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.