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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Personalized Leadership: Breaking the Golden Rule

Personalized Leadership: Breaking the Golden Rule

By Chase Huotari
Franklin Township Middle School East
Franklin Township Community School Corporation
Ph.D. Student
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
A new, young principal, Freddie Firstyear, began school in the fall with high aspirations.  From the bottom of his heart, he knew that he was going to be a collaborative leader that people absolutely adored.  Folks will love working with me, he thought, as he laid out a plan to celebrate the successes of his people and to encourage growth, through praise. This would be key to his leadership’s success, as he envisioned, Everything is going to be great.
When the first staff meeting rolled around, Freddie began the staff meeting with celebrations.  It made sense, as every other leader he had worked for had done it.   In this particular meeting, even though the more extraverted staff members spoke up over those introverted, things went well. 
Note to self, Freddie thought:  Find a way to involve more of my folks next time, especially those who didn’t say anything.  After all they are some of my best teachers!
The following week Freddie attended a district meeting where the discussions revolved around building morale.  The speaker emphasized the need to celebrate our teachers even more.  Freddie then returned to his building and hashed out a plan based on Dr. Todd Whitaker’s Friday Focus. He would send out a weekly email that would include pertinent information of interest to staff, as well as examples of staff members doing great things as a way to continue to motivate and celebrate his folks. The first email went out that Friday, and the response was extremely positive.
As the weeks rolled by, the emails continued every Friday, yet the impact was not what it once was.  In fact, there appeared to be some negative reactions occurring at times.  In one situation, a teacher did not want to appear in the notes, while others faced ridicule for being featured. 
The end of the semester was fast approaching; Freddie sat down to figure out what went wrong.

The Golden Rule

The situation above resulted from a simple oversight, an oversight that occurred very naturally, albeit invisibly, because of unintentional adherence to a rule that many of us have been taught for as long as we have been able to understand the spoken word. 
The Golden Rule.
The golden rule simply states that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated.  And this is what Freddie was doing in his Friday e-mail.  However, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (1999) suggested that great managers break the golden rule every day.  Why?  Because the golden rule, “presupposes that everyone breathes the same psychological oxygen as [us]” (p. 151).  This is a mistake, as even with good intentions, the golden rule, when applied, requires others to make a shift toward what we prefer, rather than the other way around.
In the example above, the leader assumed that everyone would appreciate being praised publicly when, in fact, some did not.  Adding to that a certain level of expected toxicity that most new principals have to contend, it can complicate things as messages are received in a way unintended by the sender.
Darn the luck, Freddie thought.
The problem wasn’t the Friday e-mails, as articulating a weekly message from the desk of a principal has many more upsides than down; the problem rather was how the Friday e-mails were being handled by virtue of what was included.  The e-mails were launched from the principal’s paradigm, yet were received by some completely different.
The result was not motivation and boost in morale that Freddie sought; rather instead, pocketed resentment and a move away from building-wide collaboration. The answer, according to Buckingham and Coffman (1999), lies in unearthing our employees likes and dislikes – their preferences, needs, and expectations for communication. 
We might ask how they like to be praised. We might ask about their goals for their current positions.  We certainly could ask how often would they like to have conversations about their progress (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999), and if so, privately or publicly. 
All this information can be used to develop a profile for each employee, a profile that will allow for a move to personalized leadership.
Might this turn our golden rule into something more platinum? 
At minimum, it would be more personalized.

Personalized Leadership

We can think about personalized leadership like our own, online Nike store.  In the online Nike store, one can literally design a shoe from the ground up -- from tongue color, to swoosh color, to specific initials, we can make the shoe our own.
No limitations!
Personalized leadership takes this online store to the classroom door. 
As school principals, we have the opportunity to serve as the research and development, marketing, design, and sales team all wrapped into one.  Our intended demographic is very diverse and ever changing.  This provides us opportunity to connect others where they are.
When we look at leadership in a personalized way, we see, that each employee has a personalized filter, his or her own way of interpreting the world, thereby each demanding different things from supervisors” (Buckingham and Coffman, 1999). Our task as building leaders is to identify those demands and use them to motivate, excite, and inspire our employees to be great and reach beyond their levels of comfort, to heightened degrees of current and future success. 
Are we up to it?


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Chase Huotari and Ryan Donlan are continuously looking for creative and meaningful ways of applying the Platinum Rule to school leadership.  If you have any ideas for them that you would like to share, please feel free to contact them at or at 

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