Why principals must delegate

"The first rule of management is delegation. Don’t try and do everything yourself because you can’t." Anthea Turner

The average 21st century school leader is in over his or her head in work demands and expectations.

A typical day for a school principal includes a host of management activities such as scheduling, personnel and facility management, instructional oversight, meetings, budgeting, programming, disciplining students, connecting with parents and the community, reporting to the board or district, and, perhaps most challenging of all, addressing individual student needs. This list does not include the crises and special situations that are inevitable in schools and can be all-consuming when they occur.

To meet these demands, more principals are working longer days, with leaders of high-poverty schools racking up even more time. Some even work on weekends to keep up.

Compounding matters is that principals are expected to remain current, dynamic and adaptable in their thinking and practice, despite such moving targets as shifts in district priorities or school climate, changes in student demographics or school performance, technological advances, as well as best practice research and professional development. And they must do all of this in an ongoing environment of accountability that has increasingly become linked to narrowly defined academic results.

No wonder so many principals are chafing at the increased complexity of their roles and responsibilities.

A 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that three out of four K-12 public school principals believe the job has become “too complex,” with the majority contending that school leadership responsibilities have changed significantly over the last five years. Nearly half of principals surveyed indicated that they “feel under great stress several days a week.”

Another contributor to this stress is a lack of perceived control. For example, according to the same survey, only 42% say they have control over curriculum and instruction, while 43% of principals say they have control when it comes to removing teachers.

This lack of perceived control does not diminish principals’ sense of responsibility for day-to-day goings on in their buildings. Nine in 10 maintained that “the principal should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in his or her school.” Principals see themselves as accountable, as does the public, but in many areas, they feel unable to do much to improve things.

The result of this unholy trinity of increased work, added complexity and reduced control is a notable decrease in job satisfaction among principals. In 2008, 68% had indicated that they were “very satisfied”. Four years later, that number had dropped to 59%.

Not surprisingly, about a third of those surveyed said they were likely to go into a different occupation within next five years. That is a deeply unfortunate outcome for professionals who have made education their life’s work. In addition, the impact of principal churn on teachers and students, academically and otherwise, can hardly be ignored.

Delegation is the answer

So, what are principals to do? One answer is to become more comfortable with and proficient at delegating. The practice offers many benefits, including:

  1. Removing bottleneck. Delegation helps clear the bottleneck around organizational output and efficiency. More will get done, and competently, when responsibilities are clear, and the right people are doing the right work with proper timelines attached.
  2. Continuity of process. Involved processes, such as curriculum development, standards alignment and event scheduling, all benefit from process continuity. Delegation fosters such steadiness by keeping the same people focused on the same tasks time and again.
  3. Focus on “big rocks.” Kim Marshall has famously spoken about the importance of prioritization for principals to attend to their most important tasks first. Delegation allows principals to clear the smaller rocks off their desks and assign them elsewhere.
  4. Cost effectiveness. Administrators are typically the highest paid members of a school’s faculty. They should work only on the things that they are uniquely qualified to do, while delegating the rest to trained support staff.
  5. Leadership pipeline. Delegation allows leaders to develop team member and subordinate skills, proficiencies and general efficacy. In the words of Craig Groeschel, Life Church founder, “When you delegate tasks, you create followers. When you delegate authority, you create leaders.”
  6. Distributed leadership. Similar to #5, the distributed leadership model encourages leaders to share the practice of leadership more broadly within their schools, building its internal capacity for change and improvement. When work and responsibility is distributed, it encourages co‑operation and team work. Colleagues feel more invested the successes or failures of the school.
  7. Trust. Delegating meaningful work builds trust among the parties. Trust is also a powerful driver in improving morale and engagement.
  8. Communication. Delegation demands much communication throughout a project’s lifetime to ensure its success. Such communication has numerous positive benefits, including idea sharing and bonding.
  9. Creativity. New minds means new ways of looking at things and new approaches to problem solving. The outcome is often a creative new approach that is far superior to the initial conception.
  10. Motivation. Many motivational theories highlight the importance of accountability and responsibility in shaping employee behavior. Employees typically feel more involved and engaged if they feel trusted with important responsibilities or activities. The more they are required to think about the task, consider alternatives and make choices, the more rewarding the work becomes.

The following realities underscore the importance of delegation in schools:

  • In schools with hundreds or more learners and tens of teachers and support staff, the head cannot control every activity.
  • There is a physical and mental limit to the workload capacity of any individual or group in authority.
  • As a school grows more specialization in leadership, management and teaching areas is necessary.

Based on these lists, you might think that most school principals are delegating at every opportunity. But the reality is often very different.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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