Have you seen the television show, Abbott Elementary? It’s a comedy about people working at a fictional elementary school in Philadelphia. While I highly recommend the show, the principal, Ava Coleman, makes me embarrassed to be an administrator. As described in the Abbott Elementary Wiki, “Ava is Abbott Elementary's inept principal despite displaying a high level of incompetence. Ava obtained her job as principal after blackmailing the superintendent.” She is the personification of every negative trope ever said about school administrators.
You don’t have to be a school administrator for leadership to be displayed negatively. If you watch the show Succession, the patriarchal leader, Logan Roy a media tycoon is practically unredeemable. Among other displays of inconceivable hubris, the day before his son is supposed to take over the company, Logan blindsides him and says he will not be stepping down. He continuously treats people as pawns for his own advantage and has no regard for the emotional wake he leaves behind. When a meeting is over, he tells people, “F@&k off. You can go now.”
These are just two displays of fictionalized bad leadership. Even if you’re not familiar with these examples, you probably are familiar with Mr. Crabbs from Spongebob, Cosmo Spacely from The Jetsons, Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, David Wallace and Michael Scott from The Office, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, or even the full cast from the movie Horrible Bosses. In short, being the formal leader is commonly seen as being synonymous with being awful.
I’ve certainly worked for people who were not going to win a Boss of the Year trophy. I once worked for someone who stole money from a school and tried to frame a secretary for the crime. In fact, that was actually not the worst thing that person did. I worked for someone else who needed to get a machine that chimed when someone entered the outer office so the boss would be notified since this person was once caught bad-mouthing the board of education because they were unaware that a board member walked into the outer office area.
Lessons in Leadership
Several years ago, I attended a training led by Jasmine Kullar. The audience was comprised of teacher leaders and she asked them to respond to two prompts. The first was, “How would you describe a GREAT leader?” and the second was, “How would you describe a Not So Great leader?” Everyone in the room easily rattled off responses to both questions. At the end of the brainstorming, Kullar said that we should all hold up a mirror to ourselves because everyone in the room was a leader. That really struck me.
Since then, I have used Jasmine’s prompts in multiple settings, including as one of the first-night activities when teaching a graduate class for pre-service administrators. Here are some of their responses. See if you agree or what you might add.
How Would You Describe a GREAT Leader?
How Would You Describe a Not So Great Leader?
1. A great leader is a person who is able to listen and process different views and concerns. In addition, a person who is able to delegate and make decisions based on data and strategies.
2. Clear expectations, forms relationships with others, regular feedback (both informal and formal), reliable, leads from the front of the line, not afraid to get their hands dirty, so to speak.
2. A poor leader is someone who is unable to reflect and someone who struggles to find the best in people.
3. A great leader is someone that puts others in a position to lead. They are only powerful to the degree that they empower others.
3. Micro-managers, lack of effective communication regarding expectations and performance feedback.
4. A great leader is someone who is reliable and relatable.
4. A not-so-great leader would be a person who wants to handle it all (possibly an OCD person, lol) or a person who rejects ideas, data, and differences.
5. A great leader can inspire others, create and demonstrate clear expectations and ensure they are being achieved.
5. Thinking with themselves in mind. Lack of understanding for who you serve and why.
6. A great leader puts others' interests before their own.
6. Someone who does not give careful consideration to the manner in which a decision will impact others.
7. A great leader embraces mistakes as future learning opportunities. A great leader sees the potential for change and works to create buy-in from others around them.
7. Someone who is not collaborative, willing to hear what others have to share, single-minded, and non-interested in the growth and development of others
8. Someone who puts an obvious divide between roles in the school, or plays “favorites.”
Why Didn’t I Think of That?
Like always, I started this semester with this activity. For the first time, however, there was a comment made by one of the students that really triggered an “AHA!” for me. The student said, “The same characteristics would more or less be true if we swapped out the word ‘leader’ and put in the word ‘teacher.’” Why hadn’t I thought of that before?! Yes! In fact, the same characteristics would be more or less true if we swapped out the word “leader” and put in the word “human.” Why? Because leaders are just people!
In New York State, you cannot become a school administrator simply by being a great teacher; the path to formal leadership requires formal training. In order to get that formal training, there is no prerequisite screening on whether or not you are a great (or even good) person. The same, by the way, is true for those who want to become teachers. There is no prerequisite screening on whether or not you are a great (or even good) person. Therefore, it’s the luck of the draw.
Just like you and I can list many people who we have worked for who are awful (like I described above), I have no doubt that we can both list many people who we have worked WITH who behaved in ways that would go under the column of descriptions for those who are “Not So Great.” If this is true, and it is, then let’s not be surprised there are also administrators who are not so great. After all, I’ve never seen or even heard of an administrative preparation program that trains people to be not-so-great (or worse). In fact, the opposite is true. Administrative programs are meant to foster great leaders. So, if there are not so great leaders in administrative positions, then rather than saying leaders are generally not so great, perhaps we can say there are people who are not so great.
P.S. My Catch of the Week is Giving Tuesday. Though it was officially yesterday, it’s never too late to donate. Check out this website https://www.givingtuesday.org/ and please consider donating time, treasure, or talent to an organization or person in need.
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