Understanding the Politics and Power of School Leadership

We all know that local education is fueled by politics and the use of power, but we seldom talk about power publicly. To understand the dynamics of politics and power is to be empowered. What goes to the heart of these dynamics are: (1) the more power that’s exercised, the weaker it becomes; (2) the most potent form of power is perceived power; (3) the most outspoken critics  are imposters; and (4) the real power resides with the students and their parents. Let us analyze these dynamics.

More Is Less. Mr. Smith threatens his students that if they continue to misbehave, he will send them to the office. Johnny steps over the line and is sent to the office. A lesson in power, right?  Not so fast. Thirty minutes later, Johnny returns with a smirk on his face. Then Mary acts out and she’s sent to the office. She returns in 20 minutes. Okay, Mr. Smith, what’s happening to your authority? Lessons learneddo not make threats that you cannot uphold; and the more you exercise your power, the more it will be tested and the faster it will erode.

Perceived Power. If you are perceived to hold power, then you have power. If your constituents believe that you can get things done, and that you can influence other powerful players, then that perception gives you power. Proportionately, the greater and more widespread the perception, the greater the power is. Be careful. If you exercise that power and you are ineffective, the power dissipates and erodes exponentially. Therefore, use your influence prudently—do not over-reach.

Imposters. An angry parent calls you regarding a routine and justifiable policy change you have just made. After failing to convince you of the unreasonableness of your action, the parent threatens to call your supervisor, get the PTA involved, and call all of his friends and storm the next Board of Education meeting if you do not immediately cave in. It sounds like you are really drawing fire from a powerful person. Remember that you cannot reason with an unreasonable person, but you can disagree agreeably. Now, I am not an advocate of poking anyone in the eye, hanging up the phone, or telling him where to go. Never exacerbate an already bad situation by being rude, because you will be accused of unprofessional behavior which will then become the issue. However, do not cower to a bully. Most decent people have been bullied, know bullies when they see them, and do not like bullies. My advice is to say, “Well, I see we disagree. Of course, it’s your prerogative to do what you please. Would you like the phone number of my supervisor?” Offering a phone number signals that you are not intimidated. Then get a quick message to your supervisor and the President of the PTA to explain why they may be getting a call. Remember: whoever gets the message out first usually is in a stronger position. Let the bully do his thing. He ultimately will not get the power he is craving.

The Real Power. Many years ago, a veteran principal gave me one of the best advice I ever got. He said, “Take good care of the kids. If the kids like you, they’ll go home and tell their parents how wonderful you are, and then the parents will like you. If the kids and the parents like you, then nobody can harm you.”

Dr. Aronstein is a job coach who helps aspiring and new school leaders prepare for job interviews, and prepare their resumes and cover letters. Get his new e-book: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-inside-secrets-to-getting-your-leadership-position-with-larry-aronstein-tickets-10362222687. You can contact him at larryaronstein@yahoo.com.


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