Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Principal’s Office

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve been to the principal’s office. If you’ve been there, you know that sinking feeling of being in trouble. The anticipatory dread.  I would always hope that the assistant principal of my high school, Mr. Farmer, would be the one who was actually sitting across the desk from me. There was more wiggle room with Mr. Farmer.

Okay, so I’ve been more than once.

Isn’t it funny that now, all these years later, I sometimes get that same “in trouble” feeling when I imagine that someone is unhappy with me. Sometimes that’s my issue, and sometimes a result of an aura exuded from the person in charge. There seems to be a human tendency to gain, and remain, in control and it is magnified in some leadership styles. I think of it as “Principal-Style” leadership and it’s really not necessary in adult interactions.

Here are four basic values of the Principal-Style:

  1. To remain in unilateral control
  2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”
  3. To suppress negative feelings
  4. To be as rational as possible

In order words, clarify the problem and take a position. Don’t back down. Be strong. Be rational. Be convincing. Be right. The down side to this approach is that it limits the inquiry and reflection that might shed unexpected light on the issue at hand. It also makes it difficult to draw people together toward a common cause. As a worst case scenario, the people around you can become passive and cynical, since there is no room for participation in generating solutions, or ownership of the system that surrounds and often supports the problem.

I don’t like the “I’m in trouble” feeling, and I don’t want to give off the “you’re in trouble” feeling to others. Here is an alternative view to consider if you tend toward “Principal-Style” leadership:

  1. Which people need to be at the table to tackle a problem, and how can I best mobilize them?
  2. How can I create a safe space for conversation, and facilitate the process?
  3. What are the underlying dynamics of these particular people? Their work group? The office?
  4. How can I be more self-aware? What impact do I have on the people and the system?

Both approaches to leading can come across as confident and competent, but “Principal-Style” is more isolated and has the added pressure of wondering if you are, indeed, always right.


This is a question for those of you with children: have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish my kids were a little more _______” (fill in the blank). Okay, of course you have. They are such darlings in so many ways, and yet I wish they would just be a little more ______.  And yet for every mom who wishes her child was more outgoing, you know there is a mom who wishes her child would stop talking for a minute and listen. Children are amazingly, beautifully, exhaustingly different.

Of course, children grow into adults, and then we have to get along with them at work.

It takes discipline, in parenting and in leadership, to maintain a focus on what is positive and beautiful about the people around you. Difference can be leveraged into a creative process, or it can remain as an undercurrent of tension.

I sometimes think that life would be easier if everyone was just like me. We’d enjoy a cup of coffee together, sitting on the porch during a rain storm, and talk about the last book we read. Or we would pack a picnic, jump in the car, roll down the windows and turn up the music as we take off on adventure. No tension.

Of course, at other times I am really thankful that everyone is NOT like me, because then the world would be technically challenged and perpetually lost driving downtown. We need the balance of each other. I think it only seems difficult to leverage differences if you aren’t in the habit of doing it. Not that it’s always easy, but it’s doable.

Focusing on what is positive about other people is a choice I need to make every day. A choice to pay attention to what they do well, even if I don’t truly appreciate it. A choice to be supportive of their interests even when I don’t really understand. A choice to applaud their efforts even if no one else will join me. If you need inspiration to appreciate people who do things that you would never dream of doing, invest one minute watching this video here on encouragement. I promise you’ll like it.

A Ying Yang Life

E.B. White once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  You might recognize that name as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. If you were an English major in school you might also know he co-authored The Elements of Style (which we fondly call “Strunk & White”) or that he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine. Imagine writing a reference guide that has sections like “Elementary Rules of Usage” and “Rules of Composition” and a story of love and loyalty about a girl named Fern, her pig Wilbur, and a large grey spider.

Two ends of the literary spectrum, if you ask me. And so I think his quote must have truly come from the heart- like enjoying the world by pondering the magic of childhood and life on the farm, and improving the world by dictating our usage of the English language. You might even say it is two ends of the human spectrum. He held the paradox of being and doing, reflection and action. Isn’t life full of the tension that exists between who we are and what we want to be? What we want and what we have? What we see and what we wish would be true?

To hold tension in a life giving way is no small task. It is much easier, even rewarded in our culture, to stay busy. If we stop too long to think we might be overwhelmed, or discouraged, or distracted from the day’s to-do list. We just work hard until our annual vacation, and then we rest ourselves so that we can plunge right back into busyness.

But what if reflection and action were so intertwined that one was always present in the other, sort of like the Chinese symbol of Ying and Yang? If that were the case, reflection would not be a luxury we indulge during our vacation week at the beach, but a practice in which we regularly engage, because the insight we gain drives our actions in the world. And our actions affect the world in a way that requires our continued reflection.

With all due respect to Mr. White, I’m going to suggest that planning our day wouldn’t so hard if we understood being and doing as integrated, interrelated elements. And when we get it right, we feel fully, wonderfully alive.