Alternatives to the Principal-Led School

When we look at promising possibilities or we are working through existing or impending challenges in education, it is easy to get inhibited by assuming that the dominant models in education are essential. This gets intensified when policies are created on varies levels that rely on certain assumed models. One area where this is especially prevalent is in the way that we define the roles of staff. While this applies to how we think about the role of K-12 teacher or University professor, I will use the example of principle to illustrate this point. Consider that we looked at the data and found that we have an impending shortage of principlals for our schools in the near future. One potential solution is to create a campaign to recruit more principals. Yet, this might also be a chance to reconsider the idea of a principal-led school.

What is the role of a principal? While there are certain rather common standards associated with state licensure to become a school principal, the role of principal can vary from one school to the next. In some school, supervision of instruction is a large part of the job, but in other schools, there are additional people who are in charge of that. In many schools, the principal helps shape the vision of the school, strives to influence the culture in certain ways, manages people, deals with legal and compliance issues, and much more. Yet again, these roles vary from one context to another. In fact, as I was writing this article, I browsed several principal job descriptions. They had plenty of difference. Given this reality, what is the core responsibility of a school principal? Is it possible that these responsibilities could be effectively met in different ways?

Yet again, these roles vary from one context to another. In fact, as I was writing this article, I browsed several principal job descriptions. They had plenty of difference. Given this reality, what is the core responsibility of a school principal? Is it possible that these responsibilities could be effectively met in different ways? Consider four alternatives at work in various schools around the world.


There are schools where teachers share the responsibilities associated with that of principal in many schools. If you happen to visit such schools, you might be surprised to find that it can work quite well. They often need to outsource or hire people to help with certain administrative tasks (like financial or legal issues), but that is often the case even when a principal is leading a school.


Then there is the movement in certain parts of the world toward what some refer to as parent-led schools. The parents themselves manage the responsibilities that we often associate with the principal, quite often forming some sort of council and constitution to guide their actions and decisions.


This is even more extreme for many readers, but we also have examples of student-led schools. There are still adults involved in these schools, but the idea is that the students collectively establish rules, enforce them, take ownership for shaping a positive culture, have significant input on curriculum, and much more. The students themselves do a great deal of what we might see as the role of teachers and the principal in many other schools. As with all things, you can find examples of this that don’t seem to be working well, but there are others where people are very satisfied with the result.

Distributed Leadership Models

There are other schools that create a list of all the responsibilities that we might typically think of as belonging to the principal, but then these are distributed among many roles. There might be multiple staff members, teachers, parents, community members, students, outsourced work, and even strategic partners who collectively fulfill the necessary administrative tasks. A guiding document, a sort of constitution, serves as a source of accountability as with many teacher-led, parent-led and student-led schools.

Any of these and other models can and do work. Principal-led schools are just one of many possibilities. Yet, how many of us limit our sense of the possibilities to what we know? What new opportunities might we be able to surface if we were willing to reconsider how roles and responsibilities in learning organizations are distributed?

Leadership, Power, Manipulation and a Better Way

While much of what I write focuses on education, I occasionally venture into other topics related to leadership and life in the contemporary world. This is one of those times, inspired by reading a book that is apparently well-known, one that sold over 1.5 million copies since it was first published. Yet, I just learned about it and bought it at the recommendation of a respected colleague. It is a book about power. Before I get into it, allow me to share a related memory.

A Dark Feeling

Decades ago there was a terrible low-budget documentary that was passed around in advance of a particular band showing up in a town. It was a series of low-budget versions of actual human deaths. I remember visiting a friend’s house and he had it playing on the television. I only watched a few minutes of it, but I vividly remember the feeling I had while watching it…a feeling of darkness and evil.

I just had the same experience. This time, it was from reading a book that was recently suggested to me by a former University president. He argued that anyone aspiring to serve or serving in executive leadership should read and know the principles in this book because you will see them used persistently. It is called The 48 Laws of Power, a collection of what I consider dark, manipulative, dishonest, and sinister tactics suggested as ways to gain and maintain power.

Popular Ideas

This book is supposedly quite popular among celebrities, CEOs, prison inmates, politicians and others who seek to use the ideas in the book to secure and grow their power and influence. I’ve personally witnessed these principles applied widely in organizations around the country, including faith-based ones. I’m sure that I’ve even exemplified some of them at times, although they are certainly not behaviors to which I aspire or for which I could take pride. Some might just challenge me to wake up to the reality of our world, but I do not see how embracing manipulation and deception will make our families, communities, schools, churches or any other organizations better places.

A Better Way

I refuse to accept the author of this book’s vision for leadership and power. Readers of my blog and books know that I embrace a distinctly Christian worldview (although my readership is quite diverse) and that it shows up in subtle and sometimes more direct ways in what I write. As such, I must return to the central figure in Christianity, Jesus. His teachings show me a very different way. It is embodied in what some today describe as servant leadership. It involves a rejection of life as purely about power and influence, arguing that other virtues are more central to the good life. These are virtues like truth, beauty, goodness, unity, faith, love, hope, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I maintain that our world is better off when we support and strive to leaders, designers, thinkers and citizens who embrace these virtues over the litany of manipulations represented in this book. This applies to politics as much as it does the way we manage our schools, communities, and families. While I certainly have my less than noble moments, I wouldm rather lose than win with the tactics in this book. Who we are matters to me as much or more than what we accomplish.

Notes & Quotes from Jim Collins at the 2016 ASUGSV Summit

On the second day of the ASU/GSV Summit, a keynote from Jim Collins got us started right. I’ve read all of his books, some more than once, but this is the first time that I’ve heard him in person, and he did not disappoint. Even though I didn’t hear many new ideas, something sunk in a little more this time as I listened and considered the implications for my current and future leadership in education. Whether you were at the live event and want a recap or you are looking for a glimpse from a distance, I put together the following notes and quotes that stuck with me. Perhaps you will find them useful as well.

“We can’t settle for good schools in any sector of education…and not just for some kids.”

This was his opening statement. Our students deserve and need better than good. With this quote Collins launched us into a review of key tenets from his work, but with the context of education in mind. Not only did he challenge us to pursue great in our schools but to do it for all kids, not just those who are fortunate enough to live in the right zip codes.

Building a great organization is not merely a function of circumstance. It is a matter of conscious choice and disciplined leadership. [paraphrase]

For those who want to think that the great organizations just got lucky, Collins has a body of research to indicate otherwise. This is something that happens by choice.

 Even though my original work was drawing from the business sector, I am not saying that we should run education just like a business. [paraphrase] “The key distinction is not between business and education but between great and good…This is not a business idea. It is a greatness idea.”

Some are critical when people start trying to use principles of business and apply them to the world of schools and education. Yet, Collins has research from businesses and schools, and he argues that this is not about business versus school. This is about good versus great. Do we care about the mission of our schools enough to pursue greatness?

With this, Collins took us through twelve questions that a leader can ask or an organization can ask to pursue greatness. These questions are drawn from the key ideas in his books, and a handy PDF version is available here. I already have it saved on my computer and started to scribble down thoughts to explore with my teams.

“Are we willing to strive for level 5 leaders?”

Leadership is not personality. In fact, many of the greatest leaders seemed to have, what Collins called, a charisma bypass. Instead, it is not a charismatic person that matters but a compelling mission. In the words of Collins, “If you have a charismatic cause, you do not need to be a charismatic leader.”

This type of leadership includes, “a mixture of personal humility combined with an indomitable will.” Level 5 leadership is tied to the idea of service. These leaders have plenty of ambition. It is just that the ambition is funneled into the cause, not self-promotion. This is because level 4 leaders inspire people to follow them, but level 5 leaders inspire people to follow a cause.

In looking at schools, Collins noted that it isn’t just the top leader. We need exceptional leadership at the unit level. “That is where really great things get done.” This is where we need to to find, train, hire, and raise up level 5 leaders if we are going to achieve greatness in our learning organizations. The unit leader is the key to exceptional results. “The unit leader is a huge swing variable. The unit leader makes a huge difference on what happens to those kids. We need legions of level 5 leaders in our schools.”

Another way that Collins framed it is with the following challenge. “Assume you are dead in five years. What is on your plate?” Do the things that matter to you, that resonate with your deepest passions.

Do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?

People on our teams matter. In fact, they matter so much that Collins encouraged us think about who to get on the bus and which seats to put each person in before trying to figure out where to drive the bus. “What are my key seats? How to I ensure that at least 90% of my seats are filled with the right people?” This isn’t just hiring the right people. “The one thing to really get at is figuring out how to get the right people in the key seats. Every leader who figured out how to do this, they eventually built out a core set of people on their bus that created the results.”

What are the brutal facts and how can we better live the Stockdale paradox?

Collins draws this from Admiral Jim Stockdale’s survival of torture and imprisonment. As Stockdale explained to him once, “I never capitulated in despair, because I never waivered on the idea that I would get out and that I would turn it into the defining part of my life… Yet, Stockdale wanted to make an important distinction. I was not optimistic. I just never capitulated to despair. You must never every confuse the need for unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to face the most brutal facts as they are.” This is not about having some Pollyanna perspective. It is facing the facts and reality of the situation but maintaining hope.

