It’s All About Character

Steven Covey’s book The 8th Habit has many connections to the life of a building administrator especially in his insistence on character being so crucial.

In the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, put an inspirational sign on a bulletin board at the Little Rock headquarters for the benefit of the campaign workers. One of the points Carville wrote on the sign was “The economy, stupid. “  He knew that Clinton’s chances of winning would be increased dramatically if the campaign kept focused on the perception that Bill will be a president concerned with the economy, unlike his predecessor. Ironically, despite possessing enormous political talent, and achieving success in promoting economic growth, his legacy will always be partially tied to a character problem. Perhaps Carville should have added another point to his bulletin board post: It’s all about character too”.

Covey states that “90% of all leadership failures are character failures.” Who we are is more important than who we appear to be.

As a building Principal, my leadership is centered less on my accomplishments and more on the person I am. This can be a frustrating principle for leaders who long to be judged by performance. Yet, treating my staff with respect, caring about their personal and professional lives, and projecting a positive attitude in meetings and in the hallway reaps greater rewards than any task I can complete. One could draw a parallel to MLK’s famous line from the “I Have A Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

A good leader celebrates others’ successes.

Covey introduces the idea of an Abundance Mentality (AM) which exists when we are motivated not by success at the expense of others but by mutual prosperity. There isn’t a limited pot of riches that will be dolled out over time but a boundless supply of opportunity for all. Embracing this principle has many positive implications for leaders in public schools, including:

  • Principals and their schools can be easily compared to each other via test scores and reputation. Adopting AM can lead to a lessening of competition and a greater sense of collaboration.
  • Teachers don’t have a natural route to promotion. An AM perspective is crucial in developing selfless teacher leaders.

Life balance comes from making your values the driving force behind your decision making.

Covey uses the metaphor of Big Rocks to illustrate the need to “keep the main thing the main thing”. If the big rocks of life (family, opportunities, professional development) are put in your container of life first, then the small pebbles (emergencies, micro-issues) do not overtake the more important causes. If the pebbles are placed first, then there’s little chance to get to the more important, Big Rock categories. (On Covey’s web site “The Community”, he has a video that illustrates this point well. Access requires registration). In order for character to be the major player in a leader’s arsenal, it’s necessary to make it a “big rock” and be sure that the details of life don’t choke it out. There’s little patience or energy to prioritize character if a leader is overwhelmed.

The Big Rocks metaphor is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the dilemma I face every day. I never want details to suffocate what is truly important, yet daily I fight that battle. Living with a holistic and balanced perspective is the key.

4 comments Add yours
  1. I’ve thought a lot about this issue of character lately. More specifically, I have been contemplating the difference between being a person of character, or being a person who is perceived to have character. The former is what I hope to have as learning leader, the other, more loathsome than one who has no character and knows it. Being a leader means that at times you must make decisions that are unpopular or unpolitical, however such decisions should always be made in a way consistent with one’s character. I find that leaders who make decisions based on political gain or in an attempt to ruffle the fewest feathers do so because they don’t have the character to back their decisions.

    By the way, I love the concept of Abundance Mentality and I think it is something that we need to inculcate in our school communities. Parents and administrators are often fond of saying that we need to prepare students for a competitive workplace. I think this helps create a feeling of competitiveness in our classrooms, as evident by such things as honor roll, test scores, class rank, and tracking. Instead, I wish leaders would start saying that we need to prepare our students for a “collaborative” world, thus reducing this competitive aspect of school and perhaps sharing in the successes of others. In other words, I hope that we can began to adopt an “abundance mentality” through a collaborative environment.

    1. I’ve found that those who act on the basis of perceptions, even in a subtle way lose out in the long run. A mantra I heard from someone, somewhere has stayed with me: It’s amazing what you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets credit. I truly appreciate your perspective on collaboration. There’s plenty to go around!

  2. I think that you always have had the Abundance Mentality under control. I knew that you did before I ever knew what it was. I totally buy the Big Rock concept, but how do you deal with the daily avalanche of pebbles?

    1. Technology has really helped my ability to deal with pebbles, but I am always a step behind. My Sup. Steve and I have a saying when the pebbles spill out: I need a snow day!

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