President-Principal Relationship

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission

The president-principal model was first being pioneered by Jesuit schools in the 1970’s and has now become common among Catholic and other faith-based schools. It has helped schools meet the challenges of a changing educational environment, but it presents a few challenges of its own.

It used to be that a school head or principal could manage the academic affairs of a school and maintain a limited relationship with the environment beyond the campus. But as the temporal demands of schools have increased, it’s clear that managing the financial, facilities, fundraising, planning, and community relations aspects of a school are more than a full-time job. Schools have found they need robust leadership that is both inward and outward facing. Hence the president-principal model.

The president’s role falls into three main areas: Mission, Resources and Presence. Let’s take a moment to look at these three.

Mission is the core of who we are as schools. School presidents interpret the official mission statement approved by the Board and make it come alive for the school community. They weave it explicitly and implicitly into every decision they make and into their formal and informal communications. They must call themselves, the employees, students and other members of the community to be accountable to that mission. And they must lead the school team in finding the best ways to accomplish it.

Second, the president is responsible for securing Resources needed for the school to succeed in its work. He or she shares this responsibility with the Board, as well the development, finance and facilities teams, but the president must be visibly active in attracting the resources needed so that the educational professionals can carry out their work at an optimum level.

Finally, the president is responsible for Presence. As the chief administrator, he or she is a symbol for the school and what it values. The president’s presence at a school or community event, to a grieving family or to important supporters signals their importance to the school. How the president conducts him or herself among the people who serve or are served by the school puts a human face on its mission and makes it real as nothing else can.

The principal, on the other hand, has a unique leadership responsibility for programs, school climate and faculty development. This is a huge job, really the heart of what the school does and who it is. Programs include not only the curriculum, but extra-curriculars, and student formation. School climate includes the culture, fabric of relationships and the physical and emotional safety of the students. And professional development includes hiring and evaluating, as well as the personal, professional and spiritual growth of the faculty and how they collaborate to create a coherent educational experience for the students.

Having said this, the principal also has responsibility for mission, presence and resources, but it is primarily to the internal community. It isn’t that the principal is confined to campus, but there is no way he or she can provide the cura personalis, or care for persons, needed by faculty and students if they also have to do so with the broader community.

Both are leaders, important leaders, in the school. And their leadership will overlap. Each must be a person of vision who is able to exercise authority. But what happens when the visions conflict? What happens when the exercise of authority overlaps? When the external demands conflict with the internal demands? This isn’t necessarily common, but when it does happen, it can lead quickly to dysfunction that can hamper both the president and the principal, and ultimately the school itself.

In some cases, the president and the principal will have similar skill sets. The president may have been a principal prior to becoming a president. In this case, he or she might have strong opinions about curriculum and faculty development. It may be difficult to resist intruding into the domain of the principal to make decisions where the president may feel very confident. Perhaps more confident than he or she is with some of his or her newer responsibilities.

In other cases, the skill sets may be so divergent that they lack sufficient understanding and appreciation of each other’s role. They rely on each other to do their jobs well, which means they need to understand the other’s responsibilities enough to provide appropriate support. The ideal is for the two to recognize that they have complementary jobs and have, or are developing, complementary skill sets. Presidents must resist micro-managing, even when they are sure they know what decision the principal should make. And principals must resist overstepping their authority, even when they are responding to the needs of their faculty and students.

For the president-principal model to work, the approach must be collaborative. Even though the president is ultimately the boss, he or she should want the principal to be a strong leader and have enough respect for the role of the principal that he or she doesn’t simply pull rank at every turn.

Research by the Jesuit Schools Network and my own research and experience suggest that the key to a successful president-principal relationship is a high level of mutual trust. And such trust requires regular and open communication. It can also be said that regular and open communication requires trust. So the president and principal must give themselves time to foster both trust and communication. As hard as it is to find the time for that, it will pay rich dividends for themselves and for everyone else who works with them.

I believe that an important part of communication is a supportive and consistent evaluation process of the principal by the president. This includes an annual, “summative” evaluation structured to make sure the president fully appreciates the challenges faced by the principal, as well as his or her accomplishments. It also should assure that the principal fully understands the appreciation the president has for his or her work, as well as the president’s expectations.

But evaluation should also include “formative” feedback, both formal and informal. The story of the woman who asked her husband why he never tells her he loves her is instructive. His answer was that he told her when he married her 40 years ago that he loved her, and if anything changed, he would let her know. Not a great way to strengthen a relationship. Both the president and the principal should complement each other when the other does a good job and encourage each other when the going is tough.

And it goes beyond that. As two highly visible leaders they need to support each other publicly. At any public event where one of them is speaking he or she should take the opportunity to introduce and express their confidence in the other. This isn’t just a way of increasing trust between them, but increasing trust in them as the leadership team of the school.

We have more information about best practices for leadership and governance, as well as free resources, like video tutorials, tools and templates, on our website at www.managingformission.com. Please feel free to use these resources as you like to help you or others in your work, and don’t hesitate to contact me at JackPeterson@ManagingForMission.com if I can help you with a specific question. God bless, –Jack

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