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Be the Captain of the Ship

by Dr. Andy Johnsen, Coach, Principal
Valley Elementary School in Poway, CA

“The captain can’t do the captain’s job if he’s below decks rearranging the cargo.”

One of the things that I believe is at the root of most of the stress principals experience is the fact that we don’t have a good understanding of the basic nature of our role. In our training programs we learned about school law, district policies, educational theory and leadership principles. It was all good and helpful. But we never really talked about why a school has a principal in the first place.

The modeling we got from our mentors and other school leaders as we were working towards the principalship might not have been much better, either. The fact is, generations of principals have struggled to make the transition from the roles they had prior to becoming principal– specific work we did “in the school” – and the fundamentally different role of leading and managing the work “of the school.”

The analogy that I think is most helpful to illustrate this point is that of a ship captain. What is the captain’s main job when the ship is sailing across the ocean? It basically comes down to two things:

  • Keeping an eye on the horizon to make sure the ship is on course;
  • Keeping an eye on the crew to make sure their work is coordinated and done well.

Keeping an eye on the horizon is all about making sure that the ship is headed towards its intended destination, staying on course, slowing down and speeding up at the proper times, weathering the storms and getting back on course after the storms have passed. No one but the captain has this responsibility.

Keeping an eye on the crew is just as important. Each crew member has a specific role to play in the smooth functioning of the ship and it’s the captain’s job to provide encouragement, training and feedback to each one when appropriate. The captain is also in a unique position to see the work of the entire crew and to monitor whether they are working together in a coordinated way. If they are not, it’s the captain’s job to make adjustments so that each individual crew member’s work supports the work of the rest of the team.

Here’s the key: in order for the captain to do the captain’s job he needs to be up on deck where he can see both the horizon and the crew. He may know a lot about hoisting sails, lowering anchors or inventorying cargo from his previous experience as a sailor. But none of those are his job any more.

If he notices that the crew members who are responsible for arranging the cargo can’t do it very well it’s not his job to go down below decks and do it himself. It’s his job to help those crew members learn to do their job better. If he leaves the deck and goes below, the ship is left without guidance and the rest of the crew is left without someone to coordinate and support their work.

Perhaps you can see how this analogy applies to the principalship. Our job is just the same as that of the ship captain’s: attend to the mission, vision and direction our school is headed and make sure that each member of the staff has the support needed to do his or her work well.

If you look at your job description and put it up next to the job descriptions of your teachers, clerical and other support staff, you’ll see that you are the only one at the school charged with these two responsibilities.

And just as the ship captain needs to be on deck to know where the ship is headed and how the crew is performing, a school principal needs to be in classrooms observing teaching and learning, walking the halls, interacting with parents at drop off and dismissal, and being present where the real work of the school is happening.

If you find yourself trapped in your office wading through email, listening to phone messages, scheduling your own appointments, writing work orders, printing attendance and budget reports – in short, doing work that is on someone else’s job description – remember that you’re acting like the ship captain who has left the deck to go below decks to rearrange the cargo. You are the only one at your school who has been charged with managing and leading the school. If you aren’t doing it – it isn’t getting done.

What’s on your desk right this moment that is really someone else’s work? Make a request of that person to do it, and if they don’t know how, take some time to train them. Remember, every hour you spend doing someone else’s work is an hour your ship isn’t getting what it needs from its captain. Train your crew to do their work and get back up on deck to do yours!

© 2014 Andy Johnsen

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