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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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What's worth fighting for in the principalship?

Michael Fullan

The following article is an edited excerpt from the preface of What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship?, 2nd edition, by Michael Fullan.


Thirty years ago, an official from one of the teacher unions in Ontario came to me and said, ‘We would like you to write a book that will help our principals’ (at the time, principals were members of the union). He said that the principals were complaining that the job was getting worse, demands were greater, it was more and more difficult to get things done, and satisfaction on any given day was hard to come by. He proceeded to say that we will give you the title and three criteria. The title is ‘What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship?’. The criteria are: (1) write something that is deeply insightful, (2) make sure it contains lots of practical-action advice, and (3) above all, be concise. Indeed! For an academic, this was a challenge. If you are lucky you might get any two of these, but this tripartite crucible led to a new style of thinking and writing, which has carried over to this day.

The first edition of What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship? (WWFFP) was published in 1988. Andy Hargreaves joined me to co-write What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School? (WWFFS), published in 1991, and What’s Worth Fighting for Out There? (WWFFOT) in 1998. Now, a decade later, it is time to rewrite the trilogy, starting with WWFFP. Much has changed rapidly over the past decade. The What’s Worth Fighting for trilogy (henceforth: WWFF) is about taking relentless action in the face of an amalgam of intersecting barriers and creating powerful levers for catapulting the system forward. Despite the complexity, and in fact because of the interrelatedness of growing complexity, we believe that a small number of powerful interconnected forces could result in new breakthroughs in the next short while. One’s passions and crafted ingenuity can be especially aroused when fighting for something big that is on the verge of happening – if only it is propelled by the actions we recommend in this trilogy.

These are exciting, difficult and contentious times, and the principal is at dead centre in all of it. In the earlier edition of WWFFP, the argument was made that the system fosters dependency through consistent bombardment of new tasks and continual interruption. I was empathetic (but not sympathetic) to the plight of principals. I argued that there was no point in waiting around for the system to improve, and I urged principals to take charge and to assume that on any given day the system may not know what it is doing.

Great advice still, but the situation has become much more complex. The good news is that, finally, the principalship is being recognised by politicians and policy makers as key to student learning, especially in raising the bar and closing the achievement gap for all students. The bad news is that these policy makers have overloaded the ship with a cross-cutting cacophony of expectations that serve only to hinder deep action. The irony is that, at the same time that the principal has been elevated and viewed as critical to success, the principalship itself is sinking – overloaded and pulled down.

In this book, I seek a way out of the current dilemma. I am interested in helping incumbent and would-be principals leverage action that will change the system positively in small and large ways. I am also concerned about how the system can get it right, acting, so to speak, as if it did know what it is doing. For this transformation to occur, both the principal and the system have a responsibility to unlock the potential of what has become a pivotal but unrealised force for change – the school principal in the 21st century. I say ‘potentially’ because the power of the principal is currently locked in a vice-like grip of frustrated inertia, at the very time when the moral core of society is in jeopardy.

In Chapter 1, I start with the vice-principal, showing how the principalship is being shackled at the same time that the principal is expected to be the lead change agent. I show that the solution is not to free the principals to be autonomous saviours of the day. Interdependence is the core concept. The essential themes of the interdependent solutions are contained in chapters 2 through 5. Principals need to lead every day in making short-term headway as ‘leading legacies’ of the next generation of leaders (Chapter 2). In this overloaded information age they need to ‘lead knowledgeably’ (Chapter 3). They need to spawn, harness and ‘lead learning communities’ within and beyond the school – with parents, community agencies and educators alike (Chapter 4). In an exciting way, principals are in a position to help ‘lead system change’ (Chapter 5). The action implications are distilled in a set of guidelines in Chapter 6.

WWFFP has always had a bias for action. What is significant about this edition is that everything I talk about is based on named, actual examples. There is nothing remote, abstract or inaccessible about the ideas. They are all grounded in action. I believe we are now in a position to engage together in insightful action. Learning by doing is as much about the mind and the heart as it is about the action itself. But you have to be in the midst of the battle to stir mindful emotions in effective directions. None are better positioned than principals to surround themselves with a million change agents. Only that will get the job done, which is to establish conditions, cultures and commitment on a large scale and to engage in continuous improvement, if you will pardon the redundancy – all the time.

What’s Worth Fighting for in the Principalship? 2nd edition

Published in February 2008 by the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), Teachers College Press and the Ontario Principals’ Council . Paperback, 80 pages. Available from the ACEL bookshop. See online order form (pdf).


Subject Headings

School principals
School leadership
Educational planning