Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal?

Teach & Serve II, No. 15 – Principle or Principal

November 16, 2016

Excellent principals know when not to be principal

When I was a kid (and I am sure I am not alone here), the spelling of “principal” was taught to me this way: “The principal is your ‘pal.’ That’s why when you spell the word, it ends with ‘p-a-l.” I don’t know why that elementary school explanation has stuck with me all these years, but it has and, bracketing the connotatively male association with the word “pal,” this memory brings a smile to my face.

principalThis week, I am spending time at a gathering for principals of schools through the Jesuit Schools Network of the US and Canada. It is my fourth time working with this group and I find myself impressed and humbled by much of what I see and hear. These are dedicated women and men who work – some of them tirelessly – on behalf of the students at the schools, on behalf of the communities they serve. Most of these principals are creative, passionate and driven. They are searching to improve, striving to learn, and, in some cases, struggling with the expectations of the job.

The expectations placed on principals are incredible and, it seems, ever expanding.

I am most struck by those who do the job well. I have spent time in the “center seat.” I am more than familiar with the challenge. Serving as a good principal is tough and the best ones make it look easy.

There is a through line that connects the best principles and, if you’ll forgive a little word play, it is found in the homonyms “principal” and “principle.”

The best principals I have encountered understand that good leadership involves knowing when to be “principal” and when to step back from that predilection. The best principals I know understand that they often need to exercise leadership from the “principal” position – the primary position. They know that they sometimes must make the hard call, the quick and decisive one. They know that they sometimes have to speak their mind, convey the decision, anticipate the outcome and let the chips fall. They know being a principal means they will sometimes (are you seeing a theme?) move authoritatively and swiftly.

But they know that they don’t always have to make decisions in that manner or lead in the way.

The best principals understand that they don’t always have to be the principal person in the room, in the process, in the decision.

Excellent principals know when not to be principal.

As for “principle,” it should be obvious that the best principals (much like the best leaders) lead from their principles and that their principles are in line with the missions of their institutions. These principals have a set of operating instructions hardwired. They do not deviate from them except in extreme circumstance and with cause. And, critically, when they diverge from them, they know they are doing it. They know why they are doing it. They communicate to others what has happened to cause them to do it.

The best principals I know are examples of servant leadership. The best principals I know lead boldly. They teach boldly. The inspire boldness.

I am spending time this week with many of the best principals I know. They are women and men, pals, of the highest principle.