Personal Regard: Why Being Gruff Isn’t Worth It

The principalship is tough work, so it’s no surprise that it both attracts tough-minded people and makes people tougher over time.

It makes sense to be increasingly realistic and pragmatic as you gain experience, but too often we forget a key element of effective leadership: personal regard.

Gruff man with arms folded

Our society is filled with images of leaders who torment their staff: Donald Trump, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Anna Wintour, Gordon Ramsey, and dozens more.

I don’t know any principals who throw things at their staff, but I have seen, time and again, subtle moves on the part of administrators that undermine personal regard.

When we treat requests from staff as annoyances rather than opportunities to serve, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we judge a lesson without asking any questions, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we take the side of a student or parent before hearing a teacher out, we’re withholding personal regard.

When we don’t bother to find out what’s going on in the lives of our teachers, we’re withholding personal regard.

The alternative?

  • We can see ourselves as servant-leaders rather than bosses
  • We can listen
  • We can seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Steven Covey famously said
  • We can be aware of what’s going on in people’s lives
  • We can look at the enterprise of educating students as a shared responsibility, rather than a battle against our teachers

Personal regard doesn’t mean we lower our standards or ask less of people. It means we care more about people and invest more in them. As a result, we can expect more out of them.

What makes it hard to prioritize personal regard? What do you do to let your staff know you care?

What’s My Job?

Principals are instructional leaders, first and foremost.

Right?

Arrows

That’s what I was taught in my principal preparation program, and that’s the message I heard year after year as a principal. But how does that idealized vision of the principal’s work align with the daily reality?

Several studies have examined how principals spend their time; for example, Stanford researchers found that

Principals appear to devote the least total amount of time to instruction-related activities including Day-to-Day Instruction tasks (six percent) and more general Instructional Program responsibilities (seven percent).

Is what we spend 6-7% of our time on really our top priority?

In his classic book The Nature of Managerial Work, Henry Mintzberg identifies ten different roles that managers – from head nurses to principals to CEOs to superintendents – all play to varying extents.

I’ve you’ve been wondering why you have to deal with so much other than instructional leadership, take a look at Mintzberg’s list of managerial roles:

  • Figurehead
  • Liaison
  • Leader
  • Monitor
  • Disseminator
  • Spokesman
  • Entrepreneur
  • Disturbance Handler
  • Resource Allocator
  • Negotiator

As you read the word “manager,” I bet you have a somewhat negative reaction. Why don’t we like to be seen as managers?

I think the reason is that “manager” implies maintaining the status quo, whereas “leadership” implies leading change.

Indeed, this is at the heart of the definition of instructional leadership from the research literature. A recent Wallace Foundation study defines instructional leadership as:

intentional efforts at all levels of an educational system to guide, direct, or support teachers as they seek to increase their repertoire of skills, gain professional knowledge, and ultimately improve their students’ success. We thus subsume within this term much more than conventional images of instructional leadership that concentrate on individuals providing assistance or guidance to teachers, as in the school principal or literacy coach engaged in what amounts to “instructional coaching” or “clinical supervision.” Rather, we are concerned about the full range of activities, carried out by various educators, that offer teachers ideas, assistance, or moral support specifically directed at instruction and that urge or even compel teachers to try to improve. We further assume that instructional leadership is inherently distributed among different staff in the school building and across levels of the system—that is, more than one kind of individual or unit are influencing teachers’ work, whether or not they recognize and coordinate their respective efforts.

So there you have it. Our roles are broader than instructional leadership, and instructional leadership is distributed among many different people, not just the principal. We’ll explore these themes more in upcoming articles.

How did you react to the description of instructional leadership above, and the list of Mintzberg’s managerial roles?

Efficiency in Relationships

You’d never hear someone say “We have a very efficient relationship.” Or if you did, you’d be worried.

We tend to think of relationships and efficiency as opposites: we can either choose to care about the person, or we can care about efficiency, limiting the time we spend on the relationship.

SmilingprofessionalBut I think we have it all wrong, because great relationships are naturally very efficient. We just use a different word for efficiency: respect.

Much of what we do to build great relationships is also great for our productivity. Let’s look at a few examples.

Great relationships improve communication. The reverse is also true—communication begets better relationships—so we can build a virtuous cycle in our schools by focusing on both communication and relationships.

The more we like being around each other, the more likely we are to share information, even when it’s not big news yet. For school leaders, gleaning information on what’s happening in the school and in the community—especially about things that haven’t bubbled up to the surface yet—is critical to our ability to be proactive and prevent small problems from becoming big ones.

Great relationships let us communicate more while saying less. It’s been said that as much of 93% of communication is nonverbal, but that 93% isn’t just facial expressions and posture. It’s history, context, and relationship—people know what we mean when they know us well, and this saves an incredible amount of time, effort, and frustration.

When we know each other well and respect each other’s feelings, we can communicate more respectfully and more concisely.

Great relationships help us presume positive intentions. If we’re always at each other’s throats over every little issue, we’re going to produce more conflict than results. When we know and trust each other, we can communicate and delegate effectively, and the work itself can take center stage.

Great relationships help us delegate more effectively. When we know what someone is capable of doing successfully, we can give them appropriate work and the support they need. When we delegate poorly, we’re setting up our team for failure. As leaders, it’s our job to know the strengths of our staff, and make sure that everyone is on track for success.

Great relationships make people happier, and happier people are more productive. Cooperation, communication, self-efficacy—the better we get along, the better we get things done.

How do you see relationships improving efficiency in your school?

Management Isn’t a 4-Letter Word

Perhaps adaptive change is better than technical change. Perhaps Level 5 leaders are better than Level 4 leaders. Perhaps leadership is better than management.

But management is necessary, and school principals are managers – like it or not.

If you want to be a better leader, start by making sure you’re being a good manager, the best manager you can be.

If you aren’t sure where to start, read Daniel Pink’s recent book Drive. I’m working on it now, and it’s changing my world.

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