The best, most complex job in the world

There is a famous story about former world heavyweight boxing champion, Mohammed Ali.  He was on a flight in the US and was refusing to wear his seat belt.  When the flight attendant told him to put on the seatbelt, he replied “Superman don’t need no seat belt”.  The flight attendant instantly replied: “Superman don’t need no airplane either”.

Many school principals feel their boards expect them to be like Superman.  They also sense that their staff, their students and their school communities think similarly.  Few jobs have the range of complex and often competing constituencies that school principals must keep happy – their boards, parents, students, teachers, staff, alumni, government authorities, accreditation organisations, owners of neighbouring properties, the media, the wider community, politicians, bureaucrats, their own families (yes!), and so on.  The list may not be quite as long as a national leader, but notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s comment that “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested”, it is understandable that fewer and fewer applications are received when principals’ vacancies are advertised these days compared with a decade or two ago.

As expectations of school principals continue to increase, a real risk arises that these expectations reach the point of becoming unrealistic.  You may have never heard the German expression “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau”.  Literally meaning “egg-laying wool-milk-sow”, it describes a pig covered in fluffy fur that lays eggs and produces milk.  It is the perfect farm animal that only has advantages, satisfies all needs, and meets all demands by bringing together the best qualities of a hen (laying eggs), sheep (producing wool), cow (giving milk) and pig (eats rubbish and produces bacon).  The only shortcoming of the “Eierlegende Wollmilchsau” is that it doesn’t exist.

The non-existent egg-laying wool-milk-sow.  Based on a graphic developed by

I wonder whether the ideal school principal is seen by some school boards as resembling the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau – perfect in every way except that he or she doesn’t really exist.

In the preface to his book ‘Letters from School’, the Principal of Westminster School in England from 1970 to 1986, John Rae, wrote feelingly about the scrutiny, often unfair, to which school principals are frequently subjected by parents, school boards and the general community.  He observed that “ours is the one job in society that everyone feels qualified to criticise.  Paraphrasing the critics, he continued: 

“We have all been to school.  We all know how it’s done.  It didn’t strike us then and it doesn't strike us now as a job requiring much in the way of sophisticated expertise.  We wouldn’t actually say that any fool could do it, but we think it is largely a case of common sense, an amateur business and not even full-time, given the long holidays and the short working day”.

Rae continued: Headmasters and headmistresses are insecure, more so than they look.  They regard any criticism of the school as criticism of their leadership, as indeed it is”.

On the other hand, he also wrote this reflection on being a school principal: It must surely be the best job in the world. There is such variety, such unpredictability, and such provocative fascination in dealing with the young”.

I concur with the full range of Rae’s views, contradictory though they may appear.  The huge challenge for Principals as they fulfil the duties of “the best job in the world”, of course, is that they must try and meet a daunting array of expectations.

Where do I begin?  School principals are expected to:

