Joe had arrived when in early August, at age 29, he was selected as the principal of Union Elementary School. In a rush to make a great first impression, Joe made a momentous mistake. If only he'd read John Maxwell's Leadership 101.
In his book Leadership 101, internationally known leadership expert, speaker, and author John Maxwell defines leadership as influence -- nothing more and nothing less.
Maxwell further describes leadership as the act of influencing others in a worthwhile cause, apart from titles or positions.
As I reflect on Maxwell's work and its implications in the school setting, I can't help but think of every adult in a school as a leader. After all, every adult has influence with others. Teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks, bus drivers and paraprofessionals all possess varied degrees of influence with one another, students, and parents.
But it's clear that the principalship is the job with most influence.
Despite the authority and power that comes with the job, some principals perform better than others. Those principals who know how to increase their influence are the ones who will always realize a greater impact.
Principals typically work with constituents on the career-path continuum from entry level to veteran. If principals want to increase their influence, they must focus on the vital leadership traits, necessary performance standards, and required degrees of support needed to build a solid foundation with all members of the team.
According to Maxwell, the reasons that leaders fail to achieve maximum influence are varied, but the problems fall within five levels of leadership that represent a career roadmap all principals must understand. Maxwell's five levels of leadership are
Each of those levels is important. Success at any level cannot be attained without building a solid base at each lower level. Regardless of a principal's talents, those who are unable to demonstrate their capabilities at the Position level will never move higher than that level. Talent is not enough, as illustrated by the following story.
Joe thought he had arrived when in early August, at age 29, he was selected as the principal of Union Elementary School. Selected from among 20 qualified candidates, the new job was a real ego boost since most of his peers from college had been unsuccessful in their attempts to advance their careers. Quickly, Joe threw himself into scheduling, filling vacancies, and making preparations for the start of a school year.
On paper, Joe looked great. His resume and administrative internship experiences had given him an edge over other candidates. He appeared to be qualified to fulfill the duties outlined in his job description. But, in reality, this was Joe's first professional experience where he was completely on his own and fully responsible for his decisions.
In a rush to get ahead and complete the important tasks of starting a school year, Joe made his momentous mistake. He failed to gain permission from his constituents -- staff, parents, and students -- to become their new leader. Instead, he immediately began stating expectations and anticipating results, which is a third-level (Production) outcome. He had completely ignored leadership levels 1 and 2.
Joe's leadership style was vastly different from his predecessors, so it was fairly predictable that objections to his decisions and discontent among staff members would surface. Combined with his young age, his bold moves immediately triggered doubts about his capabilities and competence. Veteran teachers exposed gaps in Joe's understanding of curriculum, which further impacted his efforts to initiate change. The staff's challenges frustrated and angered Joe. He began withdrawing to the safety of his office, further complicating his ability to lead.
Finally, Joe's mentor intervened and helped him see the importance of building relationships with those he needed to lead.
Despite what several staff members surmised, Joe was adequately prepared for the first level of leadership. He was bright. He was very competent and skilled. Unfortunately, he never allowed time for his new staff to come to that observation for themselves. He hit the ground running. He tried to do too much too fast.
During reflective meetings with his mentor, Joe learned that he needed to reassure and demonstrate for his staff that he did have the prerequisite training and skills to do his job. Accustomed to years of working with his predecessor, many staff members had difficulty accepting his enthusiasm and acclimating to the changes that he brought to the principalship. When his mentor helped him slow down and analyze his dilemma, Joe soon realized that he had skipped two important levels of leadership development.
Once a new principal has been hired, his or her first priority must be to demonstrate competencies and assure all constituents that he or she is deserving of the new title. Adequate time must be devoted to demonstrating competence at this level, the Position level. The work focus at this level involves clarifying and establishing rights, accepting responsibilities with various people, offering good ideas, and attaining recognition as a leader rather than a boss.
Then the principal's work focus evolves into developing strong interpersonal relationships with all constituencies, solidifying Permission to lead. Much as friendships develop and marriages culminate between couples, the principal must build a personal relationship with each person. When effective relationships emerge, people begin following the leader because they want to. They give their permission to be led.
At this Permission level, people begin to care less about what the principal knows; they care about how the principal cares. Genuine love and concern for people is observable, people begin to share leadership tasks, and win-win scenarios are commonplace.
Joe never acknowledged the importance of the influence that must be attained at this leadership level.
When people genuinely care for each other, they enjoy coming to work. Staff turnover is low. Staff members begin to recognize what the principal does for them, and together the team solves problems, achieves goals, produces results, and enjoys their work.
Purpose becomes clear at the third level of leadership -- Production. Couples start families at this level, and principals and their staffs grow together while focused on results. Fear, if it exists, is at a minimum. Teachers teach and students learn. People actually like being at work, and their discussions focus mostly on positive, work-related matters. The principal fulfills the multi-faceted roles of management and instructional leadership.
With adequate time, effective veteran principals will continue to build ever-stronger teams. During the People Development stage, they empower their staffs, students, and parents to be leaders. They delegate effectively. They surround themselves with superstars. They invest time in helping others become effective leaders. They fully realize their influence and help others fulfill their own dreams. They maintain high expectations and consistently achieve results. Because of their successful experiences, they find the work of mentoring new principals to be engaging.
Principals who achieve this People Development level are highly valued. As a result, many are transferred to needier schools. There, they begin again at the Permission level, laying a foundation for the results they know they can achieve at the Production level.
A special few principals will ever reach the fifth level of leadership, Personhood. At that level, they understand that sustaining their work can best be accomplished by grooming a successor. Succession planning becomes a focus of their work. These principals are held in such high regard that people assume they cannot be replaced. People are surprised when the successor, who was being quietly trained and mentored by an expert leader, makes a smooth transition. Veteran principals who reach the Personhood level of leadership often serve as sought-after consultants. They are the recipients of numerous tributes and honors when they retire.
As Maxwell warns, don't try to skip a level -- like Joe did. Wise principals never neglect the components of the lower levels. Furthermore, veteran principals recognize the levels of influence that their subordinates have attained along their personal leadership paths. They also recognize that they must drop back to the first level of leadership with a new employee, demonstrate their abilities, build trust, gain permission to lead, and help develop that individual as she moves through her career.
Leadership is all about influence -- nothing more, nothing less. To lead schools to higher performance, principals learn to know their strengths and weaknesses, work to gain influence, and understand the processes, pitfalls, and paths of the levels of leadership. Their learning never ends and, along the way, their influence increases.
Maxwell, John. (2002). Leadership 101. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Article by Paul Young
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