What is our hedgehog concept?

“The way great organizations get built is a fairly organic and cumulative process that looks like a breakthrough.” He used a missile analogy to explain this. Imagine that you see a missile come out of the water. It didn’t just come into existence. It has been under the water for a long time before we notice it.

We need to figure this hedgehog concept out. This one big idea, doing what we are truly passionate about, doing what we can do better than anyone else in the world, and making a distinctive impact. To get at this, ask this question. If your organization disappeared, who would miss you?

From there we get to the flywheel effect. With a fly wheel, you eep pushing and pushing and pushing in a logical direction and then it hits breakthrough momentum. And in education, there is the organizational flywheel, but then what Collins called the “uber flywheel” of the larger education sector. We have to be about both our organization and the larger flywheel.

How can we accelerate clicks on the Flywheel by committing to a 20-Mile March?

This is about being all in and all in for the long haul. It is about doing your homework, settting your goals, staying focused, and making solid, steady progress. It is about hold backing from getting overzealous or burnt out, but also pushing through on the difficult days. Southwest Airlines said, “we will be profitable every year no matter what.” Then they made it happen. There has to be a “no matter what” mindset to this. What is your 20-mile march? “This is about long-term, consecutive, consistent performance.”

Collins gave the example of a several thousand mile bike ride -The key was that they made all the hotel reservations in advance. They didn’t have a choice but to keep pedaling until they got to the next stop. That is the spirit of the 20-mile march.

“What will you commit to with fanatic discipline?” On the flip side, the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. We can’t be changing every 2-3 years or being inconsistent. We need cumulative momentum. Pick something good and then stay with it for the long haul.

This isn’t about getting the perfect idea. Find something good and then persist. As he explained, “Better to polish a lead bullet to silver than to search endlessly for the perfect silver bullet.”

“Lots of people get clobbered because it is rational to ignore trends in the short run. The 20-mile march can help. Ask this question. “What are we highly confident will have changed by 15-20 years from now?” When we get that, starting marching in that direction and persist because great leaders manage for the quarter century.

Where should we place our big bets, based on the principle “Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs”—blending creativity and discipline to scale innovation?

In his research, Collins learned that 10x leaders didn’t innovate more than their competitors. They innovated in a different way. They engaged in what he called “empirical innovation.” Fire small bullets…small innovations until you know that you are on target. Then you can pull out the big guns.

When people don’t succeed, they either didn’t fire enough bullets. Or, they fired bullets, got calibration, but didn’t fire a cannonball. Or, to look bold, they skipped the bullets and just fired big, uncalibrated cannonballs.

Do we show any signs of How the Mighty Fall, and do we have enough Productive Paranoia to stay far above the Death Line?

“The only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive… This is why great companies carry 3-10x the cash assets than the competition even when they were small.”

How can we do a better job at Clock Building, not just Time Telling?

People make the mistake of putting all their trust in a solitary genius or leader. Sometimes they stop being geniuses, they die or leave. “If your company can’t be great without you, it is not a truly great company.”

Do we embrace the Genius of the AND—especially the fundamental dynamic of “Preserve the Core AND Stimulate Progress”?

“Preserve the core and stimulate progress…A core value is something that you would hold even if it hurt you to hold.” We want this balance. We are uncompromising on our core values, but then stimulate progress. The trick is that people confuse values and practices. Values are what we don’t want to change. Yet, when we change a practice, sometimes people accuse us of changing the values. We need to help people avoid confusing the two.

What is our Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)?

This is about giving yourself over to some gigantic obsession that dwarfs you, something that takes over your life. A good  “BHAG suspends all existential angst” because you are so absorbed in it. “Get great people and give them really big things to do.” This is in contrast with the mistake some make of putting their best people on their biggest problems instead of their greatest opportunities.

However, you want to choose your BHAGs well because you will create cynicism in your organization if you change them too much.

How can we increase our Return on Luck (ROL), making the most of our good luck and bad?

What if a lot of this just comes down to luck? He asked this question and found that the great organizations were not more or less lucky. They just had a great ROL (return on luck). In other words, they made use of the luck better than others when it came along.

In addition, Collins noted that “luck favors the persistent.” “True creators stay in the game.” “If we believe that life comes down to a single hand we can lose, but if we see it as a series of hands and we play every hand as best as we can…” good things will happen. What really matters is how you play each hand you are dealt over the long haul. No enterprise or great body of work comes from a single hand of work.”

