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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Narcissistic School Leaders and Student Learning

I came across a tweet by @jdprickett that linked to an article in the Harvard Business Review titled Narcissism: The link between high achievers and leaders. I urge all educators to read this article, because I think we can apply many aspects of it to improving our schools and student learning. Now, I will state right here that I am not a psychologist, I have little formal education and training in psychology, but some of my research in the school administration arena has included the study of social psychological constructs. So, I find this topic not only interesting, but also timely because I am associated with several individuals who display narcissistic characteristics and behaviors in both my professional and personal lives. I look forward to having more time for studying the influence of narcissism on organizations and relationships during the summer months, as well as exploring whether researchers have identified relationships between narcissism and the fixed-mindset. I hypothesize that these variables are associated with each other. Nevertheless, having some knowledge of the predictive value of various social psychological constructs on school and student outcomes, my position is that narcissistic school leaders will do very little to create a school culture to optimize those school level variables that are associated with improved student learning.

The literature suggests that narcissism is difficult to define and measure, however, some characteristics of narcissists include: self absorbed; difficulties with sustaining satisfying relationships; focused on self; demands for attention and admiration; sense of entitlement; and expectations of special treatment. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but simply to highlight some of the behaviors one might find in a narcissist. Now, imagine a school leader who exhibits such characteristics. Unfortunately, you might even know a few. How would that individual run his or her school? Would he or she focus on those inputs for which the evidence exists to improve student learning, or might he or she prioritize his or her agenda to take advantage of issues that might allow an increased degree of self promotion? I know I am generalizing, but I think it's important to discuss these issues.

Too often we read about branding our schools for success and the importance of promoting our achievements, but I argue that there is a fine line between informing the community about our personal and school's successes and tooting one's own horn. The latter has no place in school leadership and is likely to do more harm to school culture than one might anticipate. Think about your current superiors and how you might react if they engage in any of these behaviors associated with narcissism. Educating students is an endeavor that requires a laser like focus from all members of the school organization working together to optimize instructional strategies, school conditions, and professional behaviors to do what is best for all students. As might occur in any business, personal relationship, athletic team, or other non-profit organization, a school might never achieve at high levels, prosper, and sustain itself if the person(s) at the helm is focused on self before the organization. 

Please share your thoughts on whether you believe narcissism is a destructive force in schools, or if healthy narcissism is a good thing for student learning. I think I've made my position clear.

9 comments:

  1. Great question - I think a middle ground between narcissism and underconfidence is a healthy thing, but I can definitely see how a leader too focused on his or her own achievements could start to undermine the school as a whole.

    What I see more commonly is a tight gluing-together of the principal's own professional identity and the school's success. Under the right circumstances, this can be a really good thing or a really bad situation.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with taking your work very seriously and having a lot of confidence in it, as well as protecting your ability to do your job well. The question for me is: Who does this action serve - myself or students?

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Justin. A middle ground could be a healthy situation, however, I prefer to give the kudos to the teachers and staff. They are in the trenches doing the work, while I'm hopefully creating the school conditions for them to be successful with their students. I agree that it's important for a school leader to have confidence in his or her abilities, provided as you suggest, this confidence is directed to improving student learning. Thanks again.

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  2. Sam,
    It's funny. I just read the HBR article you referenced in your post. I quickly saved it to Evernote (of course). You bring up some relevant and poignant thoughts.

    The word I did not see in the HBR piece was -pride. A leader must cultivate a culture where all take pride in the efforts of the organization without becoming narcissistic.

    There is a very fine line between the two.

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    1. Scott, I appreciate you reading and commenting. I agree with you that pride is essential, and as school leaders, it's imperative that pride in the organization becomes part of our school culture. I think it is quite difficult for leaders to cultivate a school culture grounded in pride if he or she possesses the me first attitude. Thanks again.

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  3. Although I'm late to this article, you have described my son's school principal to a tee. I've stopped reading her weekly posts because she presents an image of the school I don't recognise from my experience. It's all self-congratulations and "everything is awesome." The title of her weekly post even references the view from her office window, which is something only bad managers brag about. Lately, she's begun hosting a series of public talks at a local bar, and her most recent topic was narcissism. I almost died laughing when I heard. I've often thought if she put the same energy into improving things for the students that she puts into self-promotion, our school would get along smoothly instead of lurching from crisis to crisis in a toxic smog of rumour, secrecy and power plays.

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    1. OMG .... This is the same situation we had in our school as well. We even had our principal "lead" an anti-bullying effort known as Not in Out Town when in fact he was a major bully to students, staff and parents.

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    2. I will soon be making SPOTLIGHT on NEW PALTZ K-12 (FACEBOOK) public.....currently have to be added. It is an agent for change/blueprint. EXPULSION will be my book title.

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    1. This sounds exactly like my children's new high school Principal. He came in with all guns blazing. He requires doctor's notes from parents for absences, and pats himself on the back for his new tardy policy in every "From the Principals Desk" letter. Although the teachers stopped enforcing the rule because the kids were missing more class standing in line at the attendance office. He even told me he was "very educated". Really? VA Public Schools

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