  • provide educational, ethical, visionary and pastoral direction;
  • ensure financial solvency;
  • keep a respectable circle of friends;
  • maintain strict discipline (except when a board member’s child is involved, in which case they must maintain charity, love, tolerance, forgiveness and gentle nurturing);
  • make sure the students learn to do dancing, crafts, cooking, sport and debating as well as developing literacy, numeracy, and understanding sex education’
  • personally find and return the lost lunch box;
  • prepare detailed regular reports for each board meeting, hoping they will be read by every board member prior to the meeting, and then answering questions at the board meeting from several attendees who were clearly too busy to read the written reports beforehand;
  • be courteous, alert, decisive and even friendly around the school, even after a School Board meeting which finished after midnight the night before;
  • try to see and cheer for every sports team when it competes against another school;
  • set an example by stopping to pick up litter in the school grounds;
  • ensure that music, the arts and multiple languages flourish in the school;
  • stop the pushing and shoving in lines at the canteen; 
  • ensure that all the students dress appropriately, neatly and apolitically;
  • make sure the buses are on time;
  • inspire the students with short addresses at regular assemblies throughout the year;
  • maintain students’ attention during the long, long speeches at the graduation ceremonies and other end-of-year functions;
  • present regular reports at board committee meetings, alumni gatherings and reunions, parent support groups, fund-raising gatherings, and indeed any school event that (like these) is typically held in evenings or on weekends;
  • counsel students during intense crises such as a death or divorce in the family - or a break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend;
  • ensure that every member of staff dresses in a professional manner, at least to the standards expected of the students, while emphasising that each teacher is an adult and an individual with due sense of responsibility;
  • know every student by name and greet them as such;
  • find a system of numbering the rooms and buildings in the school with which everybody can agree;
  • keep the school fees as low as possible;
  • arrive punctually to every meeting and commitment;
  • ensure that every child has the best teacher in every subject;
  • ensure that there is no swearing, smoking, drugs, alcohol or pre-marital sex at a party in a private individual’s home that is likely to be attended by a student of the school;
  • secure the best staff and sack the bad ones;
  • identify future building and other capital works needs, and persuade the board accordingly;
  • perform two walks around the school each day to “sniff the mood” of the school, drop into classrooms, and “be seen”;
  • supervise ongoing thorough risk audits to make sure health and safety is always “guaranteed” for every student, employee, contractor and visitor in the school;
  • monitor the performance of every employee in the school, either personally or by delegation;
  • personally ensure that every student records homework in the handbook every night;
  • make sure that every child has access to the computers and musical instruments whenever they wish;
  • deal with lawyers and attorneys when they lodge a formal complaint on behalf of a parent claiming their child’s failure to learn was the result of the school’s failure to teach;
  • ensure the school’s telephone number is answered quickly and courteously;
  • write a regular article for the weekly newsletter, the once-per-term illustrated magazine, and the annual yearbook, in addition to presenting papers at professional conferences and posting frequent positive stories on Facebook and LinkedIn;
  • stop students (and staff) driving dangerously;
  • prepare copious, detailed reports for accreditation and compliance authorities in the name of “accountability”, and then endure multiple follow-up visits and meetings to defend their contents because a box or two was not ticked properly;
  • support staff after first perceiving themselves whether or not they need or, indeed, want it by giving them the chance to dump their feelings in total confidence while not allowing accusations against other staff to be heard outside their presence;
  • promote the school in the wider community;
  • attend conferences and workshops to keep up to date;
  • be present, available and on call in the office at all times;
  • fix the water, phones or electricity when they malfunction;
  • consult widely with everyone who thinks they are important, and listen even more carefully to those who don’t;
  • keep everyone happy;
  • explain to the neighbours why the new building project will not increase traffic congestion, will not create undue noise, dust or excess water to flood their land, and why the lunch wraps which fly over the fence will not choke their pets;
  • stop the lunch wraps flying over the fence;
  • be a role model as a spouse and parent;
  • convince the public that this is the best school for their youngster;
  • AND, most challenging of all, to look as though they are interested and enjoying themselves when supervising at a school disco!

I doubt even Winston Churchill had to deal with such a diverse range of responsibilities.  However, to be fair, he did have to keep Josef Stalin on side in the effort to defeat the Nazis in World War II, which some might argue (tongue-in-cheek) was akin to the challenge of negotiating many staffing issues in schools today.

It is important for school boards to appreciate the complexity of the demands made upon their Principals these days, and to provide unwavering support for the Principal without hesitation.  No Principal should ever feel alone as they lead their school, although sadly many do.  School leadership is always a team effort.

In this context, I love the words of Faith Abiodun (UWC International Executive Director) from August 2023: Not a single one of us is going to change the world by ourselves.  We always do that in community and you have to learn how to do that.  Sometimes those really uncomfortable experiences of having your clear ideas being challenged propel you to become a much more conscious member of society.  And that is worth fighting for”.

My concluding message to board members as they work to support the principal is a simple one - we fail as leaders when we expect more from others than we expect from ourselves.   If you expect someone to fight for you, you must also fight for them.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Rae, J (1988) “Letters from School”, London: Fontana Press.

Thank you to for the base graphic that was adapted for use in this article.

We help school boards with Principals’ performance reviews and appraisals.

Further information on many aspects of effective leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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