Are YOU Leading by Cliche?

Sunday was a good day for me.  I had a chance to get together with one of my favorite principals of all time—a talented guy that I really believe in.

We spent about 2 hours having one of those make-you-think kind of conversations that bright minds really enjoy.

He ruined everything, though, by claiming that vision statements in schools–something I’m pretty darn passionate about—were completely meaningless.

“Teachers don’t care about vision statements,” he said.  “They’re a waste of time that no one pays any attention to.”

“You mean you don’t have a clear vision describing what your building’s future will look like?” I pushed.

“Sure we do,” he said.  “We’re going to never give up, work together and get better every day.  Those are my non-negotiables.  We tie everything back to those three statements.  They are our vision and everyone knows what they mean.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I love this guy.  He’s one of the shining stars in school leadership and I respect ALMOST everything that he says.  I’d work for him in a minute and he knows that.

And because he’s so talented, I’ll bet he really does use his three non-negotiables differently than most slogan-loving principals.  For him, “never give up, work together and get better every day” are a tangible and easily approachable message that everyone can understand.

As he wrote in a separate email, “My statement of non-negotiables is not a cliche:  It is shorthand for talking about my leadership style, and it underscores all of the decisions that I make.”

The problem, however, is that for many principals, catchy slogans like “Never Give Up, Work Together and Get Better Every Day” ARE cliches.

They don’t represent a clear vision or direction for a faculty.  Instead, they are substitutes for leadership.  Ways to avoid the difficult and complex conversations that come along with spelling out exactly what it is that a school hopes to be—and the consequences of that lack of clarity are almost always disastrous.

You see, teacher efficacy—our belief in our own ability to produce a meaningful change in the lives of our students—isn’t built with warm, fluffy slogans slapped on building walls and attached to the auto-signatures of our leaders.

Instead, efficacy is built when those leaders describe a clear vision for a better future that we can buy into—and then demonstrate over and over again how the tangible steps we take today can lead to an improved tomorrow.

Heck, even Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker—leaders in the movement to restructure schools as professional learning communities—believe that efficacy depends on something more than clever phrases.

Over a decade ago, they wrote:

When educators have a clear sense of purpose, direction and the ideal future state of their school, they are better able to understand their ongoing roles within the school. 

This clarity simplifies the decision making process and empowers all members of the staff to act with greater confidence. 

Rather than constantly checking with their bosses for approval, employees can simply ask, “Is this decision or action in line with the vision?”  and then act on their own. 

(DuFour & Eaker, p. 84)

And DuFour and Eaker aren’t alone in their belief that clarity matters.

In fact, when Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed thousands of people about the characteristics of effective leaders for their newest book, The Truth About Leadership, they found that the only trait that distinguished a leader from a colleague in the minds of most individuals was the ability to paint a convincing vision for what could be—defining a clear and better future. 

Bob Marzano and Rick DuFour—in their newest book, Leaders of Learning (in publication), echo this sentiment, saying:

In order for a shared vision to impact the day-to-day work of people throughout an organization, its members must be able to understand how thier work contributes to a larger purpose.

So effective leaders constantly remind people of the significance of their work and how it is contributing to a collective endeavor.  (Katzenbach & Kahn, 2010).

Now, my buddy is likely to be able to get further with his catchy slogan than most principals simply because even though his building hasn’t got the kind of written descriptions of an “ideal future state” that I—and a bunch of other experts on school leadership—believe are important, HE is taking practical steps towards that better future every day.

For the average principal, however, leadership by cliché is an unmitigated disaster—no matter how inspiring the slogan—because it leaves teachers to wonder just where they are going and how they’re supposed to get there.


If you want to learn more about the role that a clear vision should play in your school, consider reading:

The Vision-less Learning Community

The Importance of a Clear Vision

More on PLC Vision Statements

12 thoughts on “Are YOU Leading by Cliche?

