A friend of mine recently made a very interesting comment. She said, “There are two types of leaders – those who lead by pushing others along and forcing them to do what they want them to do, and those who lead by pulling others to join them and lead by their passion and commitment.”
Over the past 20 years, I have worked for nine different principals. Some of these men and women were leaders who pushed, and some were leaders who pulled. While all nine were effective and possessed their own unique strengths, two of them have stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Why? They were pullers. They lead their faculty and staff by example, passion and commitment. They were not content with the status quo. They sought innovative teaching concepts. They educated themselves to the point of expertise. They encouraged teachers to do the same. They were risk takers. More important, they got others – those in their charge – to believe in them, to devote themselves to the same concepts and to follow – willfully and joyfully.
The first “puller” was my first principal, Clyde Folsom. Mr. Folsom was a dominant, physical presence. He was well over six feet tall and well over 250 pounds. He spoke with a loud, booming Tennessee accent. There wasn’t a challenge he didn’t like or take head on. One of my fondest recollections of Mr. Folsom involved a parent who came into the front office of our school, screaming, “You people in here have your heads up your asses!” Upon hearing her, Mr. Folsom came running out of his office, first grabbing his head, then his rear end. He looked at the parent and calmly stated, “No, Ma’am. My head is right here on my shoulders. Now, if you’d like to discuss something with me and can do so without screaming or using profanity, I’d be happy to talk to you in my office.”
Like most principals in Marion County at that time, Clyde Folsom was an ex-basketball coach, but the coach-turned-administrator stereotype stopped there. Clyde Folsom was an innovator, who wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers. He was a fearless leader in curriculum development and a stickler for discipline.
After a fairly long and distinguished career as a high school principal, Mr. Folsom was “punished” by district staff because he had the audacity to suspend a group of kids for actions committed after a football game (but off campus). His punishment was to oversee the worst school in the district. A school that “folks” in the area – thirty years after segregation – still called, “the black school.” It was a school in physical, academic and emotional disrepair. To Clyde Folsom, it was a clean palate.
Clyde Folsom took his new palate and created a masterpiece. He started by overseeing a $5.5 million renovation, which resulted in a near complete physical reconstruction. It wasn’t unusual to see him cutting the grass (using his own riding mower), or watering flowers, or cutting tree branches. He wrote grants to get new fencing and a full-time resource officer on campus. Howard Middle School went from a worn out, broken down group of buildings that kids used to break into by cutting out the cinder blocks to a diamond in the rough.
In addition to an old and worn out group of buildings, Clyde had inherited an old and worn out faculty – one that had “seen it all” and who knew how to teach “these kinds of kids.” Clyde Folsom knew better. He began by implementing a curriculum that utilized true “team teaching” – four teachers: one math, one science, one social studies and one language arts teacher, who taught the same group of students. There were no bells to mark the change of classes. If the math teacher needed more time, she simply put her head through the doorway to the science teacher’s room and said, “I need 10 more minutes. Is that O.K.?” He implemented a 98-minute block schedule. He then hired consultants to teach teachers how to plan curriculum, integrate instruction and manage student behaviors. If a student was unruly, disrespectful or off task, he had no business being in a classroom, according to Mr. Folsom. The Time Out room became a place kids did not want to visit on his watch.
At first, teachers balked at all the changes, but when they saw the dedication, the passion, the drive and how Clyde Folsom was right there with them every step of the way – in every workshop, in every classroom, in every parent meeting – they wanted to follow, they wanted to change, they wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. The three years I spent at Howard Middle School were three of the best years of my career. Had I not worked for Clyde Folsom, I doubt I would still be teaching today.
Pat Donovan – the other great “puller” – was in many ways the antithesis of Clyde Folsom and in many ways his Doppelganger. She was (is) a tall, gregarious, athletic “Jersey Girl” who was equally at home cheering kids to do their best at a track event as she was growing orchids at her house on the beach. Like Clyde, Pat’s voice (usually her laugh) often preceded her physical appearance.
Pat was part innovator, part cheerleader, part teacher, part student and part parent to both teachers and faculty and the students at her school. She, too, never met a challenge she did not like, and if there was a way to do something better, smarter and in a way that both challenged and encouraged kids, she was behind it 100% of the way.
One of my fondest recollections of Pat Donovan was the time she walked through the New Orleans airport wearing a bright orange wig, made out of two-inch thick ribbon. She charged through that airport wearing her wig and toting two suitcases full of books, training manuals, beads other goodies she had stored up on the trip to share with her teachers. Close on her heels were the three teachers who attended the trip with her. I was fortunate to be one of them. That was the same way she lead teachers at her school. She led the charge, toting the ideas, the books and materials while her staff followed closely at her heels.
Pat introduced teaching ideas and concepts to Indian River County that no other principal or school had even heard of, and she encouraged her teachers to be creative and innovative. Pat and her staff implemented programs like Responsive Classroom (a program brought to her attention by my wife), handheld computing (she was known as the “technology queen” of Indian River County), and the FISH philosophy (Be There, Play, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude). With every new idea, Pat’s teachers and staff were right there with her, and she was right there with them.
What distinguished Pat Donovan and Clyde Folsom from other leaders was that they never did anything with the precept of how good – or bad – it might make them look. Pat walked through the airport with a ridiculous wig on her head not so people would look at her. She didn’t care what people thought of her. Her only concern was whether or not what she was doing would ultimately motivate teachers and, in turn, help kids. Clyde Folsom didn’t cut the grass so that he could get his picture in the newspaper (although Teacher magazine did get a shot of him on his mower for an article); he did it because the grass needed to be cut.
Too many leaders today – principals, administrators, lawmakers and wannabe politicians – are pushers. They push their ideas on others. They impose their will on people. They threaten, belittle and chide, and if anyone gets in their way, look out. Their only concerns are who is going to see me, how am I going to look, and what can I get out of this? They are content with the status quo, as long as it keeps them looking good. They scorn new ideas because they might not produce “the numbers” needed to be viewed as a success. In short, they are not risk takers because risk portends the potential to fail. While they might be expert tacticians or masters in their fields, they fail to recognize one simple truth – the horse has a much easier time pulling the wagon than he does pushing it.