The Imprint We Leave by Don Sternberg, Ed.D.

The Imprint We Leave

By Don Sternberg, Ed.D.

Principal, Wantagh Elementary School

Reprinted with the author’s permission from the SAANYS Journal (Winter 2012)

The e. e. cummings Factor

The art and science of leadership is a delicate balance between the need to get the job successfully accomplished and the necessity to get people to assist you in that task. No one can function successfully alone in the role of principal. There is an irony here that would make e.e. cummings sit up and take notice. By definition the word principal means one, the most important, and yet no one can bring a school to a high level of success acting alone. The job requires a skill set that encompasses a delicate balance of building collaboration, gentle persuasion, and issuing directives. How a principal marries all three and works with others is a foundational key toward building success.  


The words bully and boss both start with the same letter but the similarities must end there. There are, I am sure, examples of principals behaving poorly in an attempt to get a job accomplished or presenting and instituting new initiatives. I believe you are stepping off on the wrong foot if you think of stakeholders in or associated with your school as “followers.” You will be better off thinking of them as partners. How a principal communicates with their partners or, more importantly, how that communication is perceived by those stakeholders is imperative to building future success. Poor communication skills and inappropriate behavior patterns, as well intended as you think they might be, creates the wrong ethos within a school. In this case, the ends do not justify the means and the application of that Machiallian principle never succeeds when working with people that should be your partner. Simple, positive communication ends most problems. Being a tough and hard-to-please principal is not an issue or a negative, until you cross the line in the sand and your tactics are perceived as bullying in the name of driving toward success. Are you seen as a demanding boss operating in a bullying manner versus being a principal that is hard to please? That is a mirror we all need to remember to stand in front of as we develop and internalize our reflective practice. It takes courage as a leader to have a predisposition for collegial partnerships and the antithesis of having that kind of courage can manifest itself in being perceived as a bully.

Getting people onboard to select and support initiatives and subsequently the realignment of practices – the foundational components of change – requires a principal to obtain cooperation based upon their ability to influence people toward change. A bully commands “you will”; an effective principal requests, “let’s look at this together.” One can get lost in the absolute power of being a principal, viewing oneself as omnipotent. One can get lost thinking that they are the only one with the right answers. One can get lost in a mire of over-control. There will always be those who will abuse the power of the principalship simply because they can. This happens when a principal replaces logic and reason with emotion.

The mistake of sounding or acting like a bully many times comes from that emotional response rather than a well thought out one. If you take the time to prepare what you want to say concerning how to address an issue you will sound more confident, express yourself in a positive tone, and you will sound less demanding. Even though the majority of a principal’s day-to-day conversations are impromptu, you still want to be perceived as confident and collaborative and using bullying tactics significantly reduces that appearance.

My goal has always been to leave a wake of leaders in the path I have charted. No one can be bullied into a leadership role within a school but people can be and should be supported as you build teacher capacity to lead. Teachers and staff in school must have a sense that they can contribute to the success of the culture of their school and not just their individual classroom environment. The manner in which teachers and staff are treated is essential to garnering support and for making both certificated and non-certificated personnel feel part of the process. 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

As you reflect on who you are and how you do what you do, how would you respond to these questions?

When something goes wrong, do you look for someone to blame it on or to point to as the probably cause?

When something goes right, do accept all of the praise?

Do you give people things to do in an autocratic manner or do you bring people under the tent and request support and feed off of their enthusiasm that you have helped to build?

Do you put little trust in those around you and feel compelled to tell people what to do?

Do you put people into a protective mode by your words and deeds?

The process goes beyond how people are communicated with and how you view them within a hierarchal framework. I apply a degree of what I consider well thought out logic to every need within the school that might eventually necessitate a directive from me. I first look at who will be impacted by the decision and try to make it less of a unilateral decision and more about how we can address an issue.

The Shamu Factor

   In the context of building relationships and collaborative decision-making, you will need to know with whom to share information, ideas, and initiatives. You will need to know who to bring into the collaborative process when you see where the Splash Zone will be. Visitors to Sea World are informed that if they sit in certain rows at the Shamu Whale Show, they are going to get wet! These rows are called the Splash Zone. Utilize the same concept when decisions need to be made and people will be, subsequently, impacted (splashed upon). Ask yourself, who is sitting in the Splash Zone?

People with an interest in decisions affecting the school are in the Splash Zone and the makeup of that group usually varies from one issue to the next. Their interconnections reach not only from you to them but, by your example, are created among them as well. It is how you work with and treat these relationships that will establish the culture by which these groups will communicate with each other and with you. Leadership that demonstrates support for each relationship seeks to maintain interdependence and cooperation between all groups for the good of the students in your school. These relationships within the context of your school constitute the ethos of your school and demonstrate your consideration and awareness of the status and stature of each stakeholder group. It speaks to your respect for people not your implied or blatant disrespect of them and, by extension, your power over them.


The Union Model

The closest comparison I can make to a process that you do not want is the actions of some unions within school districts. I would not coordinate the functions of the building in what could be described as a union mentality, which at times is commensurate with bullying – people being told what to do and when. While I understand union efforts to control the masses, members are many times conscripted based upon fear of not being seen as cooperative or “one of us.” I don’t think a school could successfully function under that type of organizational style and I would submit no one would want to work there or desire to come to work for any length of time.  

The Challenge

Engaging in bullying tactics or just having the aura of a bully automatically places everyone in a protective mode and reinforces the uneven balance between principal and staff member that already exists as boss and subordinate. How you work to tone down your approach to that hierarchal structure tends to create a cooperative working environment, not one where obtrusive and oppressive dominance causes people to acquiesce because of fear. 

The challenge is to have enough confidence in yourself to create a school environment where you are the boss because people want you to lead them. A school where people feel and see themselves as an integral part of the process and not as aggressively manipulated pawns in the process. This kind of environment will ultimately work best for your school, your teachers, and for you!

Don Sternberg, Ed.D. ( has been the principal of the Wantagh Elementary School for 31 years. He was the New York State Elementary School Principal of the Year in 2009 as well as being recognized as a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. He is co-president of the Nassau County Elementary School Principals’ Association, serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of NAESP, and is an adjunct lecturer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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