Chapter Four


(pages 1-8 of 14)



The Perfect Principal


Max McGee



The perfect school must have the perfect principal, or at least the “practically perfect principal” because no principal can be or should be everything to everyone. The practically perfect principal (1) builds a perfect school around a shared vision, (2) is a terrific communicator, (3) is highly resourceful, (4) compiles and analyzes data to share with his or her staff, and (5) leads a balanced life which includes having fun at work.



      Diogenes’ search for the honest man is quite literally legendary. His quest, however, is arguably less daunting than our search for the perfect principal. In fact, the perfect principal is a paradox, for the leader who is perfect for parents is frequently far from perfect to most of the staff. Principals who are perfect for the staff by definition cannot always be perfect for all students. And a perfect principal to one teacher can easily be a lousy principal to another. Like beauty, as the following examples illustrate, perfection is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Overbearing parents believe the perfect principal is one who does their bidding, like acceding to demands to change a class placement, intervening in a minor classroom disciplinary incident, or absolving their child when he bullies another. This principal is likely to be perceived as a less than perfect “soft touch” by his teachers. Likewise, the perfect principal to one teacher may be one who is working hard to remove an incompetent colleague, yet to that colleague, his group of friends, and most likely the teachers’ union, the principal is a rat. To an insecure teacher, the perfect principal backs every disciplinary decision, right or wrong. That principal, however, would undoubtedly be labeled as “unfair” or, more accurately, “wimpy and clueless” by the students in that teacher’s class.

One of my favorite memories as a principal was when a rascally fifth grader was sent to me for, in the words of the teacher, “serious disciplinary action.” My secretary told me that the teacher sent him to be disciplined because he had been “mouthy” with her and should have a detention. Though Jim was full of personality, I didn’t picture him as one to get into a confrontation with a teacher. Arming myself with my sternest principal face, I sat him in front of my long desk. Trying to appear as tall and imposing as possible, I peered over it and gruffly asked, “What are you doing here, young man?”

“I got in trouble,” he answered.

“Yes, you did. What did you do wrong?”

“Nothing really.”

“Nothing? Mrs. Dour said that you were rude to her and mouthy. Just what happened?”

“I asked if I could go to the washroom, and she said in front of everyone, ‘What’s the magic word?’ So I said, ‘Abracadabra’ and everyone started laughing.”

I tried to keep up my game face, but then I cracked up. “That really is funny,” I chuckled. So much for “serious disciplinary action.”

And so much for being the perfect principal. Taking a student’s side rarely wins points with teachers, especially ones who cannot laugh at themselves. I decided that Jim did not deserve a detention but rather an audition as a stand-up comic for our next talent show. He went back to class, and Mrs. Dour got mad at me and complained to her friends. Though most of the others in the school would have handled the matter exactly as I did, they naturally clucked and shook their heads to her face. Then they went on about their business as did I, the less-than-perfect principal.


A serious hunt for perfection among principals depends so much upon perception that it is fruitless. That said, there are some distinguishing characteristics, behaviors, knowledge, skills, and attitudes/dispositions that are possessed by better principals—which we define as those who have a sustained positive impact on teaching and learning. They aren’t perfect, so for our purposes in this book let’s call them “practically perfect principals.” Those we can find.

What, then, are the qualities of a practically perfect principal? Are they innate or learned? What does the practically perfect principal do differently from other principals? What can we learn from practically perfect principals? Great principals have many wonderful qualities and characteristics, and other books have been written about them. Using this research, but more importantly, quite literally a century of experience, we have selected a few that distinguish the practically perfect from the simply great.




Practically perfect principals have vision and are driven by mission. Neither the vision nor mission belongs exclusively to the school or the principal. It comes from and belongs to everyone in the school. In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott writes, “Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as a fierce vision.” The practically perfect principal is the rare individual who creates this shared vision. How does he do it? He begins by building relationships with teachers, staff, and parents. He doesn’t begin by writing something about “lifelong learning” and “responsible global citizens.” As relationships develop through conversations, the principal develops a profound understanding of the potential his school has, of what it can be for students, for teachers, for parents, for the community, for the district, and beyond. It takes many “fierce conversations” to uncover the essence of the school, to realize its potential, to imagine its possibility.

The shared vision, then, does not spring from the head of Aphrodite or the cerebrum of the practically perfect principal; rather, it emerges through informal conversation and formal dialogue. It is forged in discussions about the hopes and dreams for individual students, in taking new parents around the school, in visiting classes, and actively participating in formal meetings; it’s done one-on-one and with small groups, departments, and staff.

Once the practically perfect principal finds the vision, the mission statement almost writes itself, absent of jargon but dense with aspiration. Inspirational, aspirational, and perspirational, the shared vision gets people thinking, working, and believing together. Here are two exceptional examples and one that will be forgotten as soon as it is read:


  • Teaching tomorrow’s leaders
  • To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to passion, and lives to the service of humanity
  • Our mission is to provide educational experiences in a safe and secure environment that will enhance the self-esteem of all students, create a passion for lifelong learning, and develop global citizens that demonstrate responsibility and compassion for others.


What happens when there is a shared vision is that the impossible becomes achievable. The practically perfect principal’s school with 75% low-income students has 80% of them meeting state standards year after year. Awards are won and recognition is achieved, i.e., in Illinois, they are the Spotlight Schools; in South Carolina, the Lighthouse Schools. More importantly, the staff becomes a real team on a “moral mission” to make a deep, lasting difference in the lives of students. As the teachers at one of these schools, Whittier School in Peoria, say, “We are responsible for student achievement. When a child fails, it is our responsibility. Children come to us with a great deal of baggage. We set that aside and teach them. If a child does not do well in our classroom, we reevaluate our teaching rather than make excuses, and we never give up!” Teacher efficacy abounds and learning flourishes.


Getting “Out and About”


The practically perfect principal doesn’t spend a lot of time in her office. She is in classrooms every day and learns the names of students and staff. More importantly, she learns who they are and what matters to them. She appreciates their unique personalities and knows what they like to do for fun as well as their professional goals and special strengths. From being out and about, she learns how to communicate with each one and thus informs, guides, directs, cajoles, or even confronts them to help them excel.

When the practically perfect principal visits classrooms, she may pop in and out or stay for an extended time. In all cases, she is always there, in the present, with nothing more important to do. Like all great leaders, the practically perfect principal has a quality of making every individual feel like the most important person in the room when she talks to them. When she converses with someone, she talks with them (not at them), listens closely, and interacts with head and heart. Many practically perfect principals also follow up their visits with short handwritten notes complimenting teachers on what they have seen.

The practically perfect principal is also out in the community. She gets to know parents as people and makes contributions to the neighborhood. She has the courage to conduct home visits and meet individuals where they work. Residents recognize her on the street and the backyard buzzword is positive because being visible demonstrates that she truly cares and understands the importance of the school to the community. She generally joins a service or community organization, such as Optimist, Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis, but more important than just joining, she becomes active in their work. She may chair a committee, hold an office, sit on the Board of Directors, serve as the master of ceremonies at a dinner, or make some occasional presentations about her school. She truly “walks the talk” of community partnership.




The practically perfect principal is resourceful. He is creative at getting what the school needs for teaching and for learning to flourish. Practically perfect principals with whom we have worked have been able to:


  • Help teachers expand their classroom libraries
  • Put more technology in their classrooms
  • Assure that all students have a good breakfast
  • Develop after-school programs and services
  • Help the brightest students be challenged each day
  • Arrange supplemental support for struggling students
  • Assist parents in obtaining doctors and dentists for their children


Many of these took extra money and all took extra time. What the practically perfect principals did, though, was identify the problem; work with staff, parents and administrators to craft creative solutions, and stay on the issue until it was resolved. After the initial idea, then, the practically perfect principal follows through with relentless persistence. Their hard work recalls Thomas Edison’s words, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

In fact, getting the job done is what drives the practically perfect principal. Although there are many sound reasons for not being able to find a solution to a difficult problem, there is always one that works. The practically perfect principal finds it. In the words of my mentor, Dr. Mark DeLay, “Don’t tell me why it can’t be done, find a way to get it done.”

