Guest Column

Lt. Columbo May Hold the Secret Answer


If you were (or are) a fan of Columbo, the affable TV detective played for years by Peter Falk, you have to admit he was a cool guy in a strange kind of way. The show enjoyed a wonderful network run and remains a favorite today in reruns and the periodic subject of a reunion movie.

Lt. Columbo was a mysterious, even eccentric, man. Does anyone even know his first name? He wore funky clothes (a crumpled raincoat and brown suit), yet he was an extraordinarily effective sleuth. He was the person in the police department who was assigned the unpopular case, the one often full of controversy. In most of these cases, there were no obvious clues and little evidence. They appeared unsolvable, yet Columbo was remarkably successful, week after week. What was his secret?

I have marveled over the years at Columbo's impressive track record. Even in the really tricky cases, he always got to the truth and solved the crime, often taking a circuitous route to the answer. While I wish we had more real-life Columbos around today, I'm sadly aware that this fictitious character lives only in the minds of his screenwriters. Great writers, though, often give us insight into some important human values and qualities, and I think that Columbo has some lessons for educational leaders.

A Quest for Truth
A large part of Lt. Columbo's success came from his relentless commitment to his mission of finding the truth, his dogged optimism and his persistence. He just never went away. He couldn't be intimidated or embarrassed into leaving or giving up. When he did decide to end an interview, he'd usually return with just "one more question." Even when dealing with the most powerful politician, the wealthiest aristocrat or decorated superior officer, Columbo persisted. He focused on his quest for the truth in spite of complex circumstances that would confound the most dedicated detective.

He also was the epitome of modesty. He never worried about taking credit. In fact, a new discovery was never his idea. He'd often credit his wife, a brother-in-law at UCLA or a niece in high school for spotting a contradiction in the facts or for suggesting the lead that broke open the case. What a unique piece of work!

Unabashed Champions
Now I'm not suggesting that we all should drive an old Studebaker or bring our pet bassett hound to work each day. Rather, we might draw a lesson from this character's inner strength, his unbounded optimism and commitment to pursue his mission--the search for truth.

Perhaps in our daily work as educational leaders we could gain confidence in our own professional mission to become unabashed champions for children in all we do. Let us be reminded through Columbo’s example that we can pursue this mission while refusing to be intimidated or discouraged by anyone. Never walk away, never give up and always ask that one important question: Is this a good decision for children?

You see, Lt. Columbo was a really cool guy, and he does hold an important secret for success.

Mark Joyce is executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, 12 Cross St., Penacook, NH 03303-1634. E-mail: