Is your principal a psychopath?

Is your principal a psychopath?

Best-selling author, David Gillespie, argues in his latest book, Taming Toxic People: the science of identifying psychopaths at work and at home, that one out of five senior executives are corporate psychopaths. 

Symptoms of this ‘psychopathy’ are lack of empathy, micromanaging, glibness, superficial charm, lack of guilt and remorse, narcissism, propensity to obfuscate, grandiosity and a superiority complex.  

The fact is that many school principals I have encountered exhibit all these tell-tale signs and more. 

It resonates with my abandoned PhD thesis thirty years ago that argued that Machiavelli’s Prince should be required reading for all prospective principals, and that school leadership was not about wisdom, scholarship, enlightened educational philosophy and praxis, but understanding power, manipulation and control.

Gillespie claims that these psychopathic principals are ‘Teflon-coated’ and massage their school boards by telling them what they want to hear, whilst ignoring their staff, treating them as expendable and livestock. 

The more successful psychopaths, like Machiavelli’s Prince, talk the talk and may even convince their Boards, staff, parents and students that they are simply one amongst many, exercising a collaborative democratic leadership style, humble ‘servants’ unafraid to get their hands dirty at working bees and water-dunked at school fetes. 

These silver-tongued charmers are more dangerous than the clumsy autocrats of yester-year who treated their staff like glorified students. One past pupil of mine became a teacher and her psychopathic principal insisted that she curtsy whenever she approached him.  

I have lost count of the principals whose insatiable egos invariably claim the credit for programs which were designed and implemented by their subordinates.  

The reasons for psychopathic principals and their dysfunctional schools are many. Although some schools limp along, they will hardly be great schools if staff morale is low and teachers do not feel valued or empowered. Some schools are great in spite of the principal. 

However, schools can be ruined by psychopathic principals who fail to realize that the most efficacious strategy they should employ is to delegate and empower their staff to actually own the school and its mission statement. 

Unfortunately, too few principals are qualified. 

The faulty assumption is that because I am a good teacher I will make a good principal.  A recent trend to appoint principals with MBAs might help them manage big budgets and run the school in the black but it will not make them effective and dynamic principals. 

Aspirants to principal positions will usually be ambitious with well-developed egos. These positions will tend to attract psychopathic personalities. Their subsequent successful appointment then endows them with an aura of superiority, infallibility and entitlement. Smart staff will realize the best way to succeed and be promoted is to feed the supercilious psychopath with lavish praise and constant sycophantic ego-stroking. 

The psychopathic principal will surround himself with these yes-men toadies promoting them to senior positions of responsibility. Woe be anyone on the staff who challenges the autocracy of the psychopathic principal. Just be seen and not heard or risk being very much on the outer, or even worse, bullied out of the school. 

Like Donald Trump, the psychopathic principal is a very dangerous customer, especially if he can disguise his ruthless obsession, with charming and convincing rhetoric.  

Aided and abetted by their marketing arm, their gushing photo-shopped image will appear on web sites and advertising brochures with a photogenic, hand-picked student group, including at least one Asian and one indigenous student, in the interests of enlightened inclusivity. The Prince would be thoroughly impressed.

Ultimately, the only safeguard to root out the psychopathic principal is his employers, the School Board. Board members, some of whom may also be fellow psychopaths, must be willing to admit they erred in appointing the psychopathic principal. 

They must keep an open mind and be willing to be more involved in the school than attending an occasional Council meeting with wine and cheese afterwards. The psychopathic principal will cunningly insist that Council or Board members keep their distance and not involve themselves in the day to day operation of the school.  

I have seen schools where Board members have absolutely no contact with staff and everything they know about the school is through the principal’s rose-colored report. In times when staff are subjected to more intrusive critical appraisal it is incongruous that principals are not also regularly appraised by their staff. 

That way, the number of psychopathic principals at large will be culled. 

If you are fortunate to have a quality non-psychopathic principal, let them know because, chances are, they will not crave adulation and will be rarely acknowledged for their effective leadership. 

Meanwhile, psychopathic principals reading this article will indignantly dismiss it as fake news!

Greg Cudmore is a retired educator with more than 45 years of experience teaching in Victorian and Queensland schools.