The Parable of the Principals

By: Bonnie
July 8, 2012

Hand-fed Hummingbirds

A few months ago, a friend whose work life changed dramatically with a new boss along with the new year sat across from me reborn, excited once again to be a teacher. She glowed and bounced as she talked about her day, laughed at the various trials of an overcrowded classroom, and grinned as I reacted to her almost unrecognizable enthusiasm. “What happened to you?” I laughed incredulously.

She has always been dedicated, but I hadn’t seen enthusiasm for years. She would steel herself to return after vacations and the number of years until retirement always came up in a conversation. She didn’t complain or gossip or do less than her duty; she just didn’t like her job. Last December, in one of those cascading midyear promotions, the district shifted a number of administrative positions, and her former boss went elsewhere, bringing someone in who was being promoted from a smaller school. The result was obvious.

Teachers are unique employees. They are rather like the contracted self-employed. To use overworked HR lingo, they are “self-motivated” – to the point of possessive of their little kingdoms. Administration least seen is often considered the best form. I asked her to compare and contrast the changes. The examples bubbled out of her.

The first thing the new principal did was to send a note to all the teachers explaining that she didn’t plan to make any changes this year, and didn’t have any plans at this point to make changes next year either. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because new administrators often feel the need to conform an organization to themselves fairly quickly to consolidate power. Nobody likes that kind of uncertainty, but teachers become apoplectic in that environment.

Next she began inviting classes, one by one, to meet with her, where she talked to the students, told them something about her life, and greeted them with warmth. With obvious respect and a quickly growing fierce loyalty, my friend stated that she wouldn’t put it past this principal to know the names of all 700 students by the end of the year, and noted that most of the students couldn’t pick the former principal out of a lineup.

Finally, the principal sent a note to all the teachers asking them what they needed, vowing to get it for them if at all possible. In a climate of rigid cost-cutting, where they were rationed crayons and had to beg for whiteboard markers, they were being told that the storeroom would be stocked and there wouldn’t be an armed guard posted. She isn’t going out back and twinkling her nose – those supplies have to be paid for somehow – she just wasn’t going to let money dictate her support of the staff.

Less than two weeks in and she’s a hero. If changes do come, as they often must, she will have their loyalty.

My friend raved about how the very air had changed. The teachers and staff joked with one another and laughed as they worked. The kids were more relaxed and causing fewer behavior problems. Everyone was on task. And she loved being a teacher again.

Food for thought if you’re the boss. You matter. You make the environment. Autocracy doesn’t work. Trust does. Covey’s son has written an entire book (probably a bit more than the subject requires) about this one principle: we can do business at the speed of trust.

Empowering people is another great term that’s been worked to death, partially because we narrowly interpret empowerment as giving people the latitude and the resources to do their jobs. It’s so much more than that. If that were all that’s required, we could shut people in little rooms with their supplies and leave them alone. Empowerment evolves from a relationship combined with a shared stewardship. Empowerment happens when those in authority care about people, make themselves available to them, expect them to succeed, and let them do it. It’s a flexible relationship which offers as little or as much direction as the situation warrants, but is always founded in profound mutual respect.

I met with someone recently who is a good man and qualified manager. Unfortunately, he doesn’t create relationships. Most of the people he leads are pretty sure he doesn’t know their names. He is perceived as insulated. I don’t think this is his fault. He is trying. Unfortunately, our corporate fallback is that inclusiveness detracts from personal power and that collaboration is evidence of not doing our own work and hence not being fully qualified for our job. This mentality tends to make us jumpy and defensive, careful and risk-averse, arrogant and rigid, and ineffective. One rather important aspect of being a leader is that someone will follow you.

My friend’s former principal was considered arrogant, rigid, autocratic, and uncaring. Her staff didn’t feel protected, didn’t have her loyalty, and didn’t give her theirs. Her new principal is considered respectful and inclusive, and her subordinates are opening up, shifting from staying “under the radar” to unfolding their creative wings. Everyone benefits.

I would never have believed one person could so profoundly influence a culture directly involving nearly 1000 in a phenomenally short period of time if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. It was as unlikely as hummingbirds landing in someone’s hand to feed.

Describe situations in which creating relationships and sharing stewardships has worked out for you.

