District Leaders: Keep a Clean House
Leadership Insights

District-Level Leaders: Keep the House Clean at the Top

By Terry Wilhelm April 14, 2015

When it comes to a district culture, almost nothing is more important for top leaders to remember that everyone in the organization watches — and follows — their example. The old adage, “The footsteps others will follow are the ones you thought you covered up” is nowhere more true than at the apex of leadership. While everyone is human, holding a position of executive leadership calls for impeccable modeling.

Ignoring a leader’s abusive behavior allows it to escalate

Take the case of an assistant superintendent I’ll call Fred, who was notorious for verbally abusing his employees. Ironically, he was the head of HR. If the women who worked in his department made the smallest mistake, Fred called them into his office and berated them until they burst into tears.

Fred was not the only workplace bully in this district, but he apparently set the stage for others to feel comfortable following his lead. Other cabinet members, including the superintendent, turned a blind eye to Fred’s routine misbehavior and appalling example. Theories about why this was so went round and round among the rank and file. Fred wasn’t terminated until he crossed another line — sexual harassment that became too public to be ignored.

The consequences of unprofessional behavior

Holding those in top positions of power above the standards of conduct that are expected of the followership has far-reaching, long-term consequences that persist long after any particular incident is over. It is unfortunate when unprofessional or unethical behaviors surface at this level, and even more unfortunate when they are allowed to continue, perhaps with the rationale that they are not widely known or are somehow offset by the offender’s contributions.

District leaders are responsible for maintaining trust

Many district employees work in silos, seemingly unaware that their departments, their own job functions, even the district itself would not exist if it were not for schools. Bringing the realization of this connection to life for district employees is a critical, continuous responsibility of district leaders if schools are to receive the timely, effective support they need in order to keep their own focus on student learning.

Incidents like those above reduce trust in executive leaders. Trust is fragile, and without it, a district is at a major disadvantage in its ability to create a strong culture of support among its employee ranks for the schools and students it serves.


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