Ever Wonder if You’re the Worst Principal in the World?

Unsuccessful School Principals | JamesBrauer.comHave you ever wondered if you’re the worst school administrator in the entire world? OK, maybe I’m exaggerating the question a bit. But truthfully, this question has entered my mind on a few occasions. I’m sure it’s natural instinct to compare my performance, knowledge, and achievements against my colleagues. If nothing else, it gives me a baseline from which I always want to improve and advance. But this over-analysis of other administrators generally leaves me feeling as though there is so much more to accomplish or do within my position of education leadership.

But after reading a recent Forbes magazine article by Eric Jackson, all about horrible habits of business-sector leaders, I realized I’m so horrible after-all.

So, are you wondering what could make you the WORST school administrator possible?

Well, according to Jackson, to be “spectacularly unsuccessful” you must possess any, or all, of the following habits:

  1. Assuming you, or your organization, dominates while failing to realize things and events change. These types of leaders think they actually “control” events and don’t realize things generally happen by chance or circumstance. They also may not realize they actually inherited their leadership position merely by being at the right place, at the very right time.
  2. Being so involved with their organization that its difficult for others to see a distinct separation of personal life and professional life. Many educators struggle with separating themselves from their work responsibilities. In fairness, the demands of the job often transgress toward needing to complete work at home. But there is also another breed of educator, particularly some administrators, that make their job their actual life. While many of these over-zealous administrators get rave reviews by some, it could potentially lead to that administrator developing a “personal empire” with a moat around their school. I like to consider this kind of administrator as the type that builds a dynasty for his/herself. They start thinking about things as “their” building, “their” teachers, “their” students…you get the point. This over-involvement with their school also has the potential of developing an utter arrogance and a distorted sense of entitlement.
  3. Thinking you have all the answers. Personally, this characteristic drives me absolutely-insane. I have more respect for those that can openly admit when they DON’T know something, over trying to convince me of everything they DO know. Proving you have all the answers doesn’t impress me at all, nor should it EVER impress you. As a matter of fact, I find those that think they have all the answers to be borderline-reckless. Think about it this way, a leader that pumps out INSTANT solutions to a problem should actually worry you. Rather than reflect on possible outcomes or various interventions, they had an IMMEDIATE response. Because each situation is different, prescribed and automated responses are probably not always ideal. Jackson also stated that “these leaders need to feel they have all the answers, they aren’t open to learning new ones.”
  4. Believing ANYBODY and EVERYBODY that doesn’t think or agree with you, must be eliminated. Since when did this idea ever gain credence in public schools? And more importantly, why did it all? Is it because educators read Jim Collins’s book “Good to Great,” which indicated highly successful leaders manage to get the “right people” on the bus, while getting the “wrong people” off the bus? If so, fine. But, it is worth noting there is a significant difference between getting the “wrong” people off the bus and ELIMINATING or terminating them from having any further association with them, or the organization. Divergent viewpoints are a good thing. It maintains balance and fosters critical thinking. It also better enables principals to analyze situations from various angles, rather than being surrounded by a group of folks who are all telling him/her how good their ideas sound. As Jackson stated, the leaders that had everybody supporting them, never had anybody to warn them they were headed down the right path.
  5. Obsessing yourself with “company image.” A principal or administrator that is consumed with gaining the “public light” for accomplishments is not beneficial to a school or district. While there is nothing wrong with proper public relations, branding, and marketing, those that “live” for public attention and the spotlight are generally broadcasting an illusion of accomplishing things. Unfortunately, in reality they are accomplishing very little. But, the “public” is engrossed by the constant public exposure of these types of administrators, leaving them to believe great things are being done. Rather than demonstrating true servitude leadership, it is more important to appear as such.
  6. Underestimating problems and “poo-pooing” problems. (I have long waited for the day I can use “poo-pooing” in public writing. That day has finally come.) There are some educational leaders that minimize problems and deem situations as “no big deal.” These leaders are so absorbed with their own goals, they fail to realize how any peripheral problems can actually develop into significant problems. Disregarding certain problems is closely related to Habit #3, assuming one has all the answers. Many leaders don’t tackle certain problems because they don’t actually know how to respond. But, rather than ask for help or collaborate with others, this arrogance ultimately compounds the severity of problems. Or, a leader can become so convinced that their course of action is correct, they can’t admit there are any other problems in the system.  If they did, others would realize they are not perfect and/or not always correct.
  7. Doing only the things you’ve done time-and-time again. I’m a self-proclaimed “creature of habit.” I do certain things because its familiar to me and doesn’t create anxiety. This is directly related to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which asserts that people will do the things they see others doing and that they know how to do, avoiding those they do not. But a principal that relies on the same approaches, or allows their faculty/staff to resort to the same approaches, is not helping the school evolve and stretch. Our students need to be exposed to multiple methods of teaching, learning, and assessing. Our students need to practice tackling open-ended problems with no right or wrong solution. Our schools should be structured to allow students AND their teachers to learn collaboratively, maximizing the level of synergy during learning activities. Unfortunately, they will never learn to do so, if principals and teachers are not leading by example.

There’s a good chance you know a principal, central office administrator, or superintendent that has possessed one or more of these qualities. You may even work with somebody right now that does. And more importantly, you may possess one or more of these qualities.

If so, there’s no shame to be experienced. Becoming aware of this reality is the first step to making significant changes to become a highly successful leader.

The second step is a bit more poignant. As Jackson stated:

“If you exhibit several of these traits, now is the time to stamp them out from your repertoire. If your boss or several senior executives at your company exhibit several of these traits, now is the time to start looking for a new job.”


  1. Michelle said:

    I wish I could fwd this to my last principal. She just started a startup charter school and won’t admit that she’s making a lot of mistakes and won’t listen to teachers who want to help her improve things. Ultimately she’s driving her own school into the ground!

    Fortunately I got hired onto another school where the principal seems to embrace the ways of a good and fair manager.

    January 5, 2012
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