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14 Responses to The Parable of the Principals

  1. Eric on July 8, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    I’ve been fortunate to have never had a bishop that I disliked. Some I felt to be more effective than others but all were very well-intentioned men. That said, I’ve had enough different bishops to see the power they have for good and ill on their wards. Disorganized bishops tend to have disorganized wards. Cold uncaring bishops tend to create cold uncaring wards. We take our cues for our behavior from our leaders to a certain extent. Else why would so many bishops and stake presidents talk like general authorities as they speak to their congregation? Perhaps that’s why I personally tend to stay away from positions of leadership. I recognize that “with power comes great responsibility.”

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  2. Hedgehog on July 8, 2012 at 11:33 AM

    This is a model I’ve tried to follow in my current calling on the primary presidency. My responsibilities are teachers and music. I’ve tried to create a relationship with the teachers and music leader, where they know I am there to support and help them. I try to check in about how they feeling, and what they need, and how they feel individual students are doing. Where I know a teacher doesn’t have internet access, I keep in regular contact, to check in if there are any resources they want for a particular lesson. I get to church early to ensure the classrooms have the required table and chairs, so that the teachers can concentrate on setting up their lessons, and not be frazzled hunting down furniture. If a class looks to be particularly large and rowdy on a given week, they know they can ask me to sit in on the class. If they are going away on holiday, they know I will cover their class (or arrange suitable cover when I can’t cover it myself). I wish them a happy holiday/weekend away, etc. I don’t moan that they aren’t going to be there, so they are happy to let me know in advance, about absences. And that helps me, as well as them.
    I’m not a ‘people person’, and to begin with I found it very hard to build a relationship with them. I really had to push myself, but I have found that I do enjoy taking care of my teachers and music leader.
    I have experienced serving under autocratic leaders in the past. It wasn’t pleasant, and I didn’t want to be like that.

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  3. Bonnie on July 8, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    Eric, you bring up a really interesting point: that people go where leaders go. I’ve also had, for the most part, really great leaders, but I can also track my own development or decision to develop otherwise from their traits as well. That’s interesting.

    Hedgehog, that’s a great lesson to take from unpleasant experience. I would imagine it’s really effective.

    I’ve found teaching this principle to be rather challenging, as both a presiding church leader and a business consultant. JS’s idea of “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” has an overtone of faith in people and willingness to let things fall. How do you help other people become comfortable with that, especially considering how hard it is to become comfortable with that ourselves?

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  4. Andrew S on July 8, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    My father was telling me about this — he is going back to school to get an MBA (I believe…it’s definitely something relating to business), and he was pointing out how business management does well to teach how to get a certain level of work from people…but when people become effective at this, they often neglect or break the emotional relationships (overbearing managers, anyone?)

    But he points out at the hospital that he works that he can often be much more effective — both with patients and the other nurses — because he *advocates* for people…he *connects* with people. So, whereas some people may have all of the management 101 stuff down, he has loyalty and buy-in.

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  5. Howard on July 8, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    Great article Bonnie! As a manager I learned that I often had to act as a firewall between those reporting to me, protecting them from the pressure above me and from without to create a sheltered environment for creativity, productivity and empowerment to blossom.

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  6. Bonnie on July 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    Ooh, Andrew, that “get a certain level of work from people” – doesn’t that communicate something that makes all of our backs arch?! It’s so tangible, even when unspoken, when someone has self-serving motives in dealing with colleagues. Your dad sounds like a great person to work with and for, and he probably doesn’t differentiate much between the two of those things.

    Howard, I like this idea of the firewall. If we can avoid the us vs them mentality, which has its own baggage, and maintain the advocacy intent we can accomplish so much. One of the ways I found that effective managers create firewalls is that they don’t discuss the controlling metrics with their reports that they have to report to their bosses. This willingness to “take the heat” creates immense loyalty and we do blossom, as you say.

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  7. ji on July 8, 2012 at 4:41 PM

    We should be careful in incorporating management or workplace principles into our Church life. In the workplace, we’re there to make money for the owners of our workplace. If someone doesn’t measure up, we fire them and hire someone else — building the business is more important that any one person. We have goals and metrics and measurements and reports. In our Church life, we rejoice in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and nothing else really matters.

    We need more of relationships and shared stewardships in our Church life — that’s what the Gospel is all about. We’re friends and servants of each other, not leaders and followers. At least, that is the mindset that I try to keep.

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  8. Mike S on July 8, 2012 at 9:29 PM

    In a work environment, I absolutely agree with this. I have had employees “get in trouble” for doing things I specifically told them, then called a vice-president of Intermountain Healthcare to protect them. My employees know that I absolutely have their back and support them in making choices, etc. And they are very loyal to me in return. It makes for a great team.

