October 1, 2019

Principals bleed too!

The first article in Vicki’s blog series “Lessons I learnt as a principal that nobody talks about much.”

Although there are many rewarding experiences associated with being principal of a large school, there are times when it’s an extremely tough gig. Accordingly, I was interested to read the thoughts of Peter V’landys (Racing NSW CEO and recently appointed chairman of the Australian Rugby League) in the Weekend Australian magazine (5-6 Oct. 2019) where he claimed that good leadership involves taking hits for your organisation. “If you’re doing a good job for your organisation, you’ve lost blood along the way. You’ve got to bleed for them…” he said.

V’landys’ sentiments certainly resonate with those in charge of schools. From my experiences, I was sometimes placed in situations where I was confronted with the alternatives of an expedient choice that didn’t ruffle feathers or a principled choice that placed the overall benefits to the organisation above solely considering the perspectives of an individual or group.

As a principal whose aim was to develop values-driven organisations, this was a particularly pertinent situation as it was always important to me that school-based decisions and behaviours reflected the values enunciated by the school.

This sometimes meant that I found myself in the front trenches absorbing fire in defence of the common good.

Changing school culture is always a situation where principled principals are likely to find themselves exposed to enemy fire. I can recall situations addressing student drinking culture, school uniforms, the school song, parent behaviour at school sport, teacher performance, personal relationships between staff, “muck-up” day, council role and discord between home and school values, all of which made me a target for spirited opposition from some quarters.

Good leadership involves empowerment, which includes creating environments where staff can make mistakes and grow from the experience. For this to take place, leaders have to be prepared to wear the inevitable flak that eventuates when mistakes do occur, rather than making the perpetrator of the mistake a sacrificial lamb.

Calling out inappropriate behaviour is an occupational hazard for the good principal. In my time, I’ve called the behaviour of students, parents, staff, council members and barristers. These were sometimes brutal encounters, but for me, the focus was always on dealing with the behaviour or the issue. My mantra has always been “treat the person with dignity and respect and deal with the matter.”

There may have been a bloody nose or two along the way but overall, this approach has stood me in good stead!