The Principled Leader

Updated: Aug 30

On a cool Saturday afternoon in early spring, I lay motionless on the living room couch. Shellshocked from receiving word I had not been selected for the position, I stared blankly out the window.

This was not the first of these calls. I had applied for several principal positions in the past, and each time I received the customary "thanks, but no thanks" phone call. At the time I had been an assistant principal for six years. While not an eternity, many of my peers had already been given their opportunity to lead a building.

Frustrated, many negative thoughts preoccupied 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 knew what I could bring to the position."

Then it dawned on me: Why not create a document that eliminates the guesswork?

The rest of the afternoon, I harnessed my energy into creating a document outlining the approach I would utilize to lead a school. Never again would I walk out of an interview without ensuring the committee had a clear understanding of what I stood for.

When I finished in the early evening I had created a document called "Core Beliefs: Leading a School."

I found the process of writing to be therapeutic. Taking time to articulate my thoughts brought profound clarity and understanding. Drilling down to the essential aspects of school administration allowed me to focus on what really mattered.

If some of these phrases look familiar, you would be correct. Early in my leadership journey I was heavily influenced by the work of Todd Whitaker. I had read What Great Principals do Differently and What Great Teachers do Differently and had bought in to his best practices in education.

Pleased with my product, I brought this document to all future interviews. I made sure to give a copy to each committee member, and referenced the document as much as I could during our time together.

My next two interviews went very well. I was named as a finalist for two ultra-competitive principal positions in large Iowa school districts. Although I did not get either job, I felt a renewed sense of confidence.

Every few months I updated my Core Beliefs document to reflect my current thinking. The more I reflected and tweaked the document, the more precise my thinking became.

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 folder which contained my Core Beliefs. Every opportunity I had, I referenced my core values to ensure the Board understood what they were getting if they selected me as their next leader.

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. I have found this practice to be hugely beneficial. Investing time to pinpoint my leadership principles helps me abide by these standards in my day-to-day operations.

I always look for opportunities to share this document with staff members in a variety of settings. Our employees appreciate this transparent approach, and feel comfort upon realizing 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. Making the document public holds me accountable to my words.

Upon starting my current role as Superintendent, I shared this document with our 250 staff members during our Back to School Celebration. Now called my “Educational Leadership Philosophy,” every staff member went home with a color copy of the core values that guide my educational leadership philosophy.

As I compare my first version to the current version, I can’t believe how much this document has changed. I shake my head at how limited my scope of thinking was when I began this process.

As a lifelong learner, I am sure my list will continue to evolve. Five years from now, it is likely I will be embarrassed with what is listed above.

These core values are 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.

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.”

In The Principled Principal, Jeff Zoul and Anthony McConnell tackle this topic through the lens of educational leadership: “One thing that helped us succeed as school principals was having a set of core leadership values to which we adhered consistently. Based on our experiences as school administrators ... we have found that the most effective principals lead according to principles they adhere to consistently.”

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.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.