    In the Church, I think this CAN work on a local level – the problem is that it is very leader dependent. There are stories of terrible bishops that do a lot of harm to their ward, and stories of wonderful bishops.

    Above the ward level, however, I think the Church is terrible at this. There are reasons why, but General Authorities basically don’t want to be bothered by the concerns of the members. We are told not to contact them directly. There are numerous activities and things that are “forbidden” by someone in the hierarchy (which is why I basically stopped asking permission for anything at YM president – forgiveness was easier than permission). There are assignments handed down from above in Salt Lake for “volunteer” opportunities with quotas to fill. Everything is done by the handbook, which is next to scripture in authority in most churches. There is extremely little left to local autonomy. It has essentially made leaders into managers.

    Some people are fine with this. For me, it is really hard – I feel like the teachers punching the clock. I go to church and do my duty, but feel like a cog in a machine.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 5:55 AM

    Mike, you raise a good point about what happens with scale. Do we flood general authorities with complaints from individual members (and how do we screen “legitimate” complaints from the permanent carping that seems to emanate from some people. You know, every ward has someone like that).

    So, GAs do seem to care about the concerns of the members, but there are institutional pressures to keep them from being flooded by a wave of white noise. I agree with you, my complaints are legitimate, the other guys, those are the carpers who should be ignored.

    But seriously, it is at a local level, the direct level, where this works, and where it should work at every level.

    Great essay Bonnie.

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  10. prometheus on July 9, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    I totally agree that leadership sets the tone for the whole organization. I have seen it in classrooms, in wards, in schools, in businesses, for both good and ill. Trust and relationships are absolutely key in good leadership. One of the best places I ever worked had a leader who was absolutely trusted by everyone who worked there, and who completely trusted us to do our jobs well. It was brilliant.

    I think that as a church, we have replaced trust (a mutual relationship) with obedience (a one-way relationship). I find it sad the the GA’s and the 15 men at the top have been so totally cut off from the membership of the church. There is absolutely no mechanism to provide any form of feedback to any of them without being a family friend or work colleague or something. And, not only is there and absence, there is, for all intents and purposes, a firewall set up for the express purpose of blocking attempts to provide feedback – communication is always returned to local readers, from what I understand.

    I get the white noise problem, I really do, but when a companies like Blizzard and Riot Games, with comparably sized player bases, can offer some form of public forum to obtain feedback, it is disheartening to see that the church doesn’t even bother to try.

    I think that from a theological perspective, there is a thought that an infallible prophet shouldn’t need feedback from the masses, and that any change or growth based on that feedback undermines the prophetic infallibility. I also think, along these lines, that the 12 and the FP are in a sense, prisoners of this attitude and the bureaucracy that has grown up around the church. Telling people that you make mistakes and having them nod and say that of course you don’t must be very frustrating at times….

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  11. ji on July 9, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    This is where that old question comes into play: What is the Church?

    I always try to look at the Church as followers of the Lord gathered together. I do not see a ward as a subdivision of a stake, and a stake as a subdivision of the whole. I do not see a bishop as a stake president’s employee or agent, or a stake president as an employee or agent of the central church.

    I try to see a bishop as the Lord’s [Aaronic Priesthood] priest in my community, a friend and neighbor who has an additional calling — and a stake president at the Lord’s [Melchizedek Priesthood] high priest in my area, but also a friend and neighbor. I do not see them as middle managers of an organization, and myself as the employee.

    The central church and its officers have roles to fulfill, but I am not part of that effort — I’m part of my own local church and I want to work to build the Lord’s kingdom here. I have no privity with general church officers.

    These are just some thoughts that have been floating around in my head for a long time. I realize that I may be in the minority in these thoughts, but I do believe there is some truth here.

