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I am a teacher, among other things, and say can that yes that metric works- to a point. It isn't that remembering names in and of itself is that vital; it is that this is indicative of an overall involvement in the school.

Bryan B

Agree it is an imperfect but potentially useful metric. One thing to consider is it may be more useful in a position like principal, where there is little obvious self-interest value in knowing student names. So it's most likely a sign of engagement and is promising but not definitive.

In other workplaces, a more Machiavellian person may learn everyone's names because they believe this will help them get ahead (sometimes at the expense of others). Interesting stuff.


Hi Bob,
This article has made me think more deeply about this - Yes I certainly agree! It must surely create stronger relationships between the "bosses and the workers". I still remember when my son was at college. We bought a desk from the school - the principle helped us lift it to our car! That alone created great respect and Yes - he was a thoughtful principle!

Bob Sutton

I want to thank everyone for such great comments. A few reactions, really summaries.

1. On Dunbar's law, that human beings have a hard time sustaining over 150 active relationships because of our cognitive limits, which is also related to organizational size. That sounds like a limiting factor to me.. there is great evidence to support the law, most recently from a study of 1.7 twitter users.

2. I agree with people who make the point that some of us are just better at remembering names and faces than others. I am awful at it, so I know the feeling, and although I don't think I am afflicted with anything, there is some interesting research on Prosopagnosia, the inability to remember faces.. in fact, the famous psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, has this condition. Many of us may have a milder form.

3. Yes, I agree that there are probably other indicators that are probably more important than knowing names, but it is interesting as a sign of detachment when it goes along with other things, as in Moyo's story.

Again, fantastic and varied comments! Thank you!


Interestingly, about 2 weeks ago I had a conversation with someone I might on a flight about the new (3-year-new) boss of their company. The most important observation and, thus, judgment of the boss was that he was quite uninterested in his staff. The employee commented that the recent past boss was very motivating and he knew almost everyone by first name (over 500 people) and that did something for the employees' sense of belonging and perhaps commitment to the company.

So it may not be the most important metric, but it is a very helpful one. Would likely make a leader's role of 'influencing' easier

Bill Parker

I think knowing all students' names is important, but it's not "the" most important dimension, particularly when the student population exceeds 1,000. I think having a vision that is truly inclusionary and regularly advocated would trump knowing names. All students should be accepted and treated with respect, fairness and be accepted as they are (except for any behaviors that violate norms). Being a student, teacher, and learning advocate are all important and help create a success-oriented environment. Principals are concerned with budgets, books, schedules, physical safety of their plants, discipline, activities/athletics. As an extravert, I would even advocate a principal going out of the way to engage new and quieter members of the student body. This would shout: "I care about you as a team member here, and I support you in your endeavors to succeed."

Donald C.

I wonder if this metric interacts with the Dunbar number to make suggestions about the size of schools.

Though I believe based on my hazy recollections that there is no clear evidence that school size correlates with student performance.

But that I think merely reminds us of the futility of trying to find a single simple metric that is universally and eternally useful for observing a complex phenomenon.

I do think there is also an interesting observation about how this metric is useful if it is a by-product of other activities.



To me, it's a sign of mindfulness and being in the present. It shows that the principal (or boss) values relationships and connection. Granted if that's the only good thing about the principal or boss, it's not enough. However, in my experience those who value mindfulness, presence and the value of treating people well are usually skilled in the other important areas as well.


This makes perfect sense to me.

Almost boils down to, "...know your customers..."

In today's climate though, and for something like a pubic school, it is increasingly becoming, "...please the boss..."

Those 2 thoughts aren't exactly the same thing unfortunately in a lot of the cases.

We all desire teachers who care for our kids and therefore we expect more of the "staff."

I'm not how career-minded teachers come off in the class rooms?

Al Pittampalli

I agree. More than any other organizational leaders, Principals should be measured by the quality of their relationships. Children need support, and mentorship, I can think of nothing more impactful than having a direct relationship with a principal that cares about them, who authentically wants them to succeed. Great post, Bob.


That's a very interesting post! I am one of those people who has great trouble remembering names and faces. I do my best, but even for people whom I meet multiple times, I may not recognize them or remember the name, especially in an "out of context" setting (like your example of meeting someone in a restaurant). So I really would not want to be judged based on how many names or faces I can remember, because the answer is "very few" despite my best efforts.

At the same time, I make a very strong effort with particular kinds people - for example, secretaries and receptionists at my office. I figure they do a very important job of keeping everything running, and I should recognize that. I always thought of it as normal until one day I realized that some of my colleagues don't even know a single secretary's name. I don't necessarily know if it makes me a better boss, but I have always thought that seeing how someone treats people in "subordinate" jobs (not that I really think of secretaries like that!) is a good metric for how good a boss they will be in general.


I should have added, most of us have this cognitive bias to conflate interpersonal skills and likeability with trustworthiness. Which I think is at least one of the reason why we end up with the kind of politicians we seem to be stuck with.


It's a fine metric if the most important characteristic of a principal is likeability. Maybe it is an important characteristic, I'm not sure. Perhaps some other things like strategic vision, fiscal responsibility, and administrative competence are important as well - and the "number of names" metric won't measure those :-).

I always use the metaphor of a surgeon when I'm dealing with this issue. If you don't like the surgeon, there's a chance that they won't persuade you to go into the theater. But once you're on the operating table, I bet you'd rather the surgeon was competent at cutting and suturing so forth than likeable.

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