The past month has seen a remarkable series of examples of the President picking fights in order to somehow bolster his popularity or perhaps deflect attention from his notable lack of accomplishments. Whether it was ratcheting up war rhetoric with North Korea or denouncing professional sports figures for exercising their Constitutional rights or slamming the Mayor of San Juan for daring to criticize the pace and extent of federal relief efforts to Puerto Rico, Trump has used his "bully pulpit" to pit people against one another and to incite controversy where none should exist.
Weak school leaders often follow the same path. When confronted with problematic logistical issues or poor programme performance, their first response is to deflect, distract, or attack. Deflection is the easiest and quickest way to duck an issue. Faced with a criticism? Blame someone else. Blame your predecessor or another administrator or department head or a specific teacher. Express your disappointment and frustration and side with the "critic". I have often seen school leaders fall into this trap. When in doubt - fire, demote, or discipline someone. Sidestep the fact that you were clearly asleep at the switch. Tom Price spent $1million on chartering planes on Trump's watch - gone! The French programme is struggling - demote the department head!
Distraction works well too. An initiative is floundering, ignore it and start a new one! I worked with a Superintendent who was a master at this. She continuously brought in new programmes with great fanfare. The Principals were called in, PD dollars flowed, and great promises made. After the first blush, momentum would dissipate and things would eventually stall. Rather than address the challenges, they were ignored and a whole new initiative would be announced instead. The first plan died a quiet death, the new one went through the same pattern, and so on.
The third, and most damaging response to criticism is to attack. Fake News! Shoot the messenger and claim that their concerns are really misinformation and a deliberate attempt to discredit the leader. Honest observations are disregarded and characterized as rumour/innuendo or sour grapes or just general negativity. There is no self-reflection or admission that perhaps there is some truth to the charge.
This morning, Donald Trump responded to pleas for help from Puerto Rico by saying:
"The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump, ... Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
Thankfully, no school leader that I have worked with over the years has ever been quite as bad as this, but some have come dangerously close!