technology because they are afraid they will fail at mastering it. Now our school has an optional course where teachers can learn how to use Canva.

4. Negotiation: In 2000 I worked for Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. As the trading volume increased, we were called upon to work overtime to process the trades. Merrill Lynch not only paid overtime, but it provided dinner and, if you worked past 9 p.m., a chauffeured ride home. Employees negotiated these perks in ongoing discussions with upper management.

Leaders can negotiate incentives, compensations, or special recognition that will help staff work harder to meet the challenges of change.

5. Manipulation and co-optation: While Schlesinger and Kotter list manipulation and co-optation as methods for managing change, they note that this approach can undermine the leader’s ability to successfully use education or participation.

In transforming school communities, principals violate trust at their peril. Relationships are critical. I avoid manipulation and co-optation.

6. Coercion: This is the most basic tool for addressing resistance. When the stakes are high and student achievement is directly linked to teacher performance, coercion conveys a sense of urgency. Performance reviews tied to explicit expectations can keep your crew productively engaged.

Helping the crew members preoccupied with drilling either find their way up to the main deck to assist in the work or off the ship is the job of the leader. The sound of drilling will always be heard in the depths of a ship moving in the right direction. Responding to the sound, implementing appropriate countermeasures, and filling the holes are part of the journey of leadership.

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