Principal Helpline: Do You Need to Be a Leader or Manager?

Oh, the tangled web of principal strategy and progress

Should principals be leaders or managers?


When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time talking about how principals should be leaders and not managers. But after several years on the job, I’m finding myself spending most of my time managing—personnel, discipline, parents, bus routes. Where do I find time to focus on my principal leadership?



Sometimes in graduate school we act as if a Venn diagram of leadership and management would show almost zero intersection. Principals soon discover, however, that you can’t have good principal leadership without good management and vice versa. Both are part of the job.

Students in my graduate classes would talk about what kind of school they hoped to lead when they became principals. One common goal was that they wanted their schools to be welcoming to parents and other visitors. “That’s great,” I would say. “So what would that look like? If I were a parent, how would I know your school was welcoming?”

After a long pause, students would begin to think about what “welcoming” actually meant. What actions would a principal take to ensure their school was welcoming? You have to manage the details to make a welcoming school work.


Let me give you an unfortunate example when neither principal leadership nor management resulted in a welcoming school. A few weeks ago, I went to a local elementary school to observe a teacher I’m mentoring. The 8–10 parking spots closest to the school had signs reserving them for the principal, the vice-principal, the director of this, and the supervisor of that.

I finally found a parking space and walked to the building. The security system required that I buzz the intercom to unlock the door. I buzzed. I buzzed again. Finally a voice said, “Name and purpose of visit?” I said that I was visiting Ms. B. “Does she know you’re coming?” the voice asked. Finally, I was allowed in.

I checked into the main office where I stood in a short line of parents and other visitors, while the secretary entered each of us into her computer. She issued laminated passes that had to be returned. The office reminded me of a hospital waiting room, since the lights were low, and it was silent. There was no kids’ artwork on the walls. The principal’s door was closed, as was the assistant principal’s. I finally headed to the classroom through halls devoid of kids’ work or pictures of displays of the student of the month or announcements of upcoming events.

Nothing about this school said we welcome parents and visitors. It clearly wasn’t one of the principal’s goals.

You decide which direction you want your school to take as a school leader—what you want it to “look like.” The management decisions you make on a daily basis help you move in that direction. If you want your school to be parent friendly, you reserve parking spaces for parents. You instruct your secretary to say, “Welcome to our school.” You light up the office and the halls with student art. You may pop out of your office to say hello. Maybe student guides take visitors where they need to go.

So while you may be spending your time handling management issues, how you manage them reveals your principal leadership and what you consider important. Discipline is fair and respectful whether you’re dealing with kids or adults. Bus routes are designed for safety. Copy machines are quickly repaired so as not to be an obstacle to teaching. Handling these management issues well and efficiently increases respect for you as a leader. It will also help you accomplish the curriculum and academic progress you want to see.

So are you a school leader or a school manager? Yes. Depending on the day.

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