For school leaders, routine decisions aren’t so routine

Key points:

In the tapestry of leadership, decisions are often viewed through a lens of routine or regularity. It’s easy to fall into the belief that some choices are mundane, merely navigating the day-to-day operations of an organization. However, beneath this seemingly commonplace surface lies a profound truth: no leadership decision is truly routine. Each choice, whether seemingly minor or monumental, has the potential to send ripples through the fabric of an organization or impact an individual in ways that may extend beyond the leaders’ view.

Understanding the potential consequences of seemingly routine decisions is not just an important leadership skill; it’s a necessity. Every leadership decision, regardless of its apparent simplicity, possesses the potential to have a far greater impact than it appears viewed on the surface. A few examples illustrate this premise:  

As a high school principal, a science teacher gave a student a final grade of F. The student had earned 69.7 percent in the course. When asked about the grade, the teacher identified that her grading scale for a D started at 70 percent and she didn’t round up for her grades. She felt it was important to hold her students to a high standard. The student would need to retake the course over the summer to graduate high school. The student did not reach out to me, however, her parents did. As did her Navy recruiter. The young lady was scheduled to enlist in the Navy. If she couldn’t leave for basic training the week after graduation, she would lose her promised training option and may not be able to get the job she desired. The teacher was unwilling to change the grade, but the law allowed the department chair to change the grade if he wished. The decision might seem routine, but the potential to impact the young woman’s post-high school career was significant.

A second situation is the high school principal who learns that the starting varsity football quarterback violated the athletic code of conduct and was photographed with a beer in his hand at a party a week before school started. The student athlete comes from a family that has a lot of struggles and the potential for their oldest son to get a football scholarship has given the family a new positive view. If the quarterback is suspended, both the parents and the athletic director feel it will have a negative impact on his ability to obtain a college athletic scholarship. Additionally, the football team has a legitimate chance to win its conference and make it to the state playoffs for the first time in a decade. There is a lot of community enthusiasm for the team. At this point, the image has not surfaced in the community and the AD thinks that the issue will not become common knowledge.

In a third example, as the district is trying to reduce expenses before potential budget cuts, the human resources director sends out an early retirement buyout offer. However, she did not do a thorough review of the list of those eligible. Several faculty members who are not technically eligible receive the offer. It might seem like a minor error to the high school staff, but one of the faculty members has already told his wife about the offer and she is excited as they are eager to move closer to their children. Now, he will have to explain to his wife that the offer was withdrawn. It was the first time in several years that they were excited about the future. He is extremely stressed out about having to explain the HR department made an error.

A final example, which is a bit old these days, is the concept of IT change control. It was common for IT help desk folks to be frustrated when end users called in flummoxed about a minor software upgrade. Historically, it was common before the widespread adoption of cloud-based tools, where there is no local control over when tools will be updated, to only update software during academic breaks, particularly in the summer. This allowed ample time for staff to be trained in using the updates and learn how the tools had changed. Often, IT folks would be frustrated with the end users who “couldn’t figure out minor changes.” However, from the end-user perspective, the changes were not routine, and they had to learn new ways to complete their tasks. IT leaders should still be careful about making software changes except during breaks and with adequate warning.

These examples underscore how seemingly insignificant leadership decisions can profoundly impact people. While leaders may view some choices as routine, each harbors the potential for unintended consequences extending far beyond expectations. We must broaden our perspective to see how alleged minor calls can affect lives and communities in ways not readily apparent.

Leaders need to adopt a mindset recognizing the potential gravity inherent in all decisions, even small ones. Rather than making snap decisions, leaders must pause to reflect, gather input, and consider various viewpoints. However, that does not give leaders the excuse to delay decisions. That is one of the balances required by leaders. They need to be both thoughtful and decisive. While efficient operations matter, leaders must consider the impact of decisions on individuals.

As initially asserted, the tapestry of leadership harbors a profound yet often overlooked truth–no decision can be classified as merely routine. While leaders may be tempted to view choices as insignificant or mundane, each threads the fabric of an organization and individuals’ lives in complex ways.

Steven M. Baule, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Latest posts by Steven M. Baule, Ed.D., Ph.D. (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *