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 / Summer 2005 / Issue 39(originally published by Booz & Company)


Leadership Principles for Public School Principals

In the spirit of the leader as teacher, the academy tries to show principals how to create a “vision” for their school and invokes Dr. Tichy’s notion of the “teachable point of view,” which includes four key elements:

  • Ideas. In business, “ideas” are akin to strategic goals, such as Mr. Welch’s mandate to keep GE focused on being No. 1 or No. 2 in every business. An equivalent key “idea” for New York City schools is the Children First reform agenda launched in January 2003.
  • Values. At GE, the importance of leaders’ teaching and fostering personnel development is a core value. Similarly, schools will decide on a set of values and expectations for teachers, students, and parents that can include everything from standards for punctuality and cleanliness to language and dress codes.
  • Emotional energy. To help institutionalize the ideas and values, it is not enough to write a rule book. Leaders need to find ways to motivate all of their constituencies to buy into the ideas and values. In a school, these constituencies include students, teachers, parents, and support staff. Even in a unionized school system, principals have a range of motivational techniques and nonmonetary incentives that they can use, such as extra prep time and flexible schedules.
  • Edge. In an institution stymied by red tape, principals are taught how to make tough calls under pressure, such as deciding when to suspend students and, within the constraints of work rules, when to bring disciplinary action against recalcitrant teachers.

Edge also means knowing when and how to buck the system. For example, during Mr. Welch’s visit to Brooklyn, one principal recounted how, on the Saturday before school was to begin that fall, he found 200 bags of garbage strewn across the sidewalk in front of the school. The principal contacted the department responsible for garbage removal, but got no response. He called the Mayor’s 311 help line. Still no response.

“Monday the kids were coming to school; I didn’t want them stepping on the garbage,” said the principal, who decided to go straight to the top. He sent an e-mail to Mr. Klein.

The chancellor responded immediately, and the next day the garbage was gone. But the principal worried that the e-mail had gotten him into hot water with his supervisor, who let him know that he had better never go over the supervisor’s head again.

The principal shouldn’t take such threats too seriously, countered Mr. Welch. “Do you think the next time you e-mail [your supervisors] they’ll respond to you?” Mr. Welch asked. He answered himself: “They will. They don’t want you to go to Joel Klein again.”

The leadership lesson is clear: Do the right thing for your school and its students — even if it means breaking the rules of the bureaucracy.

Of course, battling a bureaucracy can be daunting. For example, several principals responded positively to the efforts of deputy chancellor Carmen Fariña to find nonmonetary rewards for good teachers, such as developing teaching schedules that build in more time for preparing lessons during the school day and finding ways to structure classes to fit a teacher’s commuting schedule. However, several principals also commented that it is hard to do this for enough deserving teachers so that the effort is perceived as a reward for good work, not as favoritism.

Although the principals have to develop their visions within the framework set out by the school’s chancellor and manage by the rules, Dr. Tichy argues that good leadership also has to be personal. “Leaders lead through stories,” he says, stories that derive from life experiences and from all of the ups and downs and tough times that shape the leader’s ideas and beliefs.

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  1. Art Kleiner, “GE’s Next Workout,” s+b, Winter 2003; Click here.
  2. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003; Click here.
  3. Anthony Alvarado, Richard Elmore, and Lauren Resnick, “Final Report: High Performance Learning Communities Project,” Sept. 15, 2000, University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center; Click here.
  4. Sandra J. Stein and Liz Gewirtzman, Principal Training on the Ground: Ensuring Highly Qualified Leadership (Heinemann, 2003)
  5. Noel M. Tichy with Eli Cohen, The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level (HarperBusiness, 1997)
  6. The New York City Leadership Academy: Click here.
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