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Leading with humility

Want to become a better principal? Consider these five leadership lessons from the trenches.

6 min read




Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real — Thomas Merton

When I was a principal, a teacher reported that a student in her class with a history of stealing had taken a $10 dollar bill from her pocket book. This also happened to be at a time when our school was having a book fair. We were almost certain that he had taken the money. We were also certain that we knew his motive: He did not have the money to buy books and felt bad when he saw his classmates buying them.

I had a good relationship with the student, so I approached him with kindness but also with a determination get the truth from him. I used all of my principal skills and strategies to teach him what he needed to learn; it was for his own good. I pointed out his history of taking things and acknowledged his motives for doing so. I had learned over the years that consequences alone don’t teach lessons, so I de-emphasized any punishment he would get if he told the truth. I even gave him a pep talk about how we all sometimes do the wrong thing and how it takes courage to admit it. 

Despite all of this, he denied taking the money. Trying to give him some space and time to reflect, I said I would check with him later to see if his “recollection” changed. Bottom line: I tried to make it as easy as possible for him to finally tell the truth.

I checked back with the student (with confidence that he would have seen the light) and I got the same denial as before. As I sat in my office trying to figure out what to do next, the teacher who had reported the theft came into my office with a very distraught face. She expressed how terrible she felt to have discovered that she was mistaken about the missing $10 dollars. She failed to thoroughly search her pocket book and found it in another spot. We looked at each other and shared our mutual pits in our stomach. It was painful to think about what this student had to endure because we were so certain: We told him that he stole the money and was lying about it.

I immediately went to the student and confessed my serious error. I acknowledged how difficult it must have been for him to be accused of stealing and lying. I offered him my sincerest apology. He paused, looked at me and said, “That’s okay we all make mistakes.”  He offered his hand for me to shake and we did.

In that one unforgettable moment, he became the teacher, and I the student.

He gave me a tremendous gift.  I thanked him, but I don’t think he heard me as he hurried down the hall to his next activity. 

Looking back I realize now that he taught some important lessons that helped me become a better principal and person in the years to come:

Invest time and energy in building trusting and respectful relationships with every person you lead.

The saying “people don’t care about what you know until they know that you care” should guide all leaders. When relationships are based on trust and respect, mistakes and problems become opportunities for growth. Wise leaders create environments where people lead each other; learning is a two-way street.

Don’t let your position of authority let you think you know more than those you lead.

Leaders who think they know more that those they lead deprive themselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community. In addition, leaders who rely on a “power over” approach, suppress honest feedback and risk taking from those they lead.

Don’t be afraid to say the following: “I don’t know,”  “I made a mistake,” “I am sorry” and “Please, forgive me.”

Many leaders fear that their vulnerability will diminish their authority in the eyes of those they lead. In practice, people admire and emulate leaders who have the strength and courage to admit their mistakes and ask for help.  Leaders who are “human” promote greater ownership and responsibility from those they lead.

Learn the difference between control and influence and choose the latter.

Organization status and authority are a very weak substitute for moral authority. Leaders, who articulate clear values and principles and follow them in word and deed, create strong social norms that allow people to collectively guide each other toward the greater common good.

Recognize that leaders who are humble/human give those they lead the gift and freedom to grow into their true selves and to be fully human.

Leaders who tightly control and micro-manage very often get mini versions of themselves from those they lead. People who primarily devote their energy to pleasing the leader don’t have the opportunity to develop their own unique talents and abilities. Wise leaders believe in the great potential that resides in everyone they lead.

That one dramatic lesson in humility helped me shed my conception of what a leader had to be, so I began to discover similar, less dramatic lessons in humility on a regular basis. My job was never easy but it did become less stressful and more rewarding.

For example, I remember a parent once criticizing a decision I made and expecting me to defend myself. I simply responded with “maybe you’re right about that, but it was the best decision I could make at the time. Hopefully I will learn from this and make a better one next time; thanks for the feedback.” The parent who was expecting an argument suddenly became an ally and our subsequent discussion was mutually beneficial and productive. 

Being humble can be liberating, however, I only wish I had learned that earlier in my tenure. I share my story so you might learn this leadership lesson sooner rather than later.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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