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


Leadership Principles for Public School Principals

At the Leadership Academy, Dr. Tichy asks participants to study and deconstruct Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He uses it as a universal benchmark for how leaders can build a compelling case for change. The speech, which Dr. Tichy references repeatedly in his books and in his discussions with aspiring leaders in the education and business worlds, provides a way to understand what he considers the three fundamental elements of an effective call to action: A case for change; an outline for where the organization is going; and a road map for getting there. He holds the speech up as a model for simple wording and structure and narrative techniques, such as the short, repetitive phrases that convey King’s passion.

“What makes you a leader and not just a storyteller is that people sign up for it,” says Dr. Tichy, who points out that Dr. King gave parts of his speech dozens of times, constantly refining the message, before presenting the famous version in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C.

Principals are called on to imagine that, three years hence, change at their schools has been so successful that they have been chosen to grace the cover of Time magazine. The principals must write the narrative of that transformation and then present their vision to their academy cohorts. The presentations are videotaped and critiqued on how clearly they capture a central idea or vision, whether the story conveys the values that are needed to support the vision, and the likelihood that the presentation will excite the members of the principal’s school community.

Teaching Accountability
In a unionized work environment, the conventional wisdom that principals have little leverage to use against underperforming teachers has often served as an excuse for principals to abdicate the role of personnel development and performance evaluation. At the Leadership Academy, faculty from education and business are brought in to impress on principals that rigorous performance management matters. And creating an activist culture of accountability and performance improvement starts with the principals.

Performance management experts from business highlight best practices and discuss how to handle the worst cases. First-year principals develop a comprehensive strategy to improve teacher performance.

“Assessment is not something you do annually or once every six months — it’s constant,” Mr. Welch told the principals in Brooklyn last fall. “You’re no longer an expert in teaching, you’re an expert in building teachers. Your job is to build a winning team.”

But to really convince principals that performance management is possible in the school setting, the academy relies on an educator who has been a principal, Carmen Fariña. The first step, Ms. Fariña tells first-year principals convened at an academy workshop, is for the principal to get to know his or her troops. “You need to have one-on-one conversations with everyone in your school,” she says. With the same intense demeanor that Mr. Welch has, the diminutive Ms. Fariña paces the floor, firing off her counsel: “Knowing your team is crucial.…You have to know their strengths and weaknesses…and develop a ‘sociograph’ of your building.”

She advises the principals to focus their “get to know you” interviews with teachers on three questions. “What are you most proud of? Where do you need more help? What do you need me to do?” The principal’s follow-up support for the teacher is as important as the initial interviews. Ms. Fariña tells principals to take notes on each conversation and to use those notes to develop new goals and plans.

Before hearing Ms. Fariña’s lecture, Steve Boyer, who graduated from the Leadership Academy in 2004 and is the new principal of P.S. 251 in Brooklyn, had interviewed all the teachers in his school. “But I didn’t document the conversations,” says Mr. Boyer, a veteran math teacher with 32 years as a teacher and assistant principal. Now, he says, he will.

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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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