Leadership dilemmas

Real-life stories that focus on a dilemma or complex situation that leaders are likely to face in their professional lives. 

These stories come from experienced New Zealand school principals. Each story is about a situation they have managed through to a resolution. 

Using the leadership dilemmas

This section backgrounds useful information about working through the leadership dilemmas on this page.

An issue of risk management

A camp safety issue in a school is complicated by existing tensions. An intermediate principal questions whether in trying to solve one issue she has exposed students and the school to an unacceptable level of risk.

Dealing with two internal applicants

The assistant principal of the senior school goes on study leave so an acting AP position becomes available. Two internal applicants apply and the appointment decision made causes ripples which last the whole year.

When data signals change is needed

A school has had a number of principals, and some years ago was deemed at risk. At that time the school had been in the public spotlight over poor ERO reports and conflict over governance and management issues. Since then the school has moved on to a much happier time. It has enjoyed roll growth, has built a good reputation and is well regarded in the community. A new and experienced principal takes up a position at a school. She finds that, despite appearances, all is not well with the literacy programme.

A challenge for the board

Soon after being elected for the first time, a board member begins his tenure by criticising the procedures and systems of the board and school. He makes direct contact with the principal, demands information from the office staff, and makes life difficult for other members of the board. The principal is at a loss to know what to do.

Who owns the problem?

A parent is always criticising the school, gossiping about teachers and other parents. At times she has had arguments with parents in the school grounds and on several occasions has directly approached children and told them off. She disagrees with the ways teachers are teaching her child and makes a formal complaint to the board.

When beliefs are challenged

A first-time principal encounters a child with major behaviour issues that require immediate action for the safety of the child, other children and the well-being of the child’s teacher.

A matter of performance

A teacher disagrees with the findings of a performance management observation (PMO) undertaken by the assistant principal. The principal and assistant principal are certain that the findings of the observation are accurate. They insist that the findings of the observation stay on the teacher’s record. The teacher had been involved in a number of disputes with the school management in her years of employment. She had been difficult to work with and the school principal was tired of her behaviour.

First-time principal in the swamp

A teacher accepts an acting principal position at a new school. It is a low decile school of about 400 students, with a bilingual whānau operating alongside the mainstream classes. There is widespread inadequacy in both the quality of teaching and learning and school systems and structures, including governance.

Personal cost of change

An experienced principal at a new school tries to bring about changes that will lead to a more supportive and inclusive professional culture for the improvement of teaching and learning. The staff are resistant to the changes and wish to continue with the status quo. The four-year change process was more complex, longer than expected, and resulted in much stress and heartache. It caused the principal to question her values, beliefs, and leadership style.

Too much advice?

An adviser has become extremely attached to a child with high health needs and his family. She sees input from other professionals as challenging her knowledge and understanding of what is best for the child.

The praxis of dilemma management

by Carol Cardno

In this journal article Professor Carol Cardno from UNITEC in Auckland alerts readers to how common dilemmas (sticky situations) are for school leaders, especially as they take on the responsibility for improving the learning outcomes of all students.

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