Throughout this school year, we have addressed many different aspects of the all-important principal’s role. As this is the final installment in our monthly series, now is the time to explore the key overarching theme of all previous articles which is that impactful principals are servant leaders.
If taken literally, servant leadership can seem to imply that the principal assumes a somewhat subordinate role and lets everyone involved in daily school life basically do his/her own thing. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as the basis of servant leadership is rooted in the premise of improving a school’s overall performance by expecting and promoting high expectations for all.
To ensure this improvement is realized it is incumbent on the servant leader to facilitate support and care for all staff members as outlined below.
When principals prioritize servant leadership, they are prioritizing collaboration. When everyone works to grow individually, the collective impact benefits the entire school. This is the classic win-win scenario. Principals must devote considerable time and resources to develop people and give deserving staff numerous opportunities for professional growth. After all, servant leaders see their own long-term success defined by the success of those they lead.
This commitment to collaboration creates a culture in which all participants feel both valued and heard. They realize that their opinions truly matter. Staff members become more motivated and more impactful, as they realize that they are making a difference. These types of principals work with staff, not through them or around them. Garnering this genuine sense of “buy in” is absolutely critical for a school leader, as it reflects people actively supporting initiatives due to passionate commitment rather than from programmed compliance.
This aforementioned collaboration needs to be a fundamental element in the construction and monitoring of the school plan. Staff must feel a real sense of autonomy in the plan’s creation, and an equally profound sense of accountability in its implementation. One of the key aspects of the principal’s role is to ensure this plan serves as the blueprint for the school year.
Despite the best laid plans, every school year has its fair share of turbulence and unexpected challenges. Throughout the journey, servant leaders serve as the school’s rudder, as they keep everyone on track and provide timely support and guidance. Principals must also ensure that everyone on staff maintains his/her focus on the same agreed upon goals for the duration of the school year.
These principals are committed to leading people through relational authority, rather than simply leaning on people through positional authority. In other words, who they are as a person ultimately means more to all stakeholders than simply assuming the role of principal.
Servant leaders really take the time to get to know each staff member. Some of these interactions provide the principal with pertinent personal information that a staff member may wish to share, as well as affording school leaders a better understanding of people’s professional goals and projected pathway over the next few years. This information also helps principals optimize the deployment of each individual within the overall staff mosaic.
Servant leaders realize that first and foremost they are dealing with people. One of the unique aspects of the principal’s role is the wide range of ages and agendas that routinely arrive at the office door. From the teary-eyed young child to the struggling staff member to the irate parent, the principal must always convey compassion and seek understanding. Taking the time to really understand people and their concerns helps lay the foundation for a positive and inclusive school environment, in which all staff, students, and parents feel welcome and valued.
In addition to being genuinely caring people, servant leaders are also comfortable in sharing some of their own vulnerabilities while acknowledging that they don’t have all of the answers. In fact, servant leaders actively solicit input, as they recognize that staff members have valuable knowledge and experience to contribute. When things go awry, they are also quite comfortable initiating the change game, rather than defaulting to the blame game.
Principals live the epitome of a fishbowl existence, with all eyes and ears on them each and every day. Even the most routine of their comments and actions are noticed by at least someone. As servant leaders, principals set the tone for the school and their behavior sets the bar for others. How they interact with various stakeholders establishes the norm which others will both consciously and unconsciously follow.
Respecting people means actively listening during conversations. The key is all about mindfulness, as everyone deserves to have the principal’s complete attention in the given moment. In the school leader’s world, filled with a steady deluge of both planned and unplanned interactions, it is understandable for the principal’s focus to be divided among numerous issues. Servant leaders, however, make a concerted effort to give their undivided attention to the issue at hand.
Another key aspect of servant leadership is that one must recognize and respect people’s contributions throughout the school, and actively support deserving staff in their aspirations for professional growth. After all, the true power of servant leadership stems from recognizing, valuing and unleashing people’s strengths. The resulting synergistic impact makes everyone more effective, and heightens the staff’s collective impact on the students.
Servant leaders also spend the time to actively support staff members whose professional ambitions presently exceed their professional abilities. It is callous and unfair to unilaterally squash someone’s professional goals, but by the same token principals are doing no one any favors by endorsing an unworthy candidate for positions of greater responsibility. Principals must balance the fine line of being both honest and supportive in these types of delicate situations.
About the authors
Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Canada. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.