Every new principal I’ve ever worked with has said something like this to me: Ugh! I have so many meetings, conferences and trainings, how am I ever supposed to do my job?
This frustration is often the product of very thoughtful people, with strong instructional backgrounds, being suddenly thrust into organizational leadership without having been given an honest map of the demands of a role like this. While my hypothetical principals are well-equipped to lead teams of like-minded educators, they are often unprepared for the demands of the role that differ from classroom-level leadership. There is an antidote to this frustration: a combination of a deep understanding of one’s own biases and strengths combined with a broad and layered understanding of the demands of the job.
Understanding Our Own Biases
I have to confess, I’m a bit of a self-knowledge junkie. Like many fem-identifying Xlenials my age, I spent my teens completing personality quizzes in a variety of magazines (and trying out those paper-fold perfume samples). When I became an educator in the digital age, I eagerly engaged in the grown-up versions of those quizzes: The MBTI and it’s many offspring, True Colors, Strengthsfinder 2.0, Leadership 2.0, and more. A couple of these tools have had a profound impact on how I view myself; the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) being the most telling. Here’s what I mean: I’m an INFJ (Introversion (I), Intuition (N), Feeling (F), Judgment (J)). An interesting aspect of my personality type is that when the setting calls for it, I can perform as an extrovert. I also love people and read them well. But surface-level social interaction takes every ounce of my energy, and for me, keeping up small talk with people I barely know is the emotional equivalent of stepping on a colony of fire ants. Knowing these strengths and challenges about how I navigate the world helps me recognize which parts of school leadership I will excel at (relational & symbolic) and which aspects will be a struggle (political).
Understanding the Demands of Leadership
While a strong understanding of one’s own personality is crucial, it’s not enough. We also have to understand what we’ve signed up for. Bolman & Deal’s Four-Frame Model for leadership offers four frames of reference for navigating the demands of organizational leadership. As with personality types, there are frames we are more naturally drawn to and frames that are foreign to us. Principals who begin as strong classroom-based instructional leaders often gravitate naturally toward relational and structural leadership. So when their calendars are suddenly inundated with tasks of political and symbolic leadership it can feel like they are being asked to do busy-work instead of tasks that are innately tied to successful leadership.
When we find our MBTI, we do it to know ourselves, not to call ourselves to slide between the 16 personality types. That would be both extravagant and unhealthy, and it is ultimately not the purpose of knowing our own MBTI. However, once we know our primary frame in the Bolman & Deal framework, the goal is to expand our skill set into the other three frames. Organizational leadership demands that a leader, or in the best cases, a team of mutually-supportive leaders, understand and operate across fluently all four frames of leadership.
A Coda on Symbolic and Political Leadership
Knowing certainly is “half the battle.” Then there’s action. What is an instructional leader with an affinity for relationship building and disinclination toward the spotlight and handshaking to do? Terrance Deal (of the Bolman & Deal framework) and Kent Peterson have an excellent text that can help the skeptic get at the rationale behind both symbolic and political approaches to leadership; both are essential to creating a healthy school community, and Deal & Peterson spend a great deal of time laying out why this is. While the entire book is a worthy read, if I were making a movie trailer, I’d start with Chapter 8– And if you’re not yet sold on the idea of a principal’s job being a relational, structural, symbolic and political role, then you might want to start there as well.
References and Further Reading
Bolman, Lee G, and Terrence E Deal. (1991). Reframing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991. Print.
Deal, Terrence E. and Kent Peterson. (2009). Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes & Promises. Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.