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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Being an Empowering Principal

  Tom Vona
  Tom Vona
Senior Associate and Mentor

It is a responsibility, in fact an obligation, of one who serves in a position of leadership to empower those whom he or she leads. As a high school principal, I learned that I had the opportunity to strive to do just that. I quickly realized, however, that principals-in-training are not commonly taught how to empower and uplift others. Those skills weren’t something to which I had given a great deal of thought before I became a principal. They soon became guiding principles for me once I found myself in that role. In fact, I came to learn that empowering and uplifting others was a key part of my job—and an element that can greatly benefit any organization.

Organizations can be run in many ways. How they are run depends on the leadership style of those in control. This was something else I didn’t focus on too frequently before I became a leader. Looking back, there were some things in my background that might have led certain people to think that I would employ a top-down style of leadership. Would I always insist on having things done my way? Would I be open to other points of view? I soon realized that, in reality, I needed to depend on many people in order to succeed in my new position. I came to appreciate the quality of the people who were in administrative and teaching positions in my new school. I saw how I could learn from them, and I came to depend on them for their insights and points of view. I quickly discovered that mine was not a top-down style of leadership.

Throughout the years I served as principal, many teachers, department chairpersons, and other administrators often came to me with proposals of one kind or another. We all know of administrators who just say “no” without giving a proposal much thought. However, I thought many of the ideas presented to me were good ones, and I saw no reason to automatically veto an idea because it might take extra work, time, or have financial implications. I tried to listen carefully to people’s ideas, and I asked questions. At times I requested more information. If I thought an idea had merit, I would consider implementing it, sometimes on a trial basis. This is how a leader can empower others. When a teacher feels that he or she will be listened to by the principal and that his or her ideas will be given careful consideration, that individual feels empowered, feels respected, and feels like an integral part of the organization. Simply listening attentively empowers people, and also boosts their morale.

Principals can empower and uplift their teachers in other ways. Instead of using observation only as a formal means of evaluating teachers, a principal, when walking the hallways, can easily step into classrooms from time to time to enjoy what looks like a particularly interesting lesson. Such visits can be followed up with either an oral or written complimentary message. This practice makes teachers feel valued, empowered, and validated.

A principal can show support for teachers by maintaining an open door policy and encouraging teachers to talk about whatever issues they care to discuss. Often a teacher just needs some advice about how to deal with a particular situation. Sometimes a family matter may be interfering with a teacher’s performance at school, and the teacher should feel free to seek guidance from the principal. There are myriad reasons why teachers may need to speak privately with the principal, and the principal needs to be seen as approachable and open to others’ needs.

Principals can empower teachers by modeling the behavior they expect and by making sure that teachers know what is expected of them in certain situations. If a principal walks down a crowded hallway where students are involved in inappropriate behavior and says nothing, that gives teachers license to do the same. If the principal treats all staff members—administrators, teachers, and custodians alike—in a respectful, courteous, friendly manner, then that sets an example for everyone to emulate and helps create a positive school climate.

Teachers, especially at the elementary level, or art teachers at any level, are often asked to display student work around the school, to decorate common areas such as bulletin boards in the hallways or outside their classrooms. This provides another opportunity for a principal with to empower and uplift staff members and students. A principal should make a point of finding out which teacher or class is responsible for which displays and then commend them on a job well done.

Many teachers, especially at the high school level, are involved in extracurricular activities and athletics which take a great deal of time after school and on weekends. While they usually receive extra compensation for this work, the added pay doesn’t amount to much when the hours put into these endeavors are considered. It’s important for principals to notice such dedication and to support those teachers and coaches by attending their events and athletic contests. By doing so, that principal is supporting and empowering not only the advisors and coaches but also the students.

I never fully realized a principal’s effect on a school until I was no longer serving as a principal. I have come to believe that there are as many ways for a principal to empower and uplift the staff and students in a school as there are principals. A principal must realize that he not only has the authority that is inherent in his position, but he also has the capacity to empower and uplift his entire building. The group empowerment that can grow from this will lead to greater strength and power for everyone, which will only make the organization stronger and more successful.

Center for Empowered Leadership ®
Email: info@cfel.org
Phone: 1.609.259.7911