The Dilemma of Leadership: Wanting Approval from Those Who You Must Judge

In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district and had no entourage–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and asked whether I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told my wife about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then she reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when Facebook and “friending” are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. In such situations, evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for teacher approval, ultimately neither affection or respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially with the availability of Facebook for older students, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning does not erase boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned and went into permanent records.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent is an essential lesson that novices have to learn but goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.



Filed under leadership, school leaders

6 responses to “The Dilemma of Leadership: Wanting Approval from Those Who You Must Judge

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Dilemma of Leadership: Wanting Approval from Those Who You Must Judge | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. Bob Calder

    While you described only a retreat from social behaviour Larry, I suspect you made accommodation somewhere along the line. Social interaction is a two edged sword. On one hand, formality and rules create comfort for people that love a routine and have a fear of becoming too friendly with staff. On the other hand, social behaviours encourage creativity that can generate synergy, particularly in an environment that is as isolating as teaching. So cutting one’s self off impairs movement in ways other than those envisioned by whoever penned the rules of engagement.

    One of the things I find most rewarding about technology is that social behaviour is rising because it floats on technology. For example, microcell technology could allow a school to use every cell phone to enable students and faculty to know exactly where any person is at any time of the day (per Irwin Jacobs). Students already do it, gaining a tactical advantage. The #edchat twitter tag lets me engage as much or as little as I wish with a network of teachers in the US, Canada, and the UK. Face Book allows me to keep track of former students, incidentally tracking my own effectiveness. I have two colleagues that text me in the course of the day because it doesn’t interrupt the way a phone call does and they are aware email is not a way to get my attention. It is a “just right” solution.

    Recalling Sun Tsu, the battle is dynamic. If one uses a too-rigid tactic, it will break. Your practice therefore must be to make your tactic an extension of yourself in order to bend and adapt. I’m afraid the way we treat technology is maladaptive. That wasn’t a problem when technology didn’t change quickly, but change is happening at an accelerating rate and our response is slow.

    Students are adapting and teachers are adapting without the consent or support of leadership. We don’t want to be led by General Mireau.

  3. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    There is a hidden problem within this post. Those who lead, have teachers who follow. Those of us who understand teaching and learning have so many bosses. We have the Washington DC Dept of Education think, which shapes a lot of what we do. We have the leadership in the learning community in which we work, which gives us permission to do so many things, we have the leadership of those on the school board and the ideas they are interested in, which often are very important to the local groups. The there is the leadership at the ground level in the school. I guess you have to follow the dictate of the principal, and so we do, but there is also a level of peer resistance or support . To work in a school with faculty
    is interesting when there is a clash of ideational scaffolding. What you did was to involve the whole learning community in Arlington. What most don’t do is to get the pulse of the teachers.

    My first advocacy was for books in classrooms. That schools that had books that were leftovers from the white schools would give the same books to the minority kids.
    Technology therefore comes to mind in that way. You can’t sit in for technology,…well maybe standing in line in a library to use it is a mild way of adjusting.

    I use technology because I am a person who went through HBCU’s with minimal learning possibilities and not very much in the way of networking possible. Therefore I spent years developing affinity networks. I can’t say they worked in the school systems. What worked for me was NASA, National Geographic, Earthtwatch, the Fulbright and other partnering organizations. Working with them meant that I worked harder but smarter.

    What I mean is there is school system think, school board think and local school philosophy. Political winds bow what was right, wrong based on national politic.. remember NCLB when people used it like a bat over teachers heads to push out science?

    Many teachers satisfied with the status quo, and the digital divide intact
    do not have a passion for tranformative change. It’s not the technology, it is the technofluency which is in our cars, on television, in our hospitals, in our
    grocery stores as a tool to make life different. There are those who have all the latest toys and tools but sadly there are those who are teaching who are still oprating in the world of the past. Cyber tools are one thing, a severe digital divide and lack of transformative learning that teaches cooperation, community and collaboration , .. that’s a dufferent thing.

    Well, that is a teacher standing in front of the classroom with no modern tools is a throwback for those who are already deficit based on the lack of broadening engagement and social justice problems. We all want to be the best that we can be. Our cars, tools, and personal help reflect some technology skills and connectivity. I worry about those who throw it overboard because the word “technology” is used. It does not have to be supercomputing or computational thinking, but how powerful it is when there is at least a reference or place to it. I don’t call it ICT. If you wait until after schooling to invest in new ways of thinking sometimes, it is too late and too expensive a journey to invest or change. It is amazing to interact with leaders who, have sort of an idea , but not a good perspective on what is needed for the future.

    A lot of people would never have been invited to anything , or be given the chance to say no, I liked reading about the choice you made.
    We don’t often know these kinds of stories or the outcome.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    Now that the cloud and virtual learning has been sanctioned, there is a whole new community of need. Not standing in the shallow end of the pool, just not even in the pool, maybe over the fence looking in without the skills they need to go forth and be productive citizens.

    What did I do if I found that the new leader of my school and I had differences? I moved..or changed, and tried to follow the lead. If it was not comfortable, it was time to go. Not much in the way of flexibility is in schools for teachers.
    My two cents worth!!

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • Bonnie’s ‘two cents worth’ is illumninative and informative. Until we can move beyond industrial-structured, self-defensive thinking to learning partnerships and constructive solving of real problems to meet real and realistic needs, I fear we will continue to be faced with the world Bonnie addresses. I fear this will not change in the foreseeable future (but like any constructive teacher I look forward to being proved wrong) John Turner

  4. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I do know how to spell, sorry about the errors… passionate about the ideas,.

  5. Tony

    Leadership is a vital characteristic of principals. They are the backbone of a school district (in the same way that NCOs are the backbone of the army and Engagement Managers are the backbone of a consulting firm).

    We “promote” many of our best teachers to principal roles. This a) results in principals who may not have the best leadership abilities (which are not necessarily correlated with teaching ability) and b) removes our best teachers further away from our students

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