What Every School Leader Should Know (Especially New Ones)

Between now and August many new school administrators will take on the challenge of leadership in schools.  They may be a first year school administrator getting their first taste of what it means to be a leader, or they may be a veteran administrator taking on the challenge of a new school.  Either way, they will set out to conquer the world, and many will succeed, but even those who succeed will more than likely crash and burn many times along the way.  They will make mistakes that may crush their spirits and even break their hearts, but eventually they will realize that it is those mistakes and the lessons they learn from them that over time makes them a stronger leader.  The veterans will hit the ground running, relying on past experiences to guide them while the newbies will sputter and wobble their way through their first year.  The new guys will learn quickly they cannot be the guy who preceded them, and that they will make mistakes.  However, if they are lucky they will figure out very early in the game that there are no leaders without followers.  They will discover leading is about taking care of the needs of the followers within the organization, and that a leader leads people not organizations, programs, or things.  And, if they are really fortunate during their first year, they will learn they cannot lead alone; a machine with one cog does not run smoothly or efficiently for long.

Most of what school leaders learn, they learn on their own.  Of course there are many well written leadership books that can guide them, but the school of hard-knocks is often their ultimate training ground.  Through trial and error, they learn what works and what does not work, and in the end they are better leaders because of the knocks and bruises they receive along the journey.  As a former member of this unique group of individuals, I can argue their journey will probably be one of the most frustrating, time consuming, and loneliest endeavors of their lives, but with perseverance it may be one of the most rewarding endeavors as well.

Over the years, I compiled lessons I learned into lists for quick reference when needed.  Two of those administrative “need to know” lists appear at the end of this article.  My hope is that maybe something I learned along the way will help other school administrators avoid some of the mistakes I made.  When it comes to mistakes, there are few more qualified than I am to speak.  I seriously doubt there has ever been a person who made as many mistakes as I did as a school leader, but through the grace of God, a supporting family, a faculty and staff with a strong stomach and a sense of humor, and the willingness on my part to learn from my mistakes and try not repeat them, I not only made it through, but I was blessed with a productive career as a school administrator, and for that blessing, I would like to offer my unsolicited advice to those individuals who are courageous enough to stand alone and dare to lead.

What Every School Leader Should Know

Ten Things all good leaders need to know . . . .

  1. A supporting husband or wife at home is essential to a leader’s success;
  2. A great secretary or administrative assistant at work is crucial to a leader’s survival;
  3. A leader is not immune to mistakes;
  4. Courage to make mistakes separates poor leaders from good leaders;
  5. A leader’s most important textbook is filled with the mistakes he/she has made;
  6. Good leaders do not dwell on setbacks or mistakes; their detractors will remind them of those daily;
  7. Good leaders understand that hiring good people is the key to their success;
  8. Good leaders know when to build a fence, and when to tear it down;
  9. Good leaders understand that five years after they are gone no one will remember them, so they shouldn’t fret their legacy – unless a leader is someone like a Steve Job, they probably will not have one;
  10. Leadership is not about the organization, programs or the leader; It is about people.

Ten Rules of Leadership

  1. Leaders lead by permission not by position;
  2. It is okay to be friends with your staff, but not their buddy.  Remember, a leader can be the chief, or he can be one of the Indians, but he cannot be both;
  3. Learn to accept that everyone will not love you or even like you;
  4. Be a Tree!  Sometimes leaders stand alone;
  5. The role of a leader is the loneliest position in the organization, and it gets lonelier the higher you climb;
  6. As a leader it is okay to be wrong sometimes, but don’t make it a habit;
  7. As a leader, the two most important people in your life are your wife/husband and your secretary;
  8. A good leader stands in the line of fire if things do not go well;
  9. A good leader stands to the side when things do go well;
  10. A good leader has an inner circle or mentor who will listen, and listen, and listen some more.

One final piece of advice I would give a new school administrator is to NEVER forget the most important people in your job are the kids.  With everything you do and every decision you make, the first question you must always ask is “What is best for kids?”  A good school leader takes care of the kids first and the adults second.  This does not mean the adults are not important – they are, but remember, without the children, no one in a school has a job.  School is about kids, and the good leader never loses sight of that.


©Jack Linton, May 11, 2014


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