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Thursday / August 17

5 Tips for Making Better Decisions

5 Tips for Making Better Decisions

The Brain Behind the Operation

John Huston’s classic drama, Key Largo, is pure escapism for the school leader, but at the same time, the film serves as a celluloid vehicle for transporting a principal to better understanding the essence of effective decision-making. In the film, gangster Johnny Rocco takes the inhabitants of a Florida coastal hotel hostage just as a hurricane sweeps across the usually tranquil coastline. Edward G. Robinson, as the sadistic mobster Johnny Rocco, engages in a less than tranquil battle of wills with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Lionel Barrymore, giving orders, making decisions, and even spouting in one key scene: “I’m the brain behind the operation!”

While effective school principals are nothing like the gangsters of Key Largo, as leaders, they are obligated to make essential decisions that require appropriate and effective decision-making processes. Consider the following example:

Have you, as a school leader, ever found yourself thinking, “I take my choices seriously, but I frequently wonder if I’m making the right decisions. I think about how I made a poor personnel decision, how I funded a travel request that was unrelated to current campus planning goals, or how I sanctioned the delegation of a curriculum integration decision to an assistant whose organizational strength was physical plant focused. Then I ruminate: What was I thinking in each of these decision-making situations?”

Regrettably, ill-advised decision making happens. However, school leaders can learn how to make better deductive choices.

Making Good Decisions

What follows are five methods which can be applied by school leaders who wish to make better decisions.

1. Exploit your positive emotions. When principals positively tap into their emotions, the result is a decision-making process based on feelings of consideration, concern, empathy, and respect. When principals fail to positively exploit their emotions, the result is a tendency to make decisions under pressure leading to angry outbursts based on obsession, fixation, or impulsivity. Such decision-making creates only more problems!

Positive emotions should drive decision-making and problem-solving skills. For example, principals who rely on logic alone, all too often find they engage in many more foolish decisions. Positive emotion assists leaders in focusing the mind, setting priorities, thinking with reason, and making decisions that are appropriate and rational.

2. Be cautious of pressured decision-making. Principals who think and act under pressure are more likely to make poor decisions than those leaders who are deliberate in analyzing the details of the subject, issue, or problem. While pressure tactics have long served as the weapon of choice to regulate—if not manipulate—individuals, principals all too often sense they must endure and frequently comply with such pressure tactics and decision-making responses as their career path, if not their livelihood, depends on acquiescence. Effective decision-making is negatively affected by pressure and pressure tactics. The result of being pressured to make a quick decision is the roadway straight to poor decision-making.

3. Listen to other perspectives. Principals must be receptive to listening to others. Listening to other perspectives is a form of essential, if not critical, communication and decision-making. Principals who are keen listeners are active listeners. Active listening is akin to understanding and being receptive to points of view other than those personally held. Active listeners are cautious about passing judgment and are receptive to proper guidance relative to learning and follow educational code and policy. Principals who earnestly seek to become active listeners and better decision makers must be open to all viewpoints prior to making a decision. Recall the adage: “All of us are smarter than any one of us!”

4. Challenge your decision-making skills. So, how does one go about challenging decision-making skills? Here’s an example:

Principals must be skeptical of their memory. Our memories are frequently dishonest in their recollection capacities. To overcome mind-slips or mental lapses, principals must initiate methods of accurate memory retrieval and recall. Such methods include documentation, memory prompts (e-devices, calendars, and second-source recallers, i.e. assistant principal, secretary, or department heads), note-taking, recorded messages to voice mail, or utilization of key terms and symbols.

5. Reflect on decision-making. This process is the willingness of a leader to engage in introspection and information processing. This is one of the best predictors of effective decision-making. When principals take the time to carefully examine their thoughts, consider the viewpoints of others, contemplate all emotional leads they are more likely to make deliberate, cautious, and well-informed decisions.

Effective decision-making can aid school principals in guiding personnel, understanding policy issues, handling disciplinary problems, managing instructional concerns and curricular innovations, establishing campus norms and expectations, utilizing socialization skills, developing better techniques for dealing with difficult parents, and overcoming the day-to-day challenges.

Now’s the time to not only be smart, but act smart. Pursue your personal best in the principal leadership role by being an effective decision-maker. You are, in fact, “the brain behind the operation!”

Apply Effective Decision Making to This Example:

A new principal developed, in collaboration with the site-based decision-making team, a school budget for the upcoming school year. Site-based collaboration was an important initiative in the school district. The budget included funds for retaining three special education aides who had been assisting with an inclusion program. When the budget was submitted for approval, the associate superintendent for instruction decided to cut the aide positions without principal and site-based team approval. The associate superintendent decided to enhance the district technology program by transferring the special education personnel salary funds to an account for purchasing e-tablets for district gifted and talented students. This particular issue, for the new principal, involves more than a challenging problem to solve. The new principal must decide whether to acquiesce or not acquiesce to the pressure from the associate superintendent. What’s the new principal to do in this scenario when applying effective decision-making?

  1. How does this scenario relate to the five methods to becoming a better decision maker?
  2. Should this new principal acquiesce to the associate superintendent’s dictate? Why or why not?
  3. Are other issues involved in this scenario that could help or hinder the principal in the decision-making process?
  4. Which of the five methods might aid the new principal in making the right decision?
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Written by

Richard D. Sorenson, Professor Emeritus, is the former department chairperson of the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He also served as the director of the Principal Preparation Program. He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi in educational leadership. Dr. Sorenson served public schools for 25 years as a social studies teacher, principal, and associate superintendent for human resources.

Dr. Sorenson continues to work with graduate students at UTEP teaching school-based budgeting and school personnel. He was named The University of Texas at El Paso College of Education Professor of the Year (2005), and he remains an active writer with numerous professional journal publications. Dr. Sorenson has authored textbooks, teacher resource guides, and workbooks related to elementary and secondary social studies curricula. He conducts workshops at the state and national levels, and he has been actively involved in numerous professional organizations, including the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), and the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP), for which he conducted annual new-principal academy workshops the previous 12-years.

Dr. Sorenson continues his research agenda in the area of the school principalship, specifically the examination of conditions and factors that inhibit and discourage lead teachers from entering school administration. He makes time each day to exercise, walking 4 to 10 miles, depending on how industrious he feels!

Dr. Sorenson has been married to his wife, Donna, the love of his life, for the past 40 years, and they have two adult children, Lisa (a second-grade teacher with Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston, Texas) and Ryan (an Exercise Physiologist in El Paso, Texas), a wonderful son-in-law, Sam (a petroleum engineer in Houston, Texas), and two grandchildren, Savannah Grace and Nehemiah Timothy – all of whom are the pride and joy of his life. Rick and Donna reside in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border, with their home facing the majestic Franklin Mountains. Of course, the Sorenson family remains a lover of Pugs, most notably one Little Bit (wanna go?), and Olive (wanna snack?) too.

Richard is the author or co-author of four Corwin books: The Principal’s Guide to Time Management, The Principal’s Guide to School Budgeting, The Principal’s Guide to Curriculum Leadership, and The Principal’s Guide to Managing School Personnel.

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