I Only Thought I Was in Charge

As a new principal, I got stung when I messed with our questionable school mascot—which taught me something about leadership.

When I was 36, I was hired to be the headmaster of a prominent public high school. It was a dream job. I’d been teaching in a large, urban public school system, and I believed that school leaders were uniquely well-positioned to create great opportunities for youth and families. So I was eager to see what I could do. And out of some combination of my urgency to change the world and an ambition to prove my mettle, I’d been determined to become a high school principal by the time I was 40—and now I was four years ahead of schedule.

Among the many unknowns in taking a new job in a new school system, the one thing I was sure of was that, well, I would be in charge! Pop culture, secondary school reform literature and urban legend in the field all agree that principals have enormous power to make change. Of course, I had previously seen the limitations of a principal’s power up close, but as a first timer, I was nothing if not confident and thought things would be different for me. I was going to do something great; I would set an agenda, lead with vision and inspire my new community to recreate ourselves and be a different kind of school.

Then my students and staff came to school, and many of them seemed to feel that they were the ones in charge.

A few boisterous members of the senior class went crazy vandalizing the hallways with free stickers from a local gas station. The faculty, locked in an unusually bitter labor-management dispute with the town bureaucracy and superintendent, gave me a collective cold shoulder, while their union leadership resisted a popular and highly needed school improvement I was working on. Parents regularly felt that their child’s small concerns were large and urgent, and one couple even hired a lawyer to overturn a decision I had made. And yet it wasn’t until I turned my attention to the school mascot that I discovered the true limits of my authority.

Decades ago, when Eastern Massachusetts high schools were naming their sports teams and choosing their mascots, there was a collective nostalgia for the largely eradicated Native Americans of the region’s past. Raiders, Sachems and Warriors abound on the walls of high school gyms and in the hearts of their towns. Our community’s mascot—the Red Raider—was depicted by a particularly egregious racial caricature. As best as I could determine through my research, the caricature was created in the 1950s by a teenager who was copying another school’s mascot, which itself was a drawing of a popular white civic leader made to look like an ugly stereotype of a Native American chief.

Surely, it was time to put the Raider to bed.

I trod carefully, knowing that many students and their parents and grandparents were still attached to this imagery. Still I was surprised when a cordial meeting with a prominent citizen turned threatening. A major school athletics booster, a man who served on a board with me and had been only friendly and supportive to this point, came to my office to chat. He brought up the Raider, told me a story about a previous school employee who’d been run out of town over a similar issue and then looked me in the eye and said if he were in my shoes, he’d be very careful. I felt as if there might be a burly guy with a sledgehammer waiting around the corner for me if I decided to ignore this warning.

It was one thing to have a rowdy senior class and a faculty in a bad mood resist my leadership. But a retiree who had graduated fifty years ago? Who put him in charge?

And yet it turned out he was right, which still pains me when I think about it. The Raider was too big for me, at least in my short three-year tenure at that school. I had a lot less authority than I thought.

This put me into an existential crisis, as it began to hit me that the limits of my power didn’t stop there. If being the boss didn’t actually give me power, maybe I had far less power in civic groups and office dynamics and, you know, even in close-to-home things like my marriage. Without the power I had assumed would be mine, I wasn't sure how I would be able to lead.

The first strategy that occurred to me was to play for more power. Perhaps I could turn on my inner Machiavelli to charm and manipulate and overpower others until I got my way. The other option seemed to be to forget about making a difference and just try to make the most of the status quo. As I looked around, this seemed to be a common route for career administrators—but it also seemed to be an invitation to anger, resignation and bitterness.

So instead I tried asking other people what they wanted done.

Specifically, I gathered a few respected faculty members, took them to a conference on best practices in school improvement and asked them to present to their peers the best ideas they encountered there. After their presentation, our faculty expressed particular interest in one of these options, a student advisory program. Frankly, this hadn’t been part of my plan! But it’s what my faculty wanted and it had potential to improve our school culture and relationships, so I used my position and skills to make it happen.

Letting others have a voice in your leadership may not seem like genius, and at first it made me uneasy. It forced me to leave behind the things I’d been most fired up about when I took the job, and that caused some soul-searching. I wondered how much I was giving up and whether asking others how they wanted to be led made me look weak or lacking in vision.

But what if we can never lead people well against their will? And what if the only way to improve an institution is to change the things that people want changed? I now think that great leadership involves less fantasy about ideal outcomes and more insight about the best possible paths that are currently available to us and those we lead.

By dialing down my agenda and looking for the opportunities for school improvement that were ripe and ready to happen, I got the chance to accomplish some neat things in this school in a relatively short period of time. Though they were not the sweeping changes I’d initially been so confident I could pull off, they did make the school a better place to be. And the lessons I learned about leadership as principal of this school have been an ongoing gift to me as I’ve tried to lead in other arenas.

Even if I never did manage to slay that Raider.

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