Reality Therapy cover]

“Patients want you to correct their irresponsible behavior,
but they want it to be done in the genuine spirit of helping them,
not to satisfy yourself by winning a power struggle.”
William Glasser

The above quote is from Reality Therapy, the book that propelled Glasser onto an international stage. While I am not a therapist the quote spoke to me as an educator, as I think students want something similar from us as principals and teachers. Students don’t mind being corrected, but not when it feels like they are losing a contest. Reality Therapy emphasized the idea of responsible vs. irresponsible behavior and Glasser became known for a get-tough approach, not only in psych wards and private practice offices, but in schools, too. Through Glasser’s writing and speaking, through advertisements in journals and magazines, and through word-of-mouth testimonials, educators became aware of his matter-of-fact toughness and it appealed to them.

As he saw, though, how teachers were latching onto the responsibility theme, and how they wanted to blame students for their irresponsible behavior, Glasser pulled back from his use of the word responsible. His “toughness” was always meant to be cradled in what he called involvement. Involvement was about a warm, caring relationship between two people, a meaningful connection between therapist and patient, or in our case, between principal and student. It may be that we need to correct a student who makes a mistake, or that we need to correct a faculty member who uses poor judgment, but this interaction should not become a contest between two people. The skill lies in our ability to confront without attempting to control; to correct while preserving the student’s or faculty member’s sense of freedom.

A spirit of wanting to feel in control and wanting to “win” interactions with others can run very deep in our personal way of being. Our lives are not easily compartmentalized and if we show up this way at school, chances are we will show up this way at home, too. Our spouse and our children may experience us in this mode on a regular basis. At least two bad things happen when we go into the control or contest mode. One, the focus becomes the contest, rather than the needed area of improvement. And two, the relationship is harmed. Whether between principal and student, husband and wife, or parent and child, a controlling interaction removes capital from a relationship bank account that is not that easily replaced. Over time a controlling approach can bankrupt even our most precious connections with loved ones.

It’s not that correction is bad. Correction is sometimes needed. The trick is staying in a place of love and empathy as we seek to maintain a necessary boundary. The apostle Peter came to understand this way of being and gently reminded us to –

“Care for the flock that God has entrusted you.
Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly
—not for what you will get out of it,
but because you are eager to serve God.
Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care,
but lead them by your own good example.
1 Peter 5:2,3

(This post first appeared as a contribution I made to a recent edition of Leading the Journey, an e-newsletter on excellence in leadership, which is being co-written and sponsored by Dr. Ed Boyatt, retired and former Dean of the School of Education at La Sierra University, and Dr. Berit von Pohle, Director of Education for the Pacific Union Conference. I wrote it with school principals in mind, however I think it can apply to teachers and parents as well. To receive the Leading the Journey e-newsletter, send an email to