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  12. Hedgehog on July 10, 2012 at 1:45 AM

    Mike, Stephen, Prometheus
    I’ve been thinking about your comments on the difficulty of getting feedback to GA level. (I certainly have my share of issues to raise.) This morning I realised that where I am at least, at a lot of the stake conferences where a GA is in attendance, at either the Priesthood leadership session or the adult session of conference (sometimes one, sometimes the other) instead of giving a talk they’ll invite questions, and answer them. Of course, a GA doesn’t attend every conference, and generally no-one in the congregation was anticipating the request for questions. But I suppose with forethought that a question-answer session might be on the cards, we could possibly have prepared a series of carefully phrased ‘feedback’ questions? Just an idea – it would be a very public forum in which to ask them for sure.
    Ji, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see and experience that attitude from everyone serving in church.
    Howard, firewalls are necessary at church too I fear. DH tells me one Bishop in a ward we lived in a whole while back was a wonderful firewall between ward and stake, and as a result the atmosphere in the ward improved dramatically. The previous Bishop hadn’t been able to do that, and as a result both he,and the ward were very stressed. It must take a particular resilience or confidence to be able to take the heat like that. DH himself has acted as a firewall between EQ and Bishop, back in the past too. The key for him, is to listen to what the leaders say (which he says is necessarily general) and then go away and pray about how that needs to apply to his particular responsibility and circumstances, and then follow the guidance of the Spirit. If people criticise, so be it, he knows he’s doing what he needs to do. He feels too many people at a local level don’t realise keys/authority they hold within their callings and blindly follow what they perceive to be dictats from above without doing the praying, following the Spirit part. But for some that’s easier than for others – he’s much better at it than I am.
    Promotheus, I agree that we can make GA’s as much prisoners, by our responses to their remarks for one, and am reminded very much of the ‘President Hinckley (it was him? … my memory is terrible) said we must read the Book of Mormon by Christmas/ end of year (whatever the details were)’ idea. I spent the rest of that year wondering if I’d been listening to the same talk as the rest of the world, because I was pretty sure that wasn’t what he’d said… One of my brothers was recently called as a Bishop, and the thing that makes him most nervous was having to be so careful about what he says, because some people will take any suggestion by a Bishop (never mind a GA) as an order, a doctrinal truth etc.

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  13. Tiffany W. on July 18, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    Prometheus, while I agree that it is difficult to get feedback to the GAs, I absolutely disagree that our church authorities are completely cut off from the people of the church.

    Have you ever listened to the interviews with the apostles and General Authorities on the Mormon channel? Do you realize when these people are not in their offices working, they are traveling? And do you know what the traveling frequently entails? Training, meeting with members, and meeting with leaders? How does that represent leaders being cut off from the people?

    I also think your attitude is actually pretty whiny and petty–first world problems. . . From what I gather from these interviews, they are focusing on Africa, Europe, Asia, South America. We in North America are actually doing okay in a lot of ways.

    And when these leaders are talking about going to Africa, and they bring up hunger and the many challenges the Saints are facing there, somehow, our little complaints about our first-world problems seem petty and ridiculous.

    I heard an interview with one of President Hinckley’s children where they talked about meeting their dad for lunch on a certain day of the week, which was a standard date for everyone in the family. Pres. Hinckely was terribly grumpy at those lunch dates. And the kids wondered why they were meeting with him every week if he was going to be grumpy. Then they found out that was the day he dealt with temple sealing cancellations. He needed his family to deal emotionally with the destruction of families that he saw en masse. So do you really think our prophets don’t know what is going on in the world? Can you honestly say that they are sitting in an office in SLC, oblivious to the challenges we are facing as a people? Because if you do, you don’t have the facts or even the knowledge of what our leaders are doing. And you may even want to say they are out of touch because then you have more to complain about.

    I think we have the ability to be intelligent and also access to the spirit and revelationand solve problems within the bounds we have. And if those problems aren’t solved the way we want, or we don’t have the access to certain leaders that we think we are entitled, maybe we should just get over ourselves. Try and solve our problems to the best of our ability, and then let it go.

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  14. prometheus on July 18, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    Tiffany, although this is a mostly finished discussion, I will respond to part of your comment:

    “Have you ever listened to the interviews with the apostles and General Authorities on the Mormon channel? Do you realize when these people are not in their offices working, they are traveling? And do you know what the traveling frequently entails? Training, meeting with members, and meeting with leaders? How does that represent leaders being cut off from the people?”

    A GA coming to my area every couple of years and fielding a few questions hardly qualifies as feedback. I certainly have never in my life had the opportunity to say even a single word to anyone higher in the power structure than a Stake President. If you read my comment carefully, you would also see that my sympathy is with our leaders – it is the system of communication that is broken, not their desire to communicate. I really do believe that they are doing the best they can with what they inherited from previous administrations. The problem is really one of scale – we haven’t really adapted well to becoming a multi-million member church yet.

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