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7 Questions on Leadership with Paul Donnelly

Name: Paul Donnelly

Title: Associate Principal

Organisation: Rangiora High School

Greetings everyone, greetings from New Zealand. I have two adult children, one is currently overseas and my other son is now a new parent. My wife and I love to travel. We just spent 10 days in Noosa (Australia, Queensland), which was just marvelous. My position is Associate Principal at a large Cohead Secondary School in North Canterbury (South Island near the city of Christchurch). My portfolio encompasses School Culture, Health and Safety, EOTC (Education Outside the Classroom), School transport, and Staff Welfare. I have been in education for nearly 30 years. I have resigned my position to embark on a new adventure.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Paul's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

In a word, Judgement or Judge mentalism. I have learned to adapt to it, but I have learned that when a work culture, nurtures this it creates a culture of fear and intolerance. People will then hide their vulnerabilities and talents, however, the transformation from judge mentalism to curiosity happens when a leader or leaders work together on trust, openness, and kindness but it does take time.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

Honestly, I trained as a primary teacher, burnout. Decided to study law, but failed at that too. Started a small tutoring business tutoring, English to students from overseas to pay for my University fees. I applied for a leadership position at a Secondary school, teaching Ethics, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. Had no clue what I was doing, but managed to do a reasonably good job. Like my marriage, grew to understand that listening, trusting in people, developing the ability to have difficult conversations, having a good sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously and the ability to keep learning are the ingredients of a purposeful life and becoming a good leader. (One never stops learning - Curiosity is key).

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?


5.45 am; Make the wife a cup of tea each morning.

6.00 Get ready for work - feed the dog read the news etc.

7.15 Head to work

Work - Go and see staff in their classrooms offices, or sheds and say good morning (Do this religiously). but also greet as many students as I can.

The rest of the day is filled with meetings, dealing with conflict, answering emails working with different agencies, talking with parents, etc

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?


1. Always keep people in the loop with information. In any decision process that creates a vacuum, individuals will fill in the vacuum and the information or the story they tell themselves is usually wrong.

2. "Rome was not built in a day", some decisions can be made quickly but there are many decisions that require time. invest in the time.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

1. Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leaders by Kristin Ferguson.

2. The Advise Trap by Michael Steiner

3. Coaching Habit by Michael Steiner


Kristin's book has captured for me the important things about leadership, however, there are dimensions that I need to keep working on and grow into. I have pasted the website for you to look at.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Be kind to yourself, and develop the ability to listen well. Leadership is a skill that involves many dimensions or human spheres. Be prepared to work hard. And notice the small good things that people do. Mistakes are part of life. Develop a curious mind. Celebrate life often and be grateful for what you have. Keep away from gossip, 99% is BS. Don't be too judgmental.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

"Being right is not the objective of Leadership but doing the right thing is". Being right only feeds one's ego but doing the right thing, this action is being of service to others. I have learned this lesson time and time again when the institution gives up on a child and I sit with parents who in their own vulnerability are sitting in my office. So I break the rules to make sure we do the right thing for the child.

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