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Leadership "Principals"

Mr. Mahoney was the principal at the elementary school I attended. Every school day, in order to observe our orderly conduct, he stood outside as we students began our walk home. Principal Mahoney was armed with a cruel weapon that spread fear into my classmates and me: a silver whistle. Anytime a student stepped on the grass, our principal would blow his whistle, signaling to all that a grave violation of the rules for proper citizenship had occurred. He punished transgressors -- those grass-infringing threats to society -- by making them spend the next day's lunch period picking up litter from the school grounds.

Two things about this practice always struck me as odd. First, there were two or three kids picking up litter during lunch break on a daily basis. Clearly, Principal M's deterrent approach was not working. Second, there was always more than enough litter to keep these kids busy for an hour. Therefore, it seemed to me that littering was causing more harm to school grounds than the damage incurred by the occasional weight of a child's foot. Why, I wondered, wasn't our principal focusing on this larger problem? This happened long before I thought of becoming a leadership trainer; but even as a fourth grader, I sensed that Mahoney was a lousy leader.

Every day, I see managers experiencing frustration when, like Principal Mahoney, their efforts to influence desirable behavior through disciplinary actions prove ineffective. And I watch business leaders who, like my former principal, cling to rules that no longer make sense while overlooking more pressing issues.

Some might contend that Mr. Mahoney's actions served to instill in his students the importance of following rules. I offer myself as an opposing argument. I managed to get all the way through elementary school without straying from the sidewalk and facing the whistleblower's wrath. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone less likely to follow a prescribed path than me. If I acquired anything from his methods, it was the propensity to question silly rules.

I don't know what became of Principal Mahoney after I went on to high school. I hope he lived a long and happy life. But I'm glad I never had to work for him.

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Great post. I've copied it and will be handing it out to my camp staff this summer. It's such a common thing to do and it's good to show that kids get it when the rule are dumb.

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