Inside a Principal’s Playbook: Leadership Lessons from Alabama Football

By Andy Petroline Communicator November 2013, Volume 37, Issue 3 At first glance, the idea of relating college football to leading a school may seem far-fetched. But a closer analysis of the two yields some surprising insights.

By Andy Petroline
November 2013, Volume 37, Issue 3

At first glance, the idea of relating college football to leading a school may seem far-fetched. But a closer analysis of the two yields some surprising insights.

I am not a graduate of the University of Alabama (UA), nor do I have any ties to the football program. However, I am an admirer of the football team’s success and the leadership principles of its current head coach, Nick Saban. UA has won three of the last four national championships, and will gun for their third in a row in 2013—a feat rarely accomplished in modern college football. Coach Saban has taken UA to new heights with what affectionately is known as The Process.

In a nutshell, The Process is the blueprint for defining the program’s vision and the team’s goals. More importantly, it also serves as a working set of procedures and practices that are maintained with rigid discipline each day, with the ultimate goal of winning football games. The Process touches all areas of the football program, including recruiting, practice planning, weight training, nutrition, mental training, off-season conditioning, staff hiring, game-day procedures, public relations, fundraising, and academic support.

Each area is held accountable to set standards so everyone knows the direction and focus of daily efforts. “The process is really what you have to do, day in and day out, to be successful,” said Saban in a press conference last January. “We try to define the standard that we want everyone to work toward, adhere to, and do on a consistent basis.”

The football players at UA are drilled daily on The Process and what it takes to become a better player. Coach Saban and his staff go to great lengths to help players focus on what is important each day to get better. Players are taught to focus on the next play, the next rep in the weight room, or the next exam they have in class. Larger goals, such as national championships or winning games, are subordinate to the procedures for achieving those smaller, daily goals.

Lessons for School Leaders

Much has been written about the traits of effective schools and their leaders. Numerous characteristics and criteria for high achieving schools have been espoused, including teacher development, culture-building, a rigorous curriculum, community involvement, data collection, team building, great leadership and effective teaching practices, to name a few.

I maintain that while all of these characteristics are necessary, each one needs a process or system to make it a reality and a high-functioning change agent. In the end, leading schools is about building a set of operating standards or protocols and holding everyone accountable to these processes each and every day.

Certainly, many other good football teams have processes in place, and ultimately winning football games is different from preparing our students for the future. But the secret to becoming excellent—both on the field and inside school buildings—is in the daily execution and ongoing analysis of these operating processes. This is where UA and Saban shine, and where you, too, can make a huge difference in your school. In other words: plan, assess, and re-make.

As you consider leading your school or district and making it the best it can be, remember that achieving excellence is about a series of smaller processes (adhered to daily) that collectively, over time, make a huge difference. Scrutinizing every area of a school or district and implementing world-class processes can greatly assist school leaders in moving schools to higher achievement and, ultimately, greater student success.

I challenge school leaders to examine every area of their schools and identify the processes that are in place. Ask:

  • Does the right process or procedure exist?
  • Is the process effective? How do you know?
  • Do staff members know the outcome of the procedure?
  • Does everyone know the “why” of the process?
  • How and when is the process evaluated?
  • Does everyone know how they fit into the process and what to do?
  • Are staff members held accountable to the process?
  • What is the process to fix an ineffective process?

At my school, we have used these critical questions to drive improvement in many areas, including bussing, the lunchroom, and overnight field trips. For example, our lunch/recess program traditionally had many discipline referrals. We talked with our paid supervisors, teachers, and students to assess how they viewed overall management and experience. What we found was that the program had little connection to overall school rules and expectations. Additionally, the day-to-day roles and expectations of the lunch and recess staff were not clearly defined.

As a result, we changed many processes, such as supervisor training and mentoring, behavioral reinforcement, lunchroom layout, and outdoor supervision zones, and we crafted a more streamlined referral process. We also made sure that everyone involved knew the expectations and were held accountable each day. The results have been impressive: Referrals are down nearly 40 percent, and supervisors feel more confident and excited about their jobs.

Ultimately, being a principal or school administrator can, at times, be overwhelming. But viewing your school or district through the lens of processes and procedures can dramatically turn a poor school around or make a good school great. Efficient procedures can also dramatically free up valuable time so a school leader can focus on more strategic or big-picture ideas.

Andy Petroline is assistant principal at Washington Elementary School, Park Ridge, Illinois.

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