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3 Fundamental Qualities of a Successful School Leader

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PeteLindorth pix.jpgA great principal is remembered with fondness and respect.  Yet too often, teachers can regale others with stories of principal mistakes and missteps, laced a tinge of disrespect and a headshake. Why do some teachers think about their principals that way? Most leaders are taught, in leadership preparation programs, to standards written in 2008 called ISLLC Standards. Although a newer set of leadership standards were written, in New York, as in other states, the standards for principals remains based upon these 2008 standards.

School Leadership Skills

As spring flowers struggle to pop up through the thawing ground, principals everywhere are evaluating teachers and reflecting on their role in the evaluation process.  Superintendents and other central office personnel do the same as they attend to the evaluations of their principals. The process of evaluation is not as colorful, nor as exciting as a crocus popping through the snow. It is often is felt as a burden, a task to complete and move off the "to do" list.

But standards, like those used to guide evaluations, can inform and guide actions and help nurture growth and develop potential. The evaluation of teachers and principals became a hot button issue when they were measured, albeit in part, by the achievement of the students in their charge. Although in some way that can and should be one measure, it became a huge distraction from the more valuable tool, the standards, that could serve to remind and guide.

A successful leader, according the 2008 ISLLC Standards, is one who promotes the success of every student by:

  • facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by all stakeholders
  • advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth
  • ensuring management of the organization, operation, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment.
  • collaborating with faculty and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.
  • acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner. 
  • understanding, responding to, and influencing the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

Clearly an enormous responsibility, yet to promote is not to be responsible for accomplishing any of these 6 standards. Most, however, interpret the standards as setting the finish line to be reached. There is a central theme that can be extracted, and most certainly would be found as the fundamental attributes of those principals remembered with fondness and respect. They are, without a doubt, intelligence, heart, and courage.

All who have stepped into the role of principal have intelligence. They have studied, received degrees and certifications, learned laws, learned and written policies, observed and evaluated faculty and staff, and made decisions about children and staff. The daily work of a principal surely requires being able to think through problems and maneuver around barriers each day. The use of the heart is where the rubber hits the road. Heart involves passion, a fire that burns of conviction and of calling. But that purposeful passion also offers space for empathy and compassion and love to enter and be part of the leadership process. But, heart without courage is not enough for leadership. It is courage that emboldens action, right action whether popular or not.

We began this piece with the intention of writing about the ISLLC Standards giving a nod to this evaluation season and what is happening within schools and districts at this time of year. As we began to distill and reflect once again on these standards it became clear, as we have written about before, the underlying qualities through which the actions of the standards are performed are these three essential characteristics. We have written about the Wizard of Oz before because the story holds lessons in leadership that we hold dear.  Like all stories that endure over time and across generations, they continue to teach and unfold before our eyes and ears if we invite them to do so.

The 3 Leadership Qualities That Endure

In that context, this morning, as we write, we think about Dorothy. She is, after all, the leader. She brings to her role three attributes without which leaders cannot succeed. They are:

  • She knows where she wants to go. She doesn't lose sense of that regardless of how lost she is or how remote the goal seems.
  • Her insight and support awakens and reveals qualities deeply buried within others. When revealed, those others, who might have been perceived to be liabilities as  traveling companions, become strong partners on the journey. She trusts them and herself to know when each is needed and in what way.
  • Through it all, she keeps little Toto with her. When she arrives at the final destination, Toto will also.

Superintendents, principals and teachers, all, can be ultimate capacity builders. They uncover and nurture the capacity of one another to discover hidden talents and develop the skillful use of them. From that work, all benefit. Then, leaders and their teams and students arrive at the place where hope has taken them, the place where the dream becomes real.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by PeteLinforth courtesy of Pixabay

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