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Geez, Parry: I find your resistance to painting a specific, clear vision of an ideal future for your school completely befuddling.
    That’s probably because most principals I know DO insist that their teachers paint clear vision statements for their students.
    Whether their called essential outcomes, power standards or SWBAT objectives, PLCs are often required to detail these standards in kid friendly terms and then use those objectives constantly in their instruction.
    You asked whether the students in my classroom could tell me what our “vision” was or not.
    The answer is absolutely because my learning team has a set of unit overview sheets that detail the specific learnings that we’re requiring students to master. We tie every lesson back to one of those essential learnings. In my room, we pull the overview sheets out three or four times a week to monitor our progress.
    And if they couldn’t do that, I WOULD be a failure.
    Need proof: In Marzano’s highly respected research on What Works in Schools, he documents a 20% gain in student achievement in classrooms where students have a clear vision of the expected outcomes for daily lessons over classrooms where learning outcomes are unclear.
    His work is supported by Rick Stiggins, who writes: “Students cannot assess their own learning or set goals to work towards without a clear vision of the intended learning.”
    So that all being said, why WOULDN’T a school leader want a specific, clear vision for their school? What do school leaders have to gain by keeping things generic and vague?
    PS: And a quick comment on your assertion that I don’t have credibility in this conversation because I’ve never been a school leader: That’s lazy.
    You see, while I may have no practical experience in ushering an entire faculty towards a shared set of vision statements, I know all too well what the consequences of a lack of a set of shared vision statements are.
    Remember: I’ve been on the receiving end of leadership by cliche for 17 years. That experience has to be worth something, don’t you think?
    I find that principals often have misconceptions about the effectiveness of their leadership strategies simply because they WANT to do well.
    Wanting to do well, though, and actually doing well are two different things—and just because catchy slogans feel like leadership doesn’t mean that they work.

  2. Debra_robinson

    You are both right – unfortunately! We just went through our SACS review – copied Mission/Vision Statements were duly put in all of our boxes and we recieved an email to post or else – oh and please read them in case they asked us about them.
    Too many times the statement is nothing more than busy work to make the dog and pony show of school evaluation click – no different than the dog and pony show of traditional teacher evaluation; or busy work given by a teacher because the book identified a linked standard.
    I wonder how many IWB’s would have been purchased if the schools ran the concept through their posted mission statment first?
    If we don’t use the statement, live the statement, understand how the statment impacts our daily decision making – then it is just words on a wall… necessary for the evaluation – but carrying no meaning –
    Data Walls/Rooms are pretty much the same concept – Ours was put up the day before the evaluation team arrived and taken back down that very afternoon. We take 4 benchmark exams every 18 week semester and look at the data – develop action plans that are required to be turned in – are never looked at – are never discussed – are never part of anything other than the mandatory 20 minute team meeting the week after the exam was administered.
    All the tools are there – but no body is home.

  3. Parry

    A couple thoughts.
    First, your post and comments seem to deal a lot in absolutes. For example, you say “And I would argue, Parry, that in any school where teachers can’t detail their schools mission and vision statements, leadership has failed.” In that case, leadership has “failed” in just about every school in America. I think this statement is similar to me saying something to the effect of, “In any classroom where students cannot detail the essential questions of the course, the teacher has failed.” I think that statement would be absurd. Are students more likely to be successful in a class in which they are aware of essential questions? Maybe. But does that mean that any teacher whose students cannot do that is “failing”? I would suggest that you be a little more cautious in your language. Calling an entire set of school leaders “failures” is a pretty bold statement, especially given the narrow criteria of “developing vision statements” that you have here.
    Second, you blame principals for running away from difficult and complex conversations, and you say that pretty unequivocally: “The fact of the matter is that there are dozens of schools that are struggling with leaders who avoid complex conversations like the plague because those conversations are uncomfortable and difficult to navigate.” Being a principal is a little bit like having your first child—until it happens, you really don’t know what it’s like. Just as administrators see only a small fraction of what actually happens in teachers’ classroom, teachers see only a fraction of the work that administrators do. The truth is, you have no way of knowing what a principal’s day looks like, or what types of conversations a principal is having. Do principals avoid tricky conversations? Absolutely. Teachers avoid them too: giving a kid a bad grade but not calling a parent, avoiding a PLT meeting rather than having a difficult conversation with colleagues, etc. It’s human nature to avoid difficult conversations. I am sure there are plenty of principals who avoid difficult conversations that they maybe could or should be having (myself included), but that doesn’t mean principals aren’t having difficult conversations on a daily basis. The nature of the job is such that you can’t escape them.
    Bill, I have tremendous respect for you, and I agree with much of your underlying premise. Throwing principals under the bus in some absolute way, however, because they don’t meet your impossibly-strict definition of vision statements doesn’t seem like a particularly productive or intellectually honest approach. I understand your belief that the development of clear vision statements is a positive step towards school improvement. Please consider, however, that the lack of these vision statements does not represent a principal’s “failure”, but rather the reality that school’s are incredibly complex and that the responsibilities of a principal are overwhelming and, at times, seemingly impossible. Before calling principals “failures” because they don’t meet your criteria, go apply for a principal job somewhere and spend a couple years giving it a shot. Then give me a call and let me know how developing schoolwide vision statements turned out.
    PS—One last point (I can’t help myself). You use a vision statement from Adlai Stevenson High School as an example, and say “That’s what needs to be in place before a school leader can actually take a faculty in a specific direction.” I think you’re reversing journey and destination. Getting to that type of vision statement means that a principal has already taken a faculty in a specific direction. The fact that they don’t exist in most schools is a testament not to the failure of principals, but to the incredible complexity and difficulty of the journey.
    This has been good stuff, but I’m signing off. I leave it to you to have the final word.

  4. Jessica Piper

    Mission and Vision statements always feel cliche to me…no matter what is at the heart of the message, the fact that a school has one feels off–weird somehow. I don’t like them, and I assume it’s because they seem fake. Can’t we really want to help and educate kids without a twitter-like statement to that effect?
    Thanks for the post, Bill=)

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Lyn wrote:
    As a principal, I will also say it is imperative that our central office
    administrators provide US with a vision of where they want to see our
    district go. There should be goals that encompass all buildings within
    the district, and they should be specific, relevant, actionable, and
    I couldnt agree more, Lyn. School districts actually make me laugh sometimes because while they are pushing teachers towards being more precise in their work—-SMART goals are required by almost every district—-that same level of precision doesnt always seem to come from the people who are running our systems…and thats a failure.
    Think about all those programs and initiatives that you talk about being dropped into your lap. EVERY ONE of them should tie directly back to a specific vision statement—and if districts had specific vision statements, that would be a HECK of a lot easier to do.
    As it currently stands, the ambiguity in exactly what it is that districts are trying to do means that every time a new program catches the eye of a senior leader, a rationale for why it matters can be made.
    Anyway…thanks for stopping by. Im enjoying the chance to think about this with yall.

  6. Lyn Hilt

    Hi, Bill,
    Thanks as always for your insight. I know I have work to do in this area. Doing “what’s best for kids” is great in theory, and I’d like to think I support that vision in much of what I do each day, but I know there is room for improvement. Focusing in on the goals for our school, teachers, and students is vital. Evaluating the progress we’re making towards those goals on a regular basis is key.
    As a principal, I will also say it is imperative that our central office administrators provide US with a vision of where they want to see our district go. There should be goals that encompass all buildings within the district, and they should be specific, relevant, actionable, and supported. Some days, as new initiatives are piled on our laps, my principal colleagues and I feel overwhelmed trying to figure out, Okay, how does this now fit with what we were doing before? I know this is similar to how teachers feel. It’s unfair for principals to demand action on goals that aren’t specific to the needs of the students and teachers. It’s unfair for central office to demand that principals jump through hoops with new initiatives that don’t directly impact student learning/district goals.
    That sounds like I’m passing the buck a bit… not my intention… but it’s true that the topmost layer of leadership has to craft this vision based on their knowledge of the needs of the district.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Parry wrote:
    At the start of that class, I always ask the students to write down
    their schools’ mission or vision statements—needless to say, almost none
    of them can do it.
    But then I ask them, “Do you believe your principal has a vision for
    your school, and could you articulate that?”
    And I would argue, Parry, that in any school where teachers cant detail their schools mission and vision statements, leadership has failed.
    After all, good mission and vision statements should be developed collaboratively. They should be something that everyone believes in. They should be a part of every conversation on every event and at the center of every decision. They should provide direction for action. Each teacher and team should be able to tell you precisely which vision statements theyve already mastered, which vision statements theyre currently working on and which vision statements they need help with.
    If theyre not, then leaders are using them incorrectly—-and that would explain why no one can remember them.
    Please dont blame a lack of awareness of vision statements on the statements themselves. Instead, blame it on a failure to develop those statements in a way that IS meaningful to the teachers of a building and on a failure to keep those statements at the center of every conversation.
    Heres a question for you: How specific are the understanding of the visions of the leaders (geesh–thats three steps removed, isnt it?) that your students DO articulate?
    My guess is that theyre pretty vague compared to the kinds of vision statements that are truly meaningful. Check out the vision statement developed by Adlai Stevensons Social Studies Department:
    Thats what needs to be in place before a school leader can actually take a faculty in a specific direction.
    Finally, you wrote:
    I can
    assure you that, for any principal, difficult and complex conversations
    are a daily part of the job, catchy slogans or not.
    Thats just not true. Period. And Ill bet you know it.
    While you might be unafraid of tackling complex conversations on a daily basis, you are not the norm. The fact of the matter is that there are dozens of schools that are struggling with leaders who avoid complex conversations like the plague because those conversations are uncomfortable and difficult to navigate. There are also dozens of underprepared principals struggling to do the best that they can with the skills that they have who turn to catchy slogans as a tool for leadership because they feel like encouraging—cheerleading—is leadership.
    To deny that is to overlook a truth that holds many of our schools back.
    My argument is simple: Creating a specific set of very clear statements about what a school should be if it were meeting its mission can help the average (or struggling) principal to provide real leadership, clarity and direction to their faculties. Very few can get away with leadership by cliche—-and if theyre willing to be more specific and precise in their language, they dont have to.
    Any of this make sense?

  8. Parry

    I teach a graduate course on school improvement every year to aspiring administrators, and one of our classes focuses on mission, vision, and value statements. At the start of that class, I always ask the students to write down their schools’ mission or vision statements—needless to say, almost none of them can do it.
    But then I ask them, “Do you believe your principal has a vision for your school, and could you articulate that?” Many of the students who didn’t know their schools’ vision statements can nevertheless clearly articulate their principals’ visions for their schools.
    I entirely agree that vision statements or slogans can be cliché, but I think it is a mistake to assume that because a principal has a catchy slogan that his or her leadership style can be accurately captured in similarly simplistic terms. Having a vision and having vision statements are not synonymous—you can easily have one without the other.
    Attempting to develop a clear vision or direction in collaboration with dozens of highly opinionated educators who teach different subjects, have different backgrounds, and oftentimes bring to the table different philosophies of education is incredibly complex and demanding work. I entirely agree that developing that clear vision and direction is one of the most important responsibilities of a principal, but I worry that you may be simplifying and trivializing the complexity and difficulty of organizational leadership when you suggest that slogans are ways to avoid difficult and complex conversations. I can assure you that, for any principal, difficult and complex conversations are a daily part of the job, catchy slogans or not.

  9. 8Amber8

    Love. this.
    I think its even more important as an admin to recognize BOTH sides of that coin. I think if the teaches had no buy in,. no vested interest in a “mission statement” or slogan, then they truly couldn’t care less. It’s not tied into their classrooms, their goal, or how they are evaluated.
    In order to have a great mission statement, it has to be integrated into one’s mindset. I know I respect my principal mainly because he is SO authentic. He doesn’t stress our staff over test scores or present himself as anything other than someone who wants what’s best for kids. We want them to come to school, ENJOY themselves, which will inherently make them want to learn. It’s how I want to lead.

  10. Chris Wejr

    Great point Bill! Our school has to create a growth plan every year and submit it to the district. So many growth plans that I see are generic (I guess, similar to cliche) in that they state they are going to improve in Literacy, Numeracy, and Social Responsibility. My previous principal and I worked with our group to say that “those 3 goals are obvious goals for EVERY school – so what is it that we want to do for OUR school?”. That is when we decided to focus on honouring and recognizing the strengths of each child in our school. You would think this should be in every school but as we know, there are many schools that tend to honour the top students only. We still continue to work to improve in the aforementioned areas but adding this vision (and lens) has made our growth plan meaningful and relevant to us. We talk about personalizing learning for the students; schools also need to “personalize” their vision so it is meaningful to those who are working together along that journey.
    Great post and thanks for getting me thinking as we complete this year’s plan!

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Michael,
    Thanks a ton for stopping by—I hope that something you find here will push your thinking AND that youll take the time to push back against my thinking during the time youre watching my blog.
    More importantly, thanks for sharing your story about cliche-driven leadership in the real world. I was pretty sure that education wasnt the only field where slogans replaced serious action, but Ive spent the majority of my career in schools, so I wasnt sure.
    Its frighteningly nice to know this is a leadership problem that stretches beyond our buildings!

  12. Michael Oakwood

    Mr. Ferriter, I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class. I was assigned to your blog this week. Reading your post got me to thinking about all the slogans that are used today. Schools, corporations, churches, everyone it seems has a catchy slogan. Their slogan is supposed to let the “user, consumer” know what they are about or what their goals are. After spending over 20 years in the retail industry, I know these slogans mean nothing. They just look good. Our company slogan changed every few years and none of us knew how we were going to even get there. As a future teacher, slogans will not have much, if any, impact on my classroom. My goals for me and my students, will be obtained my me teaching abilities and the support of my administration. Let’s leave the catchy slogans on the letter head and the street signs.

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