Choose Collaboration, Compliance, or Contrarian

As you choose, ‘Beware of the Consequences.’

As leaders, we are constantly managing people. those who report to us, those who you report to and those who are your peers. You probably are also trying to manage yourself. Dee Hock, a developer of VISA, wrote an article in the 80s that appeared in Fast Company magazine. He said leaders spend 30% of their time managing those who report to them, 15% managing peers, 15% managing up to those who you report, and 40% of your time managing yourself. This was written for business leaders. However, I never thought of managing up until I read this article

I started to be more aware of those who were my direct supervisors. In one school, the superintendent loved athletics, specifically football. When I would come into the office and say, ‘I have some research I would like to share with you,’ the superintendent would roll his eyes and look for a distraction. I learned to say, ‘Think of yourself as the quarterback and the principals are your linemen.’ Now I have his attention. (yes this is old school, 25+ years ago).

Later in my career, in another district, I work for an area superintendent who was more of a micromanager. I found a strategy from Dobson and Singer’s (2000) book called the ‘5-15’ report. I have suggested this to many principals that I have coached. It is a review of the week and some heads up for the future written for your supervisor. It should take 15 minutes to write and 5 minutes for the supervisor to read. (yes, 5 minutes for your boss to read)

My 5-15s were in bullet form and contained major events of the week past, concerns coming up with recommendations, and future events coming up in the weeks ahead. What I noticed, and several other principals who used this strategy noticed is there were fewer questions coming from supervisors on a daily basis. They were informed and felt in the loop with the fast pace of school.

The following are some of the over thirty strategies from the book titled Managing Up by Dobson and Singer.

1. Do Good Work
2. Observe Your Boss’s Style
3. Give Advance Warning about Problems
4. Keep Your Word
5. Constraints: “You can have it good; you can have it fast, or you can have it cheap. Pick, two.”
6. Be a Goodmouther
7. Fixed Pie – create options
8. Prepare for Meetings
9. Give Praise
10. FEAR- Beware of False Evidence Appearing Real
11. Listen
12. Politics – not whether or not you have it, how do you play it?
13. 5-15 report write 15 read in 5
“You don’t have to like or admire your boss, nor do you have to hate him/her. You do have to manage him/her, however, so that s/he becomes your resource for achievement, accomplishment, and personal success.” Peter Drucker

The strategies above are for collaboration which is better for working relationships and the organization as a whole.

Compliance only, to a self-starter, can feel like being managed with not much input. Do as I say or there will be consequences. Compliance only can be disheartening and feel like your knowledge, skills, and talents are not being valued. Systems that are only compliance-based can be difficult to work in for long periods of time. Usually, there is a lack of motivation, creativity, and energy.

“No organization can survive without actually doing what it says it is going to do and holding people accountable.” Hammond & Mayfield (2004). P.43

I have also seen contrarian leaders that can be hard to manage for supervisors. They are usually intelligent, take risks, and sometimes bristle at compliance. These leaders can also be very creative and be willing to do what it takes to help the school respond to kids, colleagues, and community. I have noticed three levels of contrarian.

The first level is ‘benign neglect.’ Policies, demands, and strong suggestions are handed down from the supervisor. The contrarian basically ignores many of these unless they fit the leadership style and fits with the direction the school is going anyway.

The second level is ‘creative sabotage.’ The contrarians bristle at the suggestions and create ways around the demands. They do this because they think it is right for the students, staff, and school. They may be right and they may be wrong. An example was a principal who was being micromanaged for hazing issues created a dress code problem in another high school. No, that wasn’t nice. It did get the supervisor focused on the other school for a while.

The third level and most drastic is ‘malicious obedience.’ This means the contrarian does exactly what the demand is, adhering to every detail. Most of us know that human systems do not operate well in total command and control environments. There is always an outlier situation. Think about it, how does a union stop progress? Work the rule! Yes, we need contracts. Contracts can’t be written to make procedures for everything that comes up.

WARNING: Performing the three steps to being a Contrarian can be hazardous to your health. It is called a CLM. Career Limiting Moves can cost you your position. Choose Wisely

An example from my experience is with the policy that allowed for two personal days. Most districts have something like this. Then, a very good and well-respected teacher comes in to ask for more time off. The spouse has won a week-long trip to a foreign country and can take the spouse, all expenses paid. What do you do? (we arranged a way to take three extra days)

So, the contrarian way can be a real problem for supervisors. Talk to them, find out what their plans are, and what are the results are they getting. They may be a Positive Deviant. Reacting only with power at the outset probably won’t work. At the same time, everyone can’t go their separate ways either.


Dobson, M. & Singer, D. (2000). Managing up! New York: AMA Publications.

Hammond, S. & Mayfield, A. (2004), Naming elephants – how to surface undiscussables for greater organizational success. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing Co.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!