School administators need to learn when to lead and when to follow
For Administrators

Deciding When to Lead and When to Follow

By Brian Gatens March 20, 2014

Leadership is a funny thing. Not funny in a ha-ha sort of way (well, it is sometimes), but in the way that for all the books, articles and websites dedicated to its study, no one can quite quantify how to be a good leader. It’s easy to identify the traits — trustworthy, consistent, visionary and collaborative all spring to mind — but it’s very difficult to transfer them to a person. Are leaders born or are they made? As with all things, I think that the answer falls somewhere in the middle.

All leaders occasionally come to a crossroads where they have to decide to take charge or hand the baton to somebody else who can do a better job of completing the task at hand. Giving up control or asking for help are never easy for the person in charge, but sometimes leaders must choose to follow. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you decide on which way to turn.

Practice the humility you expect in others

Say you’re a senior administrator who learns of a junior administrator in your school who took on a task that he knew he was ill-equipped for. Rather than decide to reach out to a colleague for help, he instead went it alone and made a bad situation far, far worse.

After working to solve the problem, it’s only natural to wonder why he didn’t come to someone who could help him out. Situations like these often occur in schools when newer principals fear that asking for assistance will be seen as a weakness. What’s the right response to this situation?

For starters, remember that the expectation you place on him, you should also place on yourself. Regardless of your title or experience, you too will come across a situation you can’t solve on your own. Use these times to reinforce in your own mind the necessity of reaching out to the person in your school, regardless of position or experience, who can help you solve the problem.

Model for your co-workers

Being a follower in a given situation should not be viewed as a negative thing. Rather, it should be seen as an excellent way to set an example for your co-workers. While it may be hard to admit that you don’t know the answer, doing so will send the strong signal to others that they can also follow someone else’s lead when the need arises.

Nothing is more powerful than a good example, and the higher you are on the organizational chart, the stronger that example is.

Put ego on the shelf

Being a school leader often means you get your own way the first time you ask. Whether it’s something as simple as changing a school rule or something more complex, like making a staffing decision, this type of authority can be intoxicating if you’re not careful. It’s not surprising to learn of school leaders whose egos and inability to ask for help mistakenly cost them their positions.

Think of the students

Ted Sizer penned the book The Students are Watching and his main idea was that no matter how silent children may be, they are always paying attention to the adults in their schools.

When a child looks up and realizes a person in authority needs help addressing an issue, it sends a very strong message that they too can ask for assistance when the need arises. It also keeps leaders focused on professional learning and advancement. We encourage students to be lifelong learners but must exhibit this behavior ourselves.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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