Let’s study an example. A common complaint from a teacher or parent is that a talented child is not being challenged. The less than practically perfect principal generally responds with one or a litany of obstacles or excuses:


  • State money for gifted education has been cut
  • Your child did not pass the screening test for gifted services
  • We cannot provide special programming because it would be a precedent for other children
  • The other children will catch up
  • We really don’t have the resources to give the kind of support you demand
  • Other parents send their children to special classes or work with them at home
  • We are a public school, not a private school
  • Our priority is to work with those who have special needs and are struggling
  • The district’s budget for additional materials for gifted students was reduced


The “solutions” never address the problems. Here are some particularly ineffective ones that we have heard:


  • Let’s have him/her tutor or teach other students in the class who don’t catch on as quickly
  • Why don’t you go to the library and get some challenging books?
  • We’ll provide extra enrichment worksheets
  • Perhaps our school isn’t right for you and you should explore a private school
  • He can spend some extra time with this computer software


As a result, the child is not challenged and both the student and parent get the message that being smart has negative consequences and excellence really doesn’t matter.


Solutions that practically perfect principals develop look much different. Consider these:


  • We will provide your son or daughter with some challenging problems to solve, books to read, and find a little time to work with him individually
  • We will let him take his math/reading/writing, etc. class with the next grade
  • Though our day is filled, we are creating a lunch bunch for a small group of students like your child to meet and discuss great books/work on intriguing problems, etc.
  • We can set your middle school student up with an online high school course that will really challenge him and keep him engaged
  • Your daughter will be given different assignments, not more work, and these will be individually designed to engage and challenge her, not just review what she already knows
  • We have found a few others like your son or daughter and next year we will place the four of them in the same class with a teacher who realizes and can address their unlimited potential


The bottom line is that the practically perfect principal is resourceful and finds a way to get things done for his school, his staff, and for himself rather than having things done to him, his teachers, or his school….


(Footnotes deleted in this sample.)




Chapter Five


(pages 1-8 of 16)



Service Makes or Breaks


the Perfect School


Jim Burgett



The perfect school (1) understands the difference between ordinary and quality service, (2) develops and implements a set of basic service guidelines, (3) doesn’t leave service to chance, but provides extensive training for all employees, and (4) promotes an organizational ownership of service through empowerment, a common language, and a clear and meaningful mission.



Nothing can break a school system, deflate morale, or diffuse the excitement of learning as much as poor service or a general lack of character. With all the right ingredients you will be on the road of excellence to a perfect school, but even if you have the best staff, the most effective processes, and great facilities, if you lack the desire to serve, you will be average at best. This section looks at the two critical pillars of a strong educational climate: serving others and exercising strong values.




In this chapter we will compare the schoolhouse to any company, business, or organization known to provide service, and then we will follow an example of one of the leading service providers in the world. Since we know that schools can (and should) be outstanding service-providing institutions, let’s also consider ten doable steps to becoming a service model that others will envy.


Big Buns Sets the Stage


Why not begin our service journey at the fictitious yet easily imagined epitome of hot cuisine, Big Buns, a fast food restaurant chain. Everybody knows Big Buns. You probably dined there this past week. Drive up or walk in, it makes no difference. All you want is to place an order, get what you request, eat it there or take it with you, and end up gustatorily satisfied. It may not be lobster, but it should still be a good experience. There are some pluses to the Big Buns visit that you can count on. The bill won’t break the bank. No tipping is expected. Parking is free. The quality of the food should adhere to an expected standard (the Big Buns triple whammy in Houston should have exactly the same 12,450 calories as it does in Wheeling, West Virginia). The lady or man behind the counter will be clearly labeled as a Big Buns Host, and the ice in your soda will be frozen. That’s a lot, but not enough. The variables can make or break the experience.


Service Should Be Standard, Not a Surprise


Some things you can’t be sure of when you visit Big Buns. Will the bathroom be clean? Will the item in your bag be the same thing you asked for? Will you be treated like a burden, an escapee, an alien, or a customer? Will anyone at Big Buns smile? If they forget your corkscrewed fries, will you have to argue with the Host about who is at fault? Will they know the magic words?