What should be on our Stop Doing list?

First, Collins warned that if you have more than 3 priorities, you have 0 prioriteis. In addition, it is not just about making a to-do list. We need to decide what we will no longer do. What do we need to stop doing in education?

A Few More Quotes and Notes

Then there were a few more quotables and nuggets during the wonderful and extended Q&A time.

  • “Be disciplined in daily routine so I can be violent and outrageous in my work.” (quoting someone…can’t remember who)
  • Jim Collins, “sits down every year and starts with the ‘dead in 5’ premise and build a not-to-do list. If it can’t pass the 5-year plan, I can’t do it.
  • “Stop unnecessary fire drills.” Lots of the emotional stuff is very unproductive.
  • Amid a field with lots of outside regulation and policies…. policies, don’t pull them down. Say… “Okay, so what is in our control and then focus on that.”
  • Collins’ BHAG for education? – “There is no statistically significant difference and there is no significant difference in the quality of education across all zip codes.”
  • “We need a West Point for school leaders.”
  • A key piece of advice in his earlier years was from John Gardner. “Jim it occurs to me that you spend way too much time being interesting. Why don’t you spend more time being interested?”
  • Real creativity very much accelerates after 50. Peter Drucker – at age 65 –  he was 1/3rd of the way through the books that he wrote.
  • “Forever banish the question of preparing for retirement. Replace it with preparing for renewal.”

As I said, much of this might be familiar, but this is the sort of stuff worth reviewing and returning to time and time again. Or, if we haven’t thought about how to apply it to education, now is our chance.

A Recap on My Talk About Leading Outside the Box

The week of April 4, I had the joy and privilege of participating in LEAD Now!, Concordia University Wisconsin’s first TED-like event that included five 18-minute presentations on innovative leadership in education. In this case, the audience consisted largely of Lutheran educators and administrators from around the United States.  My assigned topic was Leading Outside the Box. While the videos for this event will likely be available online at some time in the future, I thought I would offer a recap of my words.

The phrase, “outside the box” has pretty much reached the level of cliché today, but I was excited to take that idea and put a new twist on it. So, I started my preparation with a less-than outside-the-box strategy. I looked in the online Merriam Webster dictionary to find the definition of “box.” A box is, “a rigid typically rectangular container with or without a cover.” 

Okay, if that is the definition of a box, what is the definition of an organizational box? Now we are getting in outside-the-box territory because you will not find that definition in the dictionary. As such, I took the liberty of coming up with my own definition. An organizational box consists of all the policies, preferred practices, beliefs, habits, and rituals that make up the look and feel of our organization. These things shape what we do and how we do it. They are the metaphorical walls of our organization. In other words, an organizational box is our current culture.

We collectively build our organizational boxes and then we live and work in them. We learn to play well together in our sand “boxes”. Over time, we take great pride in our boxes. They give us parameters within which we work. They are safe. They can make us feel comfortable. They give us a useful sense of identity. At their best, they help us to live out our mission.

Organizational boxes are not, however, synonymous with our mission. Missions are wild, unleashed, compelling whys that, when they are in full force, demand to be let out of the box, to not be entirely contained. Missions want to grow, and there come times when the context changes, opportunities arise, problems face us and we must decide if we are willing to let our missions lead up out beyond those safe and comfortable walls of our box.

leading outside the boxMissions can live well in many of our boxes, our cultures. In fact, it is important that they permeate our culture, that they are woven into the walls of our boxes. Yet, again, they are not the same as the box. The are distinct from and bigger than our boxes.

You’ve probably heard the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is certainly true. However, it is equally true that culture can eat mission for breakfast if we are not careful. Over time we become so fond of our current practices, traditions, perspective, and models that we treat them like they are one in the same with our mission. We cling to them with missional fervency…but they are not our mission. As such, sometimes, just sometimes, that wild, compelling why, that mission that drives us into new ventures and opportunities, it calls us to leave the safe and hallowed walls of our traditional boxes.

Some reject this notion. They confuse their culture with their mission. If someone challenges part of the culture in pursuit of new ways to live out the mission, they are condemned as acting counter to the mission. The Lutheran education system, the second largest private school system in the United States, had to face this years ago.

When German Lutherans first came to the United States, they set up schools immediately, and instruction was in the German language. They sought out German immigrants, both those who attended Lutheran churches and those who did not, and wove their faith into the schooling experience.

