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Holding Hands with a Tornado

Meet the principal of Wickliffe Elementary School. Tom Terez thinks he might have some workforce answers you're looking for.

May 30, 2003
You think your work is tough? Try on the top job at a grade school. Thetypical principal endures daily phone calls and visits with parents. Meetingswith teachers, support staff, administrators, union leaders, legislators,community members, and vendors. And hundreds of close encounters with yelling,running, jumping, jostling kids.

    That’s what makes Fred Burton something of a leadership marvel. He’s theprincipal of Wickliffe Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio. And hereadily acknowledges the potential chaos that’s a part of every school,describing the typical workday as "a little like holding hands with a tornado."

    But from the very first meeting with Dr. Burton, you can’t help but noticeit. He’s calm. Remarkably calm. Consistently calm. He seems to have the innerpeace and self-confidence that all leaders seek. Picture a 48-year-old versionof Mr. Rogers, complete with friendly smile and easygoing manner, staying serenein the midst of chaos. That’s Burton.

    As for organizational results, Burton and Wickliffe have plenty. The school,with 420 children from kindergarten to fifth grade, is home to last year’sOhio teacher of the year and music teacher of the year. It has been recognizedas an Ohio BEST school, an award given by a major business coalition. AndNational Public Radio spent a day there interviewing students and staff for anexpanded feature on progressive education.

    So what are the leadership lessons from this teacher turned principal? One isto be observant. No matter how hectic things get, Burton makes a point ofstepping from his quiet office into the busy hallway, so he can absorb all that’shappening. He looks for positive stories--then he tells them over and over toreinforce the school’s culture.

    One day, after the bell had signaled the start of recess, children beganhustling to the playground. Burton stood in the hallway, saying hello andsmiling, taking it all in--when a piece of student artwork got knocked from thewall. The principal watched from a distance as an alert first-grader huncheddown, grabbed the fallen art, and taped it back onto the wall.

    Later that week, at the school’s town meeting, Burton told about the childwho had saved the picture from certain destruction. Then he asked the boy tostand up. The 419 other students responded with a big round of applause.

    Burton also makes a point of drawing answers and solutions from the peoplearound him, instead of trying to impose his own ideas. In one recent phone call,he listened to an anxious parent who felt that her child wasn’t beingsufficiently challenged. He asked a question, and another, and another. Then hepromised to call back after consulting with the teachers.

    He met with the student’s teacher and a specialist in programs for giftedchildren, and all agreed to meet the parents in person. But the teachers worriedthat the meeting would degenerate into a confrontation. So Burton became acoach. "What about asking questions?" he suggested. "What would happen ifyou asked the parents, ‘When you see your child fully engaged and positivelychallenged, what does that look like?’"

    As the teachers took in the idea, they began to envision a dialogue in whichthey would involve the parents as partners. A few days later, the meetingunfolded just as planned. Positive questions and careful listening had made allthe difference.


Burton’s biggest lesson has to do with the nature of organizations. "Theyare not machines with precision parts. They involve people andrelationships."

    Burton’s biggest lesson has to do with the nature of organizations. "Theyare not machines with precision parts," he says. "They involve people andrelationships." When we huddle in our office or hurry along our conversationsor avoid conversations altogether, people feel dismissed--and might be back withbigger issues and deeper problems. "We pay for our speed later on."

    Technology can make things worse. E-mail, for instance, is a one-wayproposition that keeps people from reading nonverbal cues, asking questions,engaging in conversation, and making discoveries together. "Technology as awhole has increased speed," Burton says. "And speed is the enemy of quality."

    Even after 11 years as a teacher and 15 years as a principal, Burton says it’sstill tough to remain attentive. "I’m continually working on it," he says."I believe it has to be learned each day. Like most managers, I’m in anenvironment that does a good job of distracting me from being present andlistening and asking, ‘What’s really going on here?’"

    Okay, so you’re not a principal. But just like Burton, you’re a leaderwho faces extraordinary demands. His simple lessons apply to us all: beobservant, tell stories, ask questions, and put people and relationships aheadof efficiency.

Workforce, June 2003, p. 32 -- Subscribe Now!


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