Depending on the training, leadership, expectations, environment, and the personality of the “team” on hand, your experience may vary from an F to an A+, to put it in educational terms. Too bad; it should be an A every time. If the product is good and the service is great, the business should be exceptional. If the product is good and the service stinks, you might give it a chance or two before driving past Big Buns and heading the extra blocks to Cholesterol Castle, with its Double Clogger. Bad service can, and will, cost business.

You know how true the example is. When you walk up to the counter at Big Buns what you really want is a smile, a pleasant greeting, a question, a repeat of the order, a cordial exchange of money, an assurance that your food is coming, and a few pleasantries along the way. When the order is handed to you, you also want another nice smile, a thank you, and—icing on the cake—maybe even a pleasant comment. The script is short and sweet and it can make all the difference in the world.

Personally, I love it when the Big Buns Host double checks my order as he/she fills the bag, when I’m thanked for my money, and when I get a smile and pleasant comment as I leave. Even “Have a nice day” is nice, if they seem to mean it. It would take only a creative second longer to say something like “Enjoy your burger and come back and see us soon.”


Don’t Forget to Say You Are Welcome!


Am I being sarcastic? Nope. Realistic. I’m passionate about good service. I expect it. I even help with it. When the Big Buns folk forget to thank me, I never forget to say, “You are welcome.” A lonely “You are welcome” might sound a bit strange—but soon enough it might not be so lonely. When they are unpleasant, I try to be compassionate. But if they frown, say nothing positive, and forget to ask about my order, I usually ask, “Are you having a bad day? Is the Big Buns stock down? Have you forgotten your lines?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always register, but sometimes the Host does get the idea. 

Good Service is Not Hard to Provide


Recently four of us were at a fancier place to eat. Not a Big Buns—a place with a menu, a waiter, and a nice black leather folder for the check. The waiter came over to us, two adult couples, and said, “Hi, kids! On vacation?” We were on vacation and between the four of us we have a plethora of kids and grandkids. The waiter was clean cut, well groomed, and smiling; he made us feel very comfortable. He never called us “you guys,” he got the order right, and he even said things like “Good choice,” “That’s one of our best items,” “Do you like hot spice? That one is kind of hot,” and “I’ll be back in a flash with your salad, but you take as long as you want eating it.” He made it fun, not routine. He knew when to talk and when to listen. He was confirming, pleasant, and positive. When it came time for the black leather folder, he had earned a nice tip. The service was great. We will eat there again.


The Top Ten of Service


David Letterman started the reverse top ten craze so let me thank him for the format that follows. Alas, this top ten isn’t really ranked in any particular order nor did I create or invent any of them. All ten are stolen, though from whom I have no idea. (Over the years I have attended so many workshops and read so many books about service that the sources of these ideas are long gone. How’s that for a disclaimer?)

A last point: I’m passionate about providing good service. If I get carried away, I apologize.


Here we go. If you want to travel down the road of excellence toward that apex called perfection, you better equip yourselves with the skill of a service leader and provider, and be a living example of quality service.

Ten: There is no such thing as Selective Service.

OK, there is a Selective Service operated by the United State Government. But there shouldn’t be “selective service” when it comes to being a service provider. I learned this quickly when I visited the Ritz-Carlton, the most highly acclaimed and awarded service-provider for hospitality in the world. I had a chance to go through third-party training at a Ritz-Carlton facility for several days, studying their model of service, the same model that won them the famed Malcolm Baldridge Award.

One of the most striking things I witnessed was the lack of “selective” service. What I mean by this is that they didn’t provide a different level of service for different people. Granted, you are among the more financially blessed if you stay at a Ritz. They are anything but inexpensive. But the same level of service was given to visitors, people just looking around, those who came just for a drink or a meal, guests, parkers in the Ritz lots, and, most impressive of all, employees by other employees.

Over several days I saw it time and again. They exercised the same “basics,” spoke the same language, and treated each other the same as they treated the paying gentry. In fact, most of the employees are just “regular Joes” and probably couldn’t afford a night at the Ritz any more than most of us can, but when at work, they were treated the same as the most influential guest. That impressed me as much as anything I witnessed. It was real. It was part of their culture. It’s why the Ritz-Carlton is the best in the world.

