Jeffrey Benson

Four Frames for Principals, New and Experienced

I was working with an elementary principal. One of the school's 3rd grade classes had given him a list of responsibilities they assumed formed his job. He showed me the list and chuckled, until he got to an item that he said made him shudder far more than smile: "You fix everything."

That overwhelming mandate contains a big piece of the truth: almost everything that happens in the school is ultimately the responsibility of the principal. What is equally valid is the reality that one person cannot know everything, be everywhere, prevent all problems, and fix everything.

One path through that psychosis-inducing dilemma is articulated in the excellent management book, Reframing Organizations (Bolman and Deal, 2003). The authors urge leaders to operate in four frames: structural, human resource, symbolic, political. I have found that most principals tend toward one or two frames of action. When they are coached to consider actions in all four frames, their options expand—but not to the point of overwhelm. They develop confidence that they are applying the energy they have available in the most efficient ways; they are also developing a school culture that is more resilient. Ultimately they move from having to "fix" problems in a flurry of reactive moves towards managing the environment. And when they have to apply a fix, their tool kit is well organized. Their tool kits have four sections:

  1. Structural: Rules, procedures, and definitions are needed for safety and predictability. Principals have their hands on the gears needed to create reliable responses and to apply structural fixes (fire drill procedures, lunch coverage, who calls home when a student is suspended, how to order toner for the printer). In this frame, organizations are seen as machinery, with parts needing to be in place and well maintained.
  2. Human Resources: Schools are not bricks and mortar, but primarily communities of people who need each other. In this frame, principals invest in the education of staff, and they build trust and caring. At the system level, we take care of human resources by securing benefits, raises, and providing professional development. At the school building level, principals seek initiatives that improve person-to-person understanding, learning, and communication. In this frame, schools are seen as a family, in which adult connections and affiliations are an essential prerequisite to taking care of children.
  3. Symbolic: Principals are always communicating what matters to the organization, whether explicitly through their words, or implicitly by how they focus their attention. What principals prioritize on agendas, what they spend money on, and who and what they praise continually send messages about what is important. Since there is no way to micro-manage every action, the symbolic frame reinforces a shared culture that influences all decisions (i.e., this is how we do things around here). Meetings are as much about symbolism as they are about content—get the symbolism right as much as the details. Leaders are always working in the symbolic frame, no matter what other frame they are focusing on. In this frame, organizations are seen as temples, and principals as inspirational leaders.
  4. Political: Getting things done requires finessing the various factions within an organization, because there are always factions, and there are always more needs than there are resources. In this frame, principals develop the voices of the staff who can influence the team; they consciously engage supporters and build cohorts who will hang tough through new initiatives. They know who to contact before presenting a plan to a large group. They keep in touch with influential members of the community. Interventions that apply pressure to the most powerful leverage points in a system are in the political frame.

The decisions principals make should be based on what helps them meet their goals, both in the moment and for the long-term functioning of the school. A quick fix in only one frame may not sustain, so it is useful to consider fixes in all of the frames. Principals needn't always address an issue in all four frames, but it's a good idea. Ask yourself: "Which frames am I in now? Can I touch all of them?"

In schools and other human service organizations, the political frame is the one least often embraced, the one people have the most internal conflicts applying. The authors are very clear about this, and remind the reader that politics and power exist in any organization (there are many types of power)—and to ignore their force is simply to be less effective in meeting the mission of the organization.

There is no way to predict the issues that will arise in a school year, whether you are a new principal or a seasoned veteran. But the chaos of the mundane and the extreme can be well contained and addressed by keeping these four frames in mind.

Jeffrey Benson is the author of ASCD's Hanging In—Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most and the often cited Educational Leadership article, "100 Repetitions." His website with contact information, writing, and links is Connect with Benson on Twitter @jeffreybenson61.

Comments (4)

tony tomy

July 24, 2014

Thanks for sharing.In schools and other human service organizations, the political frame is the one least often embraced, the one people have the most internal conflicts applying.Link education

Julie Bair

July 24, 2014

Thank you for distilling down these four important areas. I am going into my second year at my school (third year as a principal), following on the heels of a principal who was at my school for 20+ years. I can relate to the “psychosis-inducing dilemma” of being the person who fixes everything, especially when it takes time to learn about the four areas you mention and integrate into an established structural and political culture.

Joel MacDonald

July 24, 2014

A nice way of organizing the chaos.  Thanks for sharing that book and thanks for writing this piece.

Kerry Dunne

July 29, 2014

Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations is a classic!  It remains a terrific piece not just for principals, but also for assistant superintendents and department heads (like me!).  Thanks for reminding of this excellent resource.

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