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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

Truth Decay
In the Principalship

A dentist's lecture about tooth decay has Paul Young thinking about another kind of decay -- truth decay -- that can cause all kinds of problems for principals. Avoiding truth decay, while not always the easy path, can pay great dividends for principals.

My dentist recently helped me face a few realities about tooth decay. The discomfort in my molar could only be relieved by a root canal, she said. A root canal and a new crown would provide years of comfort and support.

Of course friends had me believing my root canal would be a dreadful experience but -- with my dentist's reminder that without the procedure I was destined to experience further infection and inflammation -- I signed on.

I am happy to share with you that my root canal went well. It was a painless experience. And my dentist's insight has inspired me to begin a new chapter in my dental care.

But there was more inspiration to come the day of that root canal.


As I headed home from the surgeon's office, a church marquee drew my attention. "Truth Decay in the 21st Century," the marquee announced. With dental surgery fresh in my mind (and my mouth), I thought at first glance that the sign said "tooth decay." But the play on words got me reflecting on the challenges principals face each day as we are tempted to engage in behaviors that contribute to "truth decay."

Just as eating sugary candy and junk food contributes to tooth decay, the little white lies that principals can feel compelled to tell can contribute over time to their truth decay.

In my years as a principal, I've seen enough examples of truth decay to fill volumes, but some that particularly haunt me are principals who

  • attempt to say things that support bad teachers' actions and behavior in front of parents who know better.
  • sugar-coat an ineffective employee's performance review to avoid repercussions.
  • are not completely honest with parents about the effects of their personal issues on their child's self-esteem and motivation.
  • hold to the party line when the facts don't add up.

    As a school leader, it is tough to remain truthful 100 percent of the time. When your boss wants you to spin information in one direction but you know your constituents will see through the faade, your credibility is forced into a corner. With no choice but to tell people the cold, hard facts they don't want to hear, you brace for the backlash.

    Every principal experiences dilemmas such as those.


    In their book, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor (Jossey-Bass, 2008), Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O'Toole write that it is not easy to know when to speak out and when to hold one's tongue. One must have integrity to weigh the balance between what is good for the organization and what is the truth. To exercise integrity, one must be able to discern right from wrong, act on what is known to be truthful no matter the personal cost, and openly say that you are acting on your understanding of what is right and wrong.

    As a child, my mother shared a similar message: "If you can't think of something good to say, or if you can't tell the truth, you are better off to say nothing at all." While I always tried to adhere to her advice, I know that were times when I responded to ethical challenges in ways I'd rather forget. I know of circumstances where I could have acted in ways more closely aligned with the truth.

    I might have avoided my root canal too, if I'd eaten fewer of those tempting sugary foods that my dentist warned me to avoid.


    What principals say or don't say isn't the only cause of their truth decay. Their inappropriate actions often contribute as much, or more, than the words they speak. Behaviors that come to mind include

  • promising to do one thing, then doing the opposite.
  • playing favorites with staffing assignments.
  • spreading confidential information.
  • talking about one employee with another.
  • engaging in behaviors that would be just cause for a student suspension.
  • misappropriating funds.

    As principals, we must aspire to the highest ethical standards. When we play in the gray areas, we should expect our wishy-washy behaviors to contribute to truth decay. And when we find ourselves in the inevitable squeeze, that's the perfect time to step back, call our mentor, reflect, and choose an action that best exposes the truth.

    We must aspire to the highest standards, because we set the standard in our schools for truth-telling. We must show our teachers and professional staffers how their own degree of truth decay can impact their work with parents and others in our learning community. It is our role to help them to see the importance of

  • being fair, firm, and friendly with every parent.
  • delivering on what they say they will to do in a timely manner.
  • admitting mistakes and not whining about them.
  • not placing blame on students for adult weaknesses.
  • understanding that falsified reasons for absence reduces credibility.
  • painting an accurate picture of their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • telling people, in a nice way, what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.
  • using their influence to lead others in a positive instead of negative direction.

    I thought I could get away with eating those sugary foods. Better brushing habits might have helped remove the bacteria that led to my tooth decay. But principals can't just brush away the effects of truth decay. Once weakness is exposed, it is next to impossible to heal.

    Visit your dentist habitually. Consult with your mentor frequently. Together, you can create a personal care plan to help you avoid temptations that can harm your health and decay your reputation.

    Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA) and served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003. He retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. Dr. Young was trained in the NAESP PALS (Peer Assisted Leadership Services) Program and is a Nationally Certified Principal Mentor. He is also an author with Corwin Press, and School-Age Notes.


    Article by Paul Young
    Copyright © 2008 Education World®