So, if a school wants to travel on the road to perfection, they have to learn the secrets of providing non-selective service. The same high service to all parties, all employees, all students, all visitors, and to each other. After all, schools are service organizations, and learning to serve without false pretense is the best way to serve anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Oh yes, one more thing. Schools are not like the Ritz or Big Buns. Most (but not all) of the people who come to the school have no other choice. Most can’t afford an alternative private school and in most communities you have one school that you are assigned to and that is where you go. So, in a certain way, the audience is captured and contained. Even if you mess up, they seldom leave. Which means you have to work twice as hard in a school to provide quality service since lousy service alone won’t cost you customers.


Nine: Service is Governed by the Mission.

How can a school system, or school building, operate without a mission? Even if it is a short, concise, simple statement, if it is owned by the members of the organization, the mission should be the central focus of everything you do. Everything the Ritz-Carlton does to train and promote quality service is a direct reflection of their stated mission. The parallel is obvious.

Let’s say that the Ernie Banks Elementary School District has the following mission statement: “Our mission is to provide the best learning opportunities for our students, to seek and secure the best resources possible, and always to promote an attitude of caring and community.” The mission must direct the level of service provided. When developing a service motto and simple “basics,” they must be synchronized with the mission. For example, the “best learning opportunities” can be defined as an environment that is conducive to learning, to understanding learning styles, and to establishing an atmosphere of caring and compassion. How do you get there? Simply by serving one another in the best possible way. Service is directly related to the Mission. A service-oriented organization that uses its bonding mission as the center of all activities is headed straight toward excellence.


Eight: Create a Service Motto.

One of my favorite mottos is from the same Ritz-Carlton. “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” They follow the motto with this statement, “As service professionals, we treat our guests and each other with respect and dignity.”

In the workshops and administrative academies I offer I frequently refer to the Ritz and its service program. Often I‘m asked why I compare a school district to the classiest and one of the most expensive hotel chains in the world. My response is simple: I want my school district to be considered the best of the best. Maybe not in terms of dollars spent per student or by the number of swimming pools or handball courts or the quantity of Advanced Placement courses offered, but certainly in the way we prepare students, provide an outstanding learning opportunity, are an integral part of the community, and how we respect our staff of educators. We can be the Ritz-Carlton (RC) of schools by the way we treat each other and, as their motto says, by the way we treat our guests (students, taxpayers, families) with respect and dignity. That is the essence of service.

In the programs I mentioned I also take the liberty of slightly modifying the RC motto and the 20 “basics” into language appropriate for schools. For example, I change the RC motto to read, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen of all ages.” That covers preschoolers to senior citizens.

There are several other components of the RC motto that I really like. First of all, they put the employees first by setting expectations as high for them as for the guests. “We are Ladies and Gentlemen...” Then they emphasize the focus with the word “serving.” Finally, they classify their guests as “ladies and gentlemen.” What a statement! It sets the standard for everyone in the system, and focuses on the number one activity, providing service. The follow-up statement is also well crafted: “As service professionals...”—not as blue collar workers, cooks, housekeepers, lawn mowers, or bellmen, but as “service professionals.” In other words, in whatever we do we are indeed professionals, the best, the top of the ladder. And then it says, “...we treat our guests AND EACH OTHER with respect and dignity.” There is no selective service at the RC! Everyone gets treated the right way and the same way. Everybody.

When I converted the RC Motto to a template for schools, I made only a few adjustments to the second sentence. “As educational professionals, we must treat all our students, guests, citizens, and each other with respect and dignity.” A little tweaking to make it more comprehensive and inclusive for school folks.

Each district needs a motto to hang its service hat on. Not a cute little saying to memorize, but a motto to live by. At the RC every employee carries a card at all times that lists all the fundamentals, starting with the Credo and Motto. They talk about it. They live it. They expect others to honor it. If you want to raise the level of service and respect at your school, you have to take the service component seriously. It has to be there 24/7. It can’t be a fad, a short-time professional development gimmick, or just another “new thing” to do. It has to be a way of life. Mottos may seem lame and useless, but if one is a benchmark for real action and behavior it can make a huge difference in developing morale, setting expectations, and building a strong foundation.





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