A Principal’s Principles

“What’s in your wallet?” The pitch in the ad is that a certain credit card ought to be in there. For principals—probably leaders of all stripes—the question might be: “What’s on your desk?” Visitors or followers can measure the value a leader puts on aspects of life by checking out that desk: “I see a Bible.” “Look at that plaque with that saying on it.” “Everything is right in place; nothing messy here.”

For principals, a viewer can grasp their principles by the sayings, the proverbs, or short, pithy quotations that hang on the walls or sit on the desks of these men and women. What’s on your desk? Some golden oldies such as “A stich in time saves nine” or “Haste makes waste”? Or perhaps the motto of former US President Truman: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Principles for Principals

Photo of a striped skunk for Principles for Principals: “Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of language arts.” Along the way, I’ve pilfered from books and blogs on leadership some quotations that help me remember the moral principles that guide my decisions. Here’s a batch I can remember using, grouped by category. In reading them, as with all proverbs, one has to ponder them, like swirling a glass of wine to smell well the aroma. Besides, many of them help us see the point by drawing a comparison to something we have experienced, e.g., “Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of language arts.” As a former English teacher, that one smarts!

Many sayings apply to the character of the leader, with humility and honesty being key aspects:

  • The time is always right to do what is right (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
  • Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less (C. S. Lewis).
  • It’s easy to choose easy over right.
  • Never make believe you have the facts when you don’t (Henry De Wit).

Another set of quotations capture how a leader ought to lead:

  • A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way (John Maxwell).
  • If he is a subordinate, it is my job to sympathize with his problems, not he with mine (Henry De Wit).
  • Learn tribal stories and tell them well (Max De Pree).
  • Praise in public; criticize in private.

All the principals I’ve ever known have regretted that, at some point in their pre-principal careers, they made comments among teachers that their leaders had the “easiest jobs” in schools. Many leadership sayings capture the pain of principals:

  • Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.
  • Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear it (Max De Pree).
  • Different sores have different salves.

On the other side of principals’ emotions are a cluster of proverbs that aim at awe:

  • Pass on passion.
  • Work can wait while you show a child a rainbow; the rainbow won’t wait.
  • He who laughs, lasts.
  • Stand in awe of God.
  • Take time for celebration and ritual (Max De Pree).

In Christian schools, principals might well have on their desks or walls proverbs of guidance from the Bible connected to leadership:

  • If one’s gift is leadership, let him govern diligently (Romans 12:8).
  • Walk with one foot in your followers’ world and one foot in the Word.
  • David shepherded with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them (Psalm 78:72).

So, what’s on your desk?

Respond to this blog by letting us know what sayings shape your leadership. Feed your sister and brother principals with guidance from quotations that you chew regularly. Something funny? Challenging? Out of left field? An analogy of what your job is like? We can learn much from what inspires each of us.

– Dan Vander Ark


Filed under Governance

3 Responses to A Principal’s Principles

  1. “Not all who wander are lost” – Lord of the Rings
    “What? So What? Now What?”
    “Is it a moral issue? Is it an eternal issue? If not, don’t worry too much about it; it will work out”
    Bad News: Be Clear, Be Concise, Be Gone
    “I have to work in God’s will. Other’s reactions are their responsibility.” – Susan Smith – 35 year veteran teacher

  2. Anelia Wierbos

    *A soft and gentle, and thoughtful answer turns away wrath. Proverbs 15:1
    *Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold him guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Deitrich Bonhoeffer
    *Don’t make a permanent decision for your temporary emotion.

  3. Dan Van Kooten

    “Leadership begins when you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than your own.” – Andy Crouch

    “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” – Psalm 91:1

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