Managing up

Q: I’ve been a high school assistant principal for two years. I’ll be completely honest; I think I could do a better job running the school than Natalie, my principal, and I want her job. She’s indecisive, too soft, and low-energy. She delegates to the point that I feel like I’m doing her job anyway. I was recently passed over for a principal position at a middle school, and I suspect I’m stuck in my A.P. role for at least another year. I need some guidance on how I can be less irritated with Natalie, hide my impatience, and stay somewhat happy while I wait for a promotion.

A: I hear a lot of comments about your principal’s weaknesses, but I don’t have a clear sense of your strengths and vulnerabilities. We all have a healthy mix of both, and you need to be aware of your growth edges if you want to be content now and successful in the future. The best leaders I’ve worked with are humble, view themselves as lifelong learners and are open to feedback. We all can learn from everyone we encounter in the workplace. If nothing else, we can learn from each other’s mistakes. You can use this waiting time to improve yourself.

It sounds like you and your principal may be able to learn from each other. Start with an unflinching self-assessment. You say you have difficulty hiding your impatience and irritation. That’s something you can work on now, before you’re in charge of an entire staff. As principal, you’ll frequently have to deal with annoying people, and your patience will be tested.  Now’s the perfect time to work on staying cool under pressure. The future payoff will be stronger conflict resolution skills and less personal stress. So try out different strategies when you feel provoked. Do whatever works, whether it’s taking a walk around the block, using a breathing app such as Calm, calling a friend, or watching silly videos on YouTube.

I’m also going to appeal to your ambition, and urge you to approach this strategically. I suspect that your boss is aware that you’re gunning for her job. Your transparency isn’t good for your long-term goals. You need to be able to hide your contempt, respect the chain of command, and express a genuine desire to stretch your skills. To do this, it might help to view some of Natalie’s deficits as strengths in disguise. Her soft approach might make you cringe, but free others to innovate and take risks. Her indecisiveness might drive you nuts but lead to well-considered, positive outcomes. Even her tendency to delegate can be reframed as a positive. Instead of fixating on how she shirks responsibility, use the extra assigned tasks to round out your knowledge.

The last part of your question is about staying happy while you wait for a promotion. You have control over your own behavior and attitude. Practice self-care, have an active life outside of school, and maintain balance and perspective. You can spend this time obsessed with how the A.P. role is beneath you, or you can take advantage of the opportunity to change teachers’ and students’ lives. If you act like a curious anthropologist and study interpersonal dynamics, you might be surprised by how much wisdom you absorb. Use the upcoming school year to learn something from every community member, whether it’s a custodian, student, parent or security officer. Someday you’ll be a better principal for it.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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