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Common core leadership principles

3 min read


Borne from 30 years of projects, passions, and uncomfortable conversations

1.Become ambidextrous. Learn to dribble with both hands. Go to your right as easily as you can to your left. Like basketball, a versatile leader is far more effective than a one dimensional one.

2. Embrace multilingualism. Fluency is not merely a verbal gift. It is the capacity to see things from multiple perspectives. It is being able to switch from one set of cultural assumptions to another, all the while staying graceful and focused. No one likes to see a leader sweat or stumble.

3. What we know about human beings is the need for autonomy, order and relatedness. When you give people the attentiveness of eye contact and knowing their name, you are touching the nerve ending for communication and connection. Never judge a book by its cover. But be leery of those who can’t look you in the eye.

4. You don’t need to be right. That becomes righteousness. But you do need to listen, disagree, challenge, reconsider, weigh options, ask questions and do your homework. Unpreparedness is the bane of leadership. Like bad posture, it is uncomfortably obvious and weakens how you are perceived.

5. Stay ambulatory and accessible. Leaders do not thrive in a vacuum. Offices are places to close doors, do email, store things, and listen to you internal voice. Like sanctuaries, they are not social spaces. They are internal ones. The beauty in schools is the serendipity. In order to experience it, like browsing in a bookstore, you have to wander about, observe and interact to reap this elusive thing called learning and teaching.

6. Schools belong in communities. Schools are part of communities. Learn the geography of yours: the bodegas, community centers and coffee shops. Leaders have to become ecologists in order to understand the biosphere of community life: the senior citizen homes and the chamber of commerce, the parks and the libraries, businesses and bowling allies. It is the shift from administrator to anthropologist. Leadership is the art of establishing connections and condemning walls.

7. Food is the great equalizer. It cuts across status and rank. It brings people together. Whenever you hold standing meetings, take 2 minutes for silence to settle in the room and make sure people have something to eat/drink.

8. Leaders have to become impresarios of collaboration and partnering. Territoriality, and command and obey have become as obsolete as VCRs and floppy discs. Leaders practice bringing people together, not dividing them. They convene. They don’t control.

9. Eschew pedestals and pulpits. Leadership resides in the quality of your humanity. From the depths of your goodness to the reality of your mistakes, wear humility like a badge of honor.

10.Everything is at stake. Whatever mooring was stable is now unhitched. Lead with love and respect. Innovate, invent, advocate, and make every word you utter, each action you take, as if it were your epitaph.

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. Most recently he headed Stevens Cooperative School as an interim, and prior to that he was head of school at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona and head of studies at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.