Critical Annotation: The Principal
Kriv Stenders’ four-episode series, The Principal, offers an intense and engaging look at the difficulties faced by leaders in shifting school culture. The titular principal, Matt Bashir (played by Alex Dimitriades), arrives at the violent high school he previously attended, now tasked with turning around the culture at the boys’ institution. While much of the whodunit series revolves around the murder of Karim Ahmad, a student found dead at the school, the episodes explore the challenge of transformational leadership, the way in which leaders are not immune to personal struggle, and the potential for relationship-building to affect real change in difficult educational settings.
When Matt Bashir begins his tenure as principal of Boxdale Boys High School, he immediately faces resistance to his style of leadership. Staff and teachers, jaded from years of working with challenging youth and facing lack of resources, are mistrustful of Bashir’s desire to change the school culture.
In spite of this resistance, right from the start Bashir exhibits the key qualities of transformational leadership, as outlined by Bass (1999): idealized influence (or, charisma), inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. Bashir is undoubtedly charismatic, engaging the staff as well as students with his positive outlook and interested stance. He works to inspire the teachers, in particular, by sharing some of his own experiences at the school as a student and by advocating the possibility of turning around Boxdale Boys. Rather than sit in his office, Bashir observes throughout the school. This allows him to step in to offer teachers a model for deescalating tension with the students and finding ways to bring out the kids’ talents, such as Tarek Ahmad’s cooking talent. Through individualized consideration, Bashir is able to make progress with both teachers and students, identifying their particular needs for support and stimulation. He befriends the students, slowly gaining their trust in a system that has largely let them down.
In addition to portraying transformational leadership in action, The Principal highlights the struggles of individual leaders in dealing with their own histories and personal lives against the backdrop of their job. The decision to develop Bashir’s character as having a traumatic and violent history at Boxdale Boys—afraid for his own safety and of being outed as gay, he stood by while his friend was badly beaten—allowed the series to explore the myriad of motivations behind pursuing leadership opportunities and the lasting effects of trauma during school years. The series also offered a commentary on the pressures to remain closeted in school settings, as Bashir hides his sexuality until the close of the series, not wanting it to affect the opinions of his coworkers or the students.
Watching The Principal with an eye toward learning about leadership did little to lessen the pure enjoyment of viewing the series. The show featured superb acting, particularly on the part of Dimitriades (as Bashir) and Rahel Romahn (as Tarek). Though the murder investigation featured prominently in the storyline, the writing was balanced and nuanced enough to delve deeply into the experiences of young men in a troubled school, and the ways that a charismatic and empathetic leader can reach them. Ultimately, Bashir’s character represents a transformational leader with an eye toward social justice—a commitment he lives out in his respect for students and willingness to advocate for those who are often overlooked.
Bass, B. M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8(1), 9-32. doi:10.1080/135943299398410
Stenders, K. (2015). The Principal. Sydney, NSW: Easy Tiger Productions.