Lead with Principles not Rules

Our world seems to be full of uncertainty. It spills over into our work in schools. So many kids with so many needs; so many things to do with so little time. How can we possibility get it all done. Recently I was with a young teacher leader and when asked how she was, she commented, “Overwhelmed. Every meeting I attend, someone else gives me something else to do or get done.” When we get overwhelmed in life some people have a spiritual principle that says, “We will never be given more than we can bear.” How might Principles in our systems offer a quiet force of equilibrium? Maybe they might even guide people in their thinking and actions over time.

Eric McNulty, director at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative writes that principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold on to yet also the freedom to make independent decisions and take actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive. In the business world there are a few examples from which we, in education, might learn. Nordstrom’s has a principle-based approach for all sales associates. “Use your best judgment in all situations.” This shows total trust in the associate and encourages listening to the customer. Very different than the rule, “All merchandise returns must be made within 30 days.” At IBM, Gerstner turned the company around with his groundbreaking idea: managing by principles rather than procedures. Yet, through the years many organizations have been slow to let go of the rule-based handbook. What more impactful place for guiding principles than in education? Here are a few principles found in schools.

  • Children always come first
  • Do no harm to any child or adult
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated
  • Soar with our strengths!
  • Look first for what is right, good, and has possibility
  • Respect all – in words and actions
  • Believe in the brilliance and positive intent of all
  • Measure what matters
  • Know your data and how to leverage it
  • Embrace, adapt to and drive change
  • If it’s great for the staff but not kids, it’s not good
  • Presume Positive Intent
  • Seek feedback for continuous growth

Principles have power in that they communicate trust and demonstrate to employees that they have the freedom to use their judgment to reach the best decisions through the principles with which we work.

How might you want to refine and/or create principles to guide your school or organization?

  • Think of your organization at its best. Dig into the root behaviors, conditions, and other factors that make things work well. Craft principles to reflect and stimulate more of this positive energy. Ask: What happens when my staff is working at their best? How do they demonstrate initiative? How are they free to exercise their best judgment?
  • Be ready to live your principles, even when it gets tough. Actions will always speak louder than words. As a leader, realize that the drumbeat for achievement is constant. You have to ensure that the other principles get as much attention as those bedrock goals and that in practice they fulfill their intention.

Make the principles public. Post them in all conference and work areas. Encourage staff to refer to the principles to explain when they made certain decisions. The more principles are part of daily life, the greater impact they will have.

Reference: Strategy+Business, E. McNulty, Sept.2017

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