Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on June 20, 2017
What is an important trait of effective leaders? It’s the ability to use good critical judgment in the decisions they make.
A June 15 Washington Post article describes how Principal Craig Harris of Southwest Edgecombe High School in Pinetops, North Carolina, told senior class president Marvin Wright on the day of commencement that he couldn’t read the speech that he had written, providing no explanation. Instead, Wright was to read a speech prepared by school administrators.
Wright told the Washington Post, “I felt robbed of a chance to say my own words.” He had a decision to make. He could follow the directions of his principal or read the speech that he had written. Wright decided to do the latter and read his own speech.
Wright felt that he was using his good critical judgment. His speech had been reviewed and approved by his English teacher. There were no negative consequences to the school for reading his own speech. He felt he had to share his own thoughts with his fellow graduates rather than stand at the podium and read words that were not his.
In retaliation for not following directions, Harris withheld Wright’s diploma after the commencement ceremony.
When Wright’s mother asked for an explanation of why her son’s diploma was withheld, Harris said that he missed the deadline for submitting the speech to the school for review. I guess submitting his speech for review and approval by his English teacher didn’t count.
Two days later, Wright was given his diploma. The superintendent of Edgecombe County Schools, John Farrelly, issued the following statement: “I have communicated with the family to apologize on behalf of the school. The diploma never should have been taken from the student.” Farrelly, however, chastised Wright for not following the rules, rules that Wright claims he was not aware of.
Did Principal Harris use good critical judgment when he ordered Wright to read a speech at commencement prepared by the school administrators with no explanation, rather than the speech he had written?
What’s at stake is this: When leaders don’t show flexibility and good critical judgment and make exceptions to rigid rules, they can lose the respect of those they lead.
When Wright read his own speech, did Harris use good critical judgment by withholding his diploma at commencement?
You certainly don’t want leaders in your organization who are vindictive. In this particular case, when Harris withheld Wright’s diploma, it elevated the event to national news. This put Superintendent Farrelly in a position where he had to issue an apology to Wright, a position you never want to place your boss in due to poor judgment on your part.
Did Wright use good critical judgment when he decided to read his own speech rather than the speech handed to him by his principal?
There are those who feel Wright should have followed directions and complied with what he was told to do. Others will feel that Wright made a bold decision and did what he thought was right by reading his own speech.
We all go through our professional lives occasionally facing these types of decisions. If we decide to break the rules or violate policy, even if it is for the benefit of the company, we must be willing to face the consequences if our boss feels differently.
All else being equal, I would hire Wright before I would hire a job candidate who always followed the rules. I want employees who will use their good critical judgment and occasionally break the rules for good reason. These are the employees with initiative that will help move your business forward.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.