The role of the principal as an effective manager seems to have fallen out of vogue in discussions about leadership. But before we think too disparagingly about the principal as an administrative manager, let’s consider the various roles that the modern principal has to fill effectively in order to impact student achievement.
Research in the past three decades or so has asked principals to enhance their behaviors from merely managerial tasks to become instructional leaders. The past twenty years or so have seen calls for principals to become transformative in their behaviors, inspiring followers to pursue goals beyond their own, a “change for the better,” as Kenneth Leithwood says.
I submit that the modern principal, operating in the complex societal and political contexts of today’s schools, must be adept at all three types of leadership behavior: managerial, instructional, and transformational. Future blogs will outline my quantitative study on that very topic, but think now about the importance of effective managerial leadership.
Day-to-day managerial skills such as effectively organizing tasks and personnel, developing rules and procedures, evaluating employees, and providing appropriate information to staff and students are vital to a successful school operation. Without maintaining student discipline in the school, for example, few principals are perceived as effective leaders, no matter how much they may know about curriculum.
In fact, some seemingly mundane tasks can have a huge impact on the culture of the school. I recall a case study I participated in during my doctoral studies. While examining the success of a school superintendent, a group of us interviewed several teachers in his district. We asked if they felt their superintendent was a strong leader, to which they all replied with a strong affirmative. When asked why, the most consistent reason given was, “he always answers his e-mail.” They did not mention that he was an expert at curriculum, he was a genius at budgeting, or even that he bought shiny new buses. No, he answered his e-mail. I’m sure there was some history we were not aware of. Most likely the previous superintendent did not answer e-mail, giving the appearance that the teachers didn’t matter to him. But this superintendent cared about them!
Allow me to relate one more story. I spend considerable time consulting for schools and other non-profit organizations, especially in the area of organizational improvement. Recently I completed a study for the extension service of a land-grant university. In visiting the various extension sites, I detected a common cultural thread: the employees felt valued as part of a team within their own site, but sensed a real disconnect from the main office on campus. The primary reason seemed to be that simple tasks such as requisitions took an inordinate amount of time to process.
In presenting my final report to the chief administrator and assistant, I pointed out that their employees were quite vocal in stating that they did not feel valued as part of a team. The administrators expressed surprise at that notion because they did truly value each of the employees and took care to tell them so. I pointed out that no amount of nice words can validate an employee who has to wait three months for travel reimbursement or six months for business cards. A month or so later the assistant administrator, who was the one mostly dropping the ball on the paperwork, called me. “Dr. Prater,” she said, “I have to tell you that your words were an epiphany for me. I thought about it, and I realized how I was making the people in this organization feel by not being timely in my tasks. I’m going to do a better job from now on.”
I know principals have a lot on their plate. Really I do – I’ve been there. But consider the effect of those seemingly mundane tasks. Teachers need textbooks. They need their computers fixed and their window blinds replaced. The nurse needs bandaids and the secretary needs training on the newest computer software. The single mother is waiting for a call back regarding her little girl. All those “small” things you do add up to create one loud voice that says, “You are important!”