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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

7 Traits of Highly Ineffective Leaders

By Peter DeWitt — March 07, 2017 7 min read
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Sorry about the title. Not a very positive way to begin a blog about leadership. However, the truth is, not all leaders are created equally. Many of you reading this know that, especially if you have worked for one or two of those ineffective leaders. I guess they may not be totally ineffective, because through watching them we sometimes learn what not to do when we are in leadership positions.

When I was a young teacher I had a principal who came to the room every morning to say good morning to our class. It was a great way to begin our day. When he said good morning and asked how we were doing, we would answer that we were in our happy place. Ahh...the joys of working with elementary school students. Unfortunately, years later in my last year of teaching, before I was fortunate enough to become a principal I worked for a different kind of principal. One who was not so positive.

This principal checked lesson plans on a cycle. It was their first year as a principal and my last year as a teacher. I complied like I always did because my plans were always done (Of course, it didn’t mean I taught those well laid out plans!). One time I forgot to hand them in, so the following morning I dropped them off apologizing to the principal for my tardiness. “I never check your plans any way,” was the comment returned to me. Years after I left the school the same cycle of checking lesson plans was continued.

So, why did I have to hand them in? Because everyone else did. Just because my plans looked completed didn’t mean I taught anything that I wrote, and the principal wouldn’t have known anyway because they never came into the classroom to watch me teach...and the students were never asked what they were learning.

See also: 5 Strategies Leaders Can Use to Stay Out of the Weeds

This is just one example of what I learned what not to do when I became a principal. Instead of checking for plans I would rather sit next to students, ask what they are learning, which meant going into classrooms as often as possible. And like one of my leaders, I went stopped to say good morning to each class before the day officially began with the sound of a bell.

Leadership ... It Depends

Leadership styles sometime depends on the situation. Some people head into a leadership position with big dreams and the best intentions, and then they remember they have to work with people who may not be on board with those big dreams, and they lose those best intentions.

Other times leaders enter into the situation ready to move forward, but because of mandates, rules and the politics of distraction (Hattie. 2015) they become insecure and not sure what to do first. As leaders, when we have so many choices of where to start we sometimes choose not to choose at all. Understanding our current reality is important, but what should be on our radar is not always so glaringly obvious.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart...

In Stephen Covey’s seminal work, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People he showed us...some may even say inspired us...with 7 habits that all successful people have, and taught us that with some hard work we can adopt those habits too. Those 7 habits of course are...

Be proactive - Anticipate and act, no matter how difficult the situation.

Begin with the end in mind - What do we want out of leadership, and what should we want as a school community?

Put first things first - Drop the politics of distraction, understand our current reality, and take actionable steps to achieve that goal.

Think win/win - Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight’s work focuses a lot on the partnership principles, learning from others, and equality which means that everyone brings something to the table we can learn from. Leaders shouldn’t always look to get what they want, but understand that through collective efficacy (1.57 effect size) we can have a powerful impact through our collective work.

Seek first to understand then to be understood - Leaders should listen more than they talk, and try to understand where the other person is coming from before they try to move forward.

Synergize - This is all about collective efficacy, which Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (2004) says, “refers to the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.”

Sharpen the Saw - Know when to take a break. Schools with initiative fatigue never sharpen the saw.

Covey believed that we need to take responsibility for our actions, and that we are shaped by our decisions and not circumstances. Unfortunately, not all leaders feel the same. As a school principal I was very fortunate to work with leaders who had different ways of thinking, but they were all successful in the way they approached situations. Since being on the road running workshops and working with leaders, I realized that not all leaders are created equally. However, I guess I kind of learned that in my last year of teaching...

There are many leaders who take responsibility and look at their circumstances as a challenge they can learn from, no matter how difficult those situations may be. To them success means they can increase the self-efficacy of others and build collective efficacy among their staff, students and families.

Other times there are leaders who blame their teachers, students or parents for their lack of success. Those are the leaders who check lesson plans on a cycle without giving any feedback, and send e-mails to staff saying they have to pick their children up on time from lunch even though they know it’s only a couple of teachers who are late.

7 Habits Of Highly Ineffective Leaders

And yet other times, there are leaders who work hard but they spend most of their time chasing the circumstances they may be in. They are constantly chasing a goal, but not sure what that goal is because it changes frequently depending on what they hear from others and what they read in books, blogs and articles.

Just like there are habits of highly successful leaders, there are habits that can bring leaders to a place of ineffectiveness. Those habits are:

Be reactive - Leaders who always seem to not see things coming, and lack the ability to work with their school community on a collective goal.

There’s no end in mind - Everyone in the school is working on their individual goals...if they have one...and the leader doesn’t think about the future as much as they keep getting stuck in issues in the present.

Ego first - In Jim Knight’s work we talk a lot about status. Leaders have it because of their position. However, great leaders have status but they lower theirs and raise the status of those around them, which is often referred to self-efficacy. Unfortunately there are leaders who let their ego rule and that’s what they lead with every time.

My way or the highway - Instead of focusing on win/win these leaders are more concerned with controlling everything and getting their own way. They walk into a faculty meeting with one idea and walk out with the same one.

Seek to be understood - Ego first. My way or the highway. Get on board or get out.

Discord - These leaders always seem to be in disagreement with someone and they try their best to build consensus by getting others to agree with them at the same time they vilify those who disagree with them.

Efficacy Killers - These leaders are consistently going after new initiatives so their staff feel tired, lost and insecure. They micromanage and look for compliance on all issues. This behavior does the opposite of building self-efficacy. It kills it. It is the reason why there are teachers in schools who feel a lack of self-efficacy, which Bandura (1977) showed to have negative effects on students. Teachers with a low level of self-efficacy don’t feel as though they can have a positive impact on their students.

In the End

Leadership is hard but it’s also important. Vitally important. And it begins with how leaders treat people. Unfortunately, if you’re a leader and you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. Ineffective leaders are those who have all of the attributes from the above list. Have you worked for one? What would you do differently?

Understand however, that we can have situations where we may show one of those attributes in the ineffective list. For example, maybe we spend too much time being reactive. Is it possible to survey, interview and create focus groups of stakeholders to help us understand our current reality to help change from ineffective to effective? Can we work with a leadership coach to help us create a goal and achieve it?

Leadership isn’t about getting what we want and feeding our egos. Leadership is about raising the self-efficacy of others and collectively working to improve our school community together. That happens in creative communities more than it happens in compliant communities, and we know which 7 habits belong to each one.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.