Yet, they were in a country where English was the dominant language, and these schools had to make a difficult decision. Do we continue to teach in German or do we instruct in English? Some argued that language and mission were too deeply connected to be separated. German was the language in which their faith tradition was forged. Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German language of common people and it was the first time in their lives that they were able to read these deeply meaningful words in their native tongue, their heart language.

As such, there was justifiable concern about switching the language of instruction. Yet, because people had the courage to make that difficult decision, Lutheran schools have served an incredible number of people in the United States, making it one of the largest private school systems in the nation. That would have never happened if people did not have the courage to follow their mission beyond the existing walls of their organizational boxes.

The same thing is true today for that Lutheran education system. This time it is not a language change, but there are other cultural changes that calls for stepping outside of the traditional boxes so that they are able to live out the mission in new ways, serving new people.

In an area of study known as phenomenology, they are interested in getting at the essence of ideas and things. As one way of beginning such an exploration, they might ask three simple questions. The first question is, “What is essential?” What are the traits so integral to whatever it is that I am studying that, if you removed those traits, that something would cease to be what it is.

Consider the example of a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? We might say that a ball needs to be spherical, but that would rule out something like a football. With a little effort, we can get to the idea that a ball must be something round on at least one plane. We might come up with one or two other traits. That is it. Those are the only essential, ultimately defining attributes.

From there we go to the second question. “What is important?” These are traits that impact form and function, often in significant ways, but it can still be a ball without meeting specific criteria. Size, weight, density, and shape, for example, would likely go into this category. We can have a football, golf ball, basketball, baseball and more.

Then we have the final question. “What is merely present?” These are traits that can change from one item to another but they don’t really change the overall function that much.

Leading outside the box demands that we ask these same sort of questions about our organization, starting with the assumption that our mission is the essential. We must strive to be completely transparent, setting aside our preferences and agendas, to get at the essence of our mission and organization. It is too easy to put items from the “important” category into the “essential” category, which can limit our sense of the possibilities. It can also prevent us from following the mission into incredibly promising new ventures. Heaven forbid that our culture gets in the way of living out our mission to the greatest extent. Leading outside the box, pure and simple, is having the courage to unleash our mission, to let it outside of the cultural boxes that exist in our organizations, to let it lead us into unchartered territories, serving new populations, taking on new forms and models that we’ve never considered before.

In my opening remarks to the group of people who, as you might remember from the beginning of this essay, were largely people working in the Lutheran education system, I started by explaining that I am one of Lutheran education’s greatest critics, and that I would explain why in my talk. That is obviously a dangerous opening for a group of people who, in some cases, have devoted their entire lives to that system. Why am I one of its greatest critics? At the end of my talk, I explained. I am one of the Lutheran education system’s greatest critics because I believe so strongly in its mission, and I am just not willing to let that mission get limited to one or a small set of cultural boxes.

In fact, I could say this about more than the Lutheran education system. It is true for me about the entire contemporary education system. Too often we are fighting over the maintenance of our preferred boxes, our cultural preferences, or the ones that have the most to offer us personally or as a select group of people. Yet, compelling missions demand that we exchange our personal preferences for the grander mission. It is not about us, and if we try to make it about us, then we must admit that we are limiting its potential reach and impact. We would rather have it our way than have it pave the way for reaching and serving new people in new places with new possibilities.

If you are part of an organization with a compelling mission, then there are probably new boxes to be built at some point. I certainly believe this in the education system. New boxes extend the mission. They don’t compromise it. As such, box building is a healthy and important part of growing organizations with a wild and unleashed mission.

Furthermore, some of are wired, inspired, even called to stepping out of boxes, even to missional box building. Please hear us out and consider that we might not be challenging the mission when we are challenging others to consider moving beyond our current boxes. Some of us are addicted to mission. It fuels and animates us. We fall asleep thinking about riffing off of the mission in new ways like we are trying to create the next great guitar solo. We wake up in the middle of the night scribbling down new ideas. We get up in the morning excited to jump into another day of missional living. Admittedly, sometimes we need to be pulled back into the box a bit when we move too quickly or need to think through the implications more carefully. Yet, I ask that you consider the possibility that maybe we box builders are an important part of extending the mission or sometimes keeping it alive.

The reality is that our many missions in education today drive us to respond to the changing contexts and cultures in which we serve. This means that there will be times when we have to make the decision about whether we are willing and able to look beyond our boxes, to recognize that the mission can breathe and live beyond the walls of our box, that it can, in fact, thrive in the wild. It can help establish new boxes that benefit even more people. Or, consider that mission might lead to an extreme makeover of our existing boxes. This is because, when you have an organization that truly expect everyone to put mission ahead of the current culture…watch out! You are in for an extraordinary journey.