The roar of complexity: A principal’s day is built on fragments of tasks and decisions

by Kent Peters


This article will be of particular interest to new or aspiring principals. Peters situates the role of the principal in ever-increasing, complex, and demanding contexts. Principals are not only professional leaders, they are also managers, and they are expected to lead change.

Peters gives an excellent picture of the day-to-day 'busy-ness' of the role, pointing out the enormous number and variety of tasks faced by a principal every day – “literally hundreds of brief tasks each day”. These will vary in their significance and nature, but each person comes with expectations of the principal – that they will be listened to, responded to, treated with respect, and so on. He points out that schools probably have more diverse populations and situations than many other organisations, making them particularly complex to manage and lead.

In this article, he sets the situation out rather than suggesting solutions. However, there are some useful pointers. He suggests the need to address the 'hidden history' of the school, in order to understand how past events shape current attitudes and behaviours in the school. Principals also need to have good analytical skills in interpreting situations, and to be aware that there will be many different interpretations of events by the many members of the school community.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • Given that you face so many varied issues on a daily basis, what two or three values or principles do you use to guide your actions and decisions?
  • In what ways can you involve other people in the complexities of the leadership and organisation of the school?
  • What administrative systems do you have in place to keep good records of all the actions and decisions that you make on a daily basis?

Further reading

The article lists further readings by T. E. Deal and K. D. Peterson, which are recommended.


Peters, K. D. (2001). The Roar of Complexity: A principal’s day is built on fragments of tasks and decisions. Journal of Staff Development, 22 (1).

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