Solution Saturday: Help! My Leader is a Morale Buster!

Dear Dan,

We have a new principal who is a morale buster to say the least, but teachers have also described her as “bully”, sneaky, liar, plays favorites, doesn’t listen, doesn’t care, condescending, rude, etc…

Unfortunately, the titles fit her actions and despite numerous seasoned teachers and even her own VP speaking up, she refuses to acknowledge there is a problem with communication, organization and especially morale. Teachers are miserable.

In a matter of 2 weeks on 5 occasions staff brought up major morale issues. At one point we even brought up that teacher morale directly affects student learning. (Edited)

Later that week, a seasoned teacher went in to address morale again and the principal said, “Morale is not my problem. Morale is an individual issue and teachers are responsible for their own morale.”

The teacher was crushed. She wanted to say, “YOU are responsible for the current morale issues. We can all cite your attitude, your lack of communication, your actions that directly impact teachers and have sent the already fragile morale, into an all out nose dive. 17 of 26 are planning not to return.

So here is my question/issue. Am I absolutely crazy to think that leadership has a responsibility to support and drive positive morale? In all of my years in city government leadership I would have never thought to put blame of morale on my staff.

If morale is low, there has to be self reflection, leadership must consider their role in the issues, leadership or lack thereof, has a responsibility to drive morale for the sake of an organization.

Discouraged by Low Morale

Dear Low,

Your email is heartbreaking. You bring up the uncomfortable truth that leadership-influence cuts both ways, for better or worse.

Culture and morale-building begin with leadership. It’s nearly impossible to effect significant change, in hierarchical organizations, without buy-in from top leaders. However, I have a few suggestions.

#1. Get out if you can.

Move to a school that better suits your hopes and expectations.

If you plan to stay…

#2. Be the leader you wish you had.

It feels like the teachers are dancing around an opportunity. You wrote, “She wanted to say, “YOU are responsible for the current morale issues.” What is preventing your team from taking charge of morale-building?

Yes, I wrote that it’s nearly impossible to change culture without top leadership’s buy-in. But it’s not impossible.

Make a list of everything you wish your Principal would do to build morale and do it. It won’t be easy. Leadership isn’t easy.

You can’t change everything. You can change something.

  1. Gather a small group of influential teachers.
  2. Describe what you want. What are people doing in a high-morale culture?
  3. Take action to build morale where you are. It’s challenging, but you can create pockets of energy inside a dark organization.

A leadership gap is your opportunity to make a difference.

#3. Channel frustration.

Anger is energy. The problem with anger is it’s usually focused on things you don’t want. You can’t build a positive culture by focusing on things you don’t want.

What positive behaviors and outcomes does frustration suggest. It’s not enough to determine what must stop. What must start?

#4. Adopt the 3X rule.

Watch your words. Your words reflect your future. You can talk about the darkness all you want as long as you talk about the light three times more.

You don’t mean to, but the way you’re talking propagates low morale. I’m not suggesting that you employ fake happy talk. I’m suggesting that you talk about what you want and ways to achieve it without your Principal’s involvement.

Words are rudders. If all you talk about is what’s wrong, you make things darker.

The only reason to open your mouth is to make something better.

Talk about:

  1. Behaviors within your control.
  2. Small successes. Establish weekly celebrations that honor morale building successes.
  3. Purpose. Turn your focus to the students you love and serve. Why are you teaching in the first place?

#5. Embrace your personal power.

I’m not suggesting that you try to bully your Principal into submission. Don’t let one person ruin your work experience.

Forget about the Principal for a minute. You’ve let yourself get sucked into a black hole. Pat each other on the back. Give high-fives while walking down the hall.

Take charge of your immediate circle of influence.


  1. Let go of fairness. It’s not fair that you have to deal with a lousy leader. The truth is, many people do. The need for fairness destroys our power.
  2. Work with leaders who get it. Stop focusing on the one leader who holds you back.
  3. Practice kind candor. Continue to speak the truth as you see it.
  4. Take positive actions without asking permission. Ask for forgiveness after, if necessary.
  5. Do things you can brag about in the newspaper.

I imagine a school where teachers are constantly leading micro-celebrations of each other, staff, and students. Your Principal can’t stop that.

I imagine a group of teachers who decide to build the culture they aspire to enjoy.

How might teams build morale, even when the leader doesn’t?

*I relax the 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.