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November 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 3

Principal Connection / Those Plates Are Hot!

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    Good leaders don't avoid heat—they can't. But they can look ahead and prepare for it.

      I was at the pancake house having breakfast with my mom. The place was packed, and servers were scurrying everywhere. I noticed that the young woman taking our order was wearing some sort of blue wrap on her left forearm. As we waited, I watched her bringing food to other tables, balancing three or four plates on that arm. I figured she must have pulled a muscle from carrying so many plates laden with pancakes and sausages.
      Then I saw that another server, a young man, also had the same sort of wrap on his left forearm. I made a point of checking out the other servers, and sure enough, every one of them had a similar wrap on their left forearm. "What are the odds of that?" I wondered.
      As our waitress brought the stacks of calories to our table, I asked her how she had hurt her arm. She smiled and replied, "Oh, it's not hurt. This isn't a bandage. It's a wrap that we all use so we can stack hot plates of food on our forearms and carry them to the tables without burning ourselves." What a good idea!
      I began to think about her protective wrap and my job. I appreciated that she had a tool—a strategy, really—to protect herself from the inevitable difficulties in her work. Of course, she is going to have to carry lots of hot plates. All those plates would burn her arm—unless she anticipates the problem and does something to protect herself. This is similar, I thought, to construction workers wearing hard hats, firefighters wearing oxygen masks, and dental hygienists wearing masks that cover their mouths and noses. But what about me?
      I lead a school. Although my difficulties are not as predictable as our waitress's need to carry heated plates, I can usually anticipate when situations will heat up. Sure, I'm occasionally surprised, but most often I can feel the tension and envision the conflict before it happens. A wrap won't help, but there ought to be some way to protect myself against the inevitable and predictable hot plates of my job. What can I learn from the folks at the pancake house?
      First, it's wise to let the plates cool a bit. When I'm in a heated situation and feeling attacked, I need to remember that time can be my ally. Delaying my response by counting to 30 before making a comment or waiting a day before I hit the send key can go a long way toward reducing tension. By waiting, I often see that my clever retort isn't that clever after all. More and more, I find myself writing and saying, "You raise an interesting issue. Let me think about it a bit before I get back to you." That statement lets the other person know that I received the message and that I am taking it seriously. It also buys me time to calm myself and be thoughtful about what I want to say and—just as important—what I don't want to say.
      Second, enlisting others to help carry some of the plates makes a lot of sense. Leading a school often means being alone in a crowd. I'm surrounded by people, but no one else has my job, no one sees issues from my perspective, and no one else is ultimately responsible for solutions. As a result, it's tempting to fall into the habit of identifying problems and creating solutions by myself.
      But it doesn't have to be this way. Principals need to establish a personal advisory board, a network of people to turn to for advice or simply to vent. The group may never assemble; the idea is merely that these people be available and helpful. Other school administrators might be in this group; they'd certainly understand and empathize. There are advantages, though, to looking to people with different backgrounds and training. I routinely talk about my challenges to an architect, an attorney, and a human resources manager, for example, along with a friend who is also a principal. They each see things a bit differently than I do, and their perspectives help me craft my solutions.
      Third, recommend a chicken salad plate instead of something hot. We find ourselves in win-lose clashes when the positions are staked out and people are entrenched. The key to solving this sort of dilemma is to avoid it. It's always beneficial to anticipate what will cause people to get upset and to work to change the situation, or at least to talk about it before positions are hardened. Recently, for example, we had a difficult situation dealing with food allergies at my school. Finding the right solution took longer than we expected, but part of that was because we kept discussing it and involving more people in the conversation. Working to make everyone part of the solution—raising trial balloons, incorporating input, and letting people know they were heard—helped us avoid a situation that was too hot to handle. Had we crafted a policy without taking all this time to talk about it, we might have created unnecessary anger that would have been difficult to work through.
      Just as the waitress's arm wrap anticipates and protects against the heat, planning for challenges is the best protection of all. Good leaders don't avoid heat—they can't. But they can look ahead and prepare for it, reducing the likelihood that they'll get burned.

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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