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The 4 Types of School Principals

by Mawi on March 26, 2011

Everyone has their own theory about what makes a good school principal.  Having been in over 1,000 school buildings and observed every kind of principal imaginable, here’s my theory.  Being an effective school principal comes down to two factors: Conflict and Delegation.

Principals have to make hundreds of decisions every week, and quite often the decisions involve conflict.  A teacher wants money for a project; a parents wants exceptions for their kids; a student is not where he is supposed to be; the district administrator has a request.  All day long someone wants something from the principal and sometimes the principal has to say NO.  If the principal does not have the emotional courage, or the natural inclination to consistently call things as they are and to make good decisions again and again all week long, people lose trust in the principal; they say he is unfair, has double standards, and so on.  In particular, most principals say their greatest challenge is managing conflict among their staff.

Delegation is important because a principal does not actually teach any of the kids – the teachers do.  So the best principals understand that the staff absolutely runs the school, and to the extent that the staff is excited, motivated, and challenged by the principal, the school runs well.  Some principals, unfortunately, lack the courage to delegate tasks to staff or the principals feel that they can do everything on their own.

This simple matrix organizes school principals into four categories.  You might look at the Warlord and think he’s automatically a bad principal – this is not true.  If a school is in complete disarray and the culture is falling apart, a Warlord mentality may be needed to right the ship, before moving over to Respectful Enforcer.

Before anyone becomes a school principal, I believe they should carefully consider how they handle conflict and how well they delegate.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paul McGuire March 26, 2011 at 11:15 am

Good ideas here. I am in my first week as an elementary principal and this is a simple guide for me to reflect on as I move on from my first five days! Interesting – courage seems to be the common element here. I would link wisdom to courage as essential.

I think to be an effective leader it will be necessary to move around the grid, maybe on an hourly basis depending on the day.

Thanks for this.

2 David Short March 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Hi Paul,
Good luck and success to you in your new position.

Watch out that you don’t add a fifth group to Mawi’s 4 type’s of school principals! Indecisive.
(“I used to be decisive, now I’m not so sure.”). Bannister’s construct theory is a great read (reference below*) and makes the point that the experience of being wrong is educationally as important as being right. So courage is a great ingredient – and the building blocks of wisdom.
Go for it – you’ll have great results!

Mawi – if you’re reading this – is there any way I can help Mental Karate in Chicago?

*BANNISTER D and FRANSELLA F (1986) Inquiring Man: the psychology of personal constructs (3rd edition) London: Routledge

3 Jill Grissom May 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Your theory is very similar to one my dad told me about 20 years ago. I was in my 4th year of teaching, and we had just hired a new principal at my school. There were some very unhappy teachers about 4 months into the school year, and, as the education association rep in my building, I was trying to help my members understand and problem-solve. My dad was an officer in the Army, so I asked him for some advice. He shared this with me. There are four types of leaders–High Task, High Relationship; Low Task, High Relationship; High Task, Low Relationship; and Low Task, Low Relationship.

It turned out that the principal I had was a High Task, Low Relationship leader. She expected a lot from us, but she didn’t really care whether we liked her or not. The good news for my school then was that she did work just as hard as we did. The bad news was there were no warm fuzzies that we sometimes needed to keep going in our very stressful jobs.

The best leaders of all are High Task, High Relationship. It does take a smart, talented, and compassionate person to be that type of leader. I have had the joy of working for two of them in my career.

4 Mawi May 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Jill – comments like yours – where I learn something new or a new slant – are exactly why I love having this blog. Thank you for sharing.

5 Muhamm May 26, 2014 at 9:55 pm

I am preparing of interviews for the posts of headmaster and principal. This article will be very useful at the time of declaration of interviews.

6 Harold January 29, 2015 at 10:21 am

I was placed in a school that had several seasoned employees, one in which my bookkeeper seemed to have been given all the authority to do whatever. I tried to change the philosophy, and was criticized because of the former principal had given her that authority. Now I’m trying to get a handle on all the workings of the school, and I feel as though I’m the bad guy for this. How should I go about my job without walking on eggshells?

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