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.