Several years ago I received a phone call from a superintendent. During this conversation, he shared that I was not selected for a head principal position in his district.
This was not the first of these calls. I had applied for several principal positions in the past, and each time I endured the same "thanks, but no thanks" outcome.
At the time I had been an assistant principal for six years. While not an eternity, many peers were being given opportunities to lead buildings while all I was getting were rejection phone calls.
Frustrated, several negative thoughts consumed my thinking:
What am I doing wrong?
Why am I not getting my shot?
Why do I always have bad luck?
One of my biggest gripes was that interview committees had limited time getting to know me. "If only they realized everything I would bring to the position," I lamented.
Then it dawned on me: Why not create a document that eliminates the guesswork?
With this thought as my guide, I opened my computer and began outlining my guiding principles for running a school. Never again would I walk out of an interview without ensuring the committee had a clear understanding of what I stood for.
At first, deciding on the document's format took time. I hadn't seen this done before, so there was no template to follow. But once the structure was determined, I found the process of articulating my thoughts on leadership to be surprisingly therapeutic.
Several hours later, my thinking had morphed into a document called "Core Beliefs: Leading a School" (see below). Looking over what was created, I felt a renewed sense of confidence. Whereas earlier I was ready to give up on interviewing, now I couldn't wait for the next opportunity.
My next two interviews went very well. Armed with my new secret weapon, I was a finalist for two ultra-competitive principal positions in large Iowa school districts. Although I did not get either job, I could tell my interview skills were much-improved and I was on the verge of breaking through.
The following year I was again named as a finalist for a principal position in a large Iowa school district. Prior to my finalist interview, I spent several hours updating my document. The evening of the interviews, I handed each school board member a copy of my Core Beliefs. At every opportunity, I referenced the document to ensure the board understood my guiding principles.
A few days later I received a phone call. I was so nervous, I didn't pick up the phone and instead listened to the voicemail.
When I listened to the message it dawned on me that they were offering me the position.
I was finally a principal.
Every few months, I update the document to reflect my current thinking. Investing time to pinpoint my leadership principles has been hugely beneficial because it forces me to abide by these standards in my day-to-day operations.
Now my goal is to seek opportunities to share this document with staff members in a variety of settings. Our employees appreciate this transparent approach, and are often surprised to realize we share many personal beliefs.
Of course, leadership is much more than words on a page. Following through on promises is of the utmost importance, and making the document public holds me accountable to my words.
Upon starting my current superintendent role I shared this document with our 250 staff members during our Back to School Celebration. Now called my “Educational Leadership Philosophy” (see below), every staff member went home with a color copy of my leadership core values.
Comparing my first version to the current edition, I can’t believe the progression. I cringe at how limited my scope of thinking was when this practice began. But as has been discussed before, lifelong learners understand this progression is to be expected. Instead of being embarrassed by previous versions of our thinking, we must embrace these imperfections and realize they are simply part of the growth process.
In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner suggest, “Good leaders put together a list of basic guiding principles and share those values. By sharing and explaining values, employees are better prepared to understand the reasoning behind actions and decisions.”
My core values document is now posted in my office. I find comfort in looking at this list and falling back on my principles when faced with a difficult decision.
I encourage leaders of any organization to develop a list of guiding principles. Articulating your beliefs will not only provide deeper understanding of your core values, it could help you land your next job.