Best of the Bunch
What makes a great principal?
In Building Engaged Schools, Gary Gordon, vice president and practice leader of the Gallup Organization’s Education Division, takes on the Sisyphean task of reforming America’s education system. Using surveys and focus group discussions with principals, teachers, parents, and students, he devises a number of provocative prescriptions for success. In the following excerpt, Gordon details what it takes to spot the best talent to run your schools.
There is a widely held assumption that the primary criterion for excellence in the principal role is the right combination of knowledge and skills. To be sure, every principal must possess a great deal of knowledge and many skills these days, perhaps more of each than ever before. But the critical attributes that set truly outstanding principals apart from the rest stem from innate qualities like their beliefs, motivation, ways of relating, adaptability, and orientation toward continuous improvement. These talents, combined with knowledge and skills, create strengths that lead to outstanding performance.
Because these talents are natural to them, in many cases, outstanding principals don’t fully recognize their role in making them successful. Nevertheless, great principals intuitively distinguish between those aspects of running the school that play to their strengths and those that are better left to others. They delegate the latter tasks whenever possible, reining over time their own sense of self-awareness and surrounding themselves with staff who possess complementary talents. Excellence comes from using knowledge and skills in unique ways based on the particular blend of talents present in the school, starting with those of the principal. Another outstanding principal may achieve the same outcome, but the processes she uses to get there will look a little different. A person whose natural talents match the demands of the principal role will grow in the position.
On the other hand, the single most common mistake regarding professional development is the attempt to “teach” innate qualities to someone in whom they simply are not present. Attempts to compensate for a poor selection decision with additional training are rarely successful. New demands on principals have raised the bar for necessary knowledge and skills—but they have also raised the bar for talent.
A Talent for Leadership
Most principals’ jobs have changed in recent years. The extent of this change varies by individual school and district. But for many current principals, their role earlier in their career was very different from what it is today. It consisted largely of managing the building, which meant supervising the curricular and instruction program, the staff, the students, budgets, food service, transportation, and extracurricular activities (although not necessarily in that order).
In many schools, principals were evaluated entirely by procedural criteria: the degree to which staff and students followed the rules, the cleanliness of the school, the efficient operation of buses, and the availability of extracurricular activities for students’ participation and parents’ enjoyment. Because principals were usually judged on such measures, that’s where most of them placed their emphasis. Improving instruction was an important goal, but few principals lost their jobs over it.
Today, all of those traditional expectations remain, but the priorities have changed. Student performances on statewide accountability tests have become increasingly important to the success of the principal, the school, and the school district. Pressure to improve test scores requires that principals be more involved in analyzing student performance data with teachers, coordinating teacher efforts, arranging for staff development opportunities, and working with an expanded array of community members and business partners.
In most schools, principals play two competing roles, simultaneously acting as managers and leaders. Management most frequently involves efficiently and effectively maintaining the status quo by making the organization run smoothly. Stability is often considered a hallmark of good management. Leadership, on the other hand, implies doing what’s necessary to keep an organization moving forward, constantly developing to meet shifting demands. Hence, leadership occurs in a context of change.Different labels are used to describe different forms of leadership, but they all have a similar goal: to supply direction within an organization and spur individuals to move in that direction. Fundamentally, leadership requires influencing the “goals, motivations, and actions” of others. Previously, the role of principal was primarily that of an overseer, requiring the talents of a good manager. But the increased emphasis on accountability has shifted the role further toward the domain of “leader”—and the talents required to be an excellent principal have changed accordingly.
The pressure to improve students’ learning outcomes has led many principals to take on new responsibilities, but principals still must balance their management and leadership roles. That’s partly why the position demands high levels of talent in a number of specific areas. One East Coast principal described the management and leadership demands she faces and the difficulties those expectations create: “Every single day you make a choice. Do you [focus on being] the instructional leader of the school, or do you make a dent in the paperwork, take care of things like stocking toilet paper, fixing leaky faucets, and all of that? I go home sometimes feeling very guilty that I did not spend enough time with the kids and teachers.”
One Employee at a Time
Principals serve as managers by their very position. Their job entails mediating the differing demands of students, teachers, parents, community members, district administrators, and state policymakers. A principal who is a good manager makes the school run smoothly, creating an orderly environment in which learning can take place and ensuring that the basic needs of the school community’s members are met. Good management is evident to students, teachers, parents, and supervisors in the substance and the image of the school. Without it, there is an unsettling feeling that the school is constantly on the verge of chaos.
But truly great management requires principals to know and understand each staff member in ways that relatively few principals do today. The authors of First, Break All the Rules summarize a Gallup study of 80,000 great managers by pointing to four fundamental activities common among them: They know how to 1) select the right person for the job, 2) set the right expectations for that person, 3) motivate her, and 4) develop her. Great managers are described as “catalysts” who promote heightened performance by “speeding up the reaction between the employee’s talents and the company’s goals, and between the employee’s talents and the customers’ needs.”
Great managers help each person understand what’s required of him or her. They also make sure each employee receives regular recognition and is growing within his or her role. And they do all of this one employee at a time. If any particular group of employees is especially in need of that kind of support, it’s teachers, with their mission-driven mind-set and physically and mentally demanding jobs. But too often, teachers indicate that those aspects of great management are conspicuously absent from their schools. Outstanding principals build a positive environment by communicating to teachers and other staff members that they are valued.
Making the Changes Work
Most principals—and all great principals—have to some extent been leaders as well as managers. Effective principals introduce many changes to the organizational structure and processes in their schools in response to new student, employee, or community needs. These innovations require influencing the goals and behaviors of staff members and community leaders.
It’s not surprising that the focus of principals’ leadership activities is on student learning—it is, after all, the goal underlying every aspect of effective schools. Reform efforts intended to improve learning depend on the principal’s success in building constituencies by helping teachers and parents understand, accept, and support changes, wherever those changes originated. The principal must then establish the conditions for successful implementation, assisting staff members as they acquire the pertinent knowledge and skills and use their greatest talents in new ways to make the changes work. None of this is easy; the principal must be a highly effective consensus builder and motivator if such change is to succeed.
The balance between management and leadership activities is just one example of the growing complexity of the principal’s role. Never an easy position in which to succeed, its demands seem to grow each year. “[Principals] are pulled in so many different directions,” said Patty, a teacher in one of Gallup’s focus groups. “I would never consider going into administration because I see what types of conditions they’re working under.” Recognizing these pressures, some observers have even suggested that the job has become too big for one individual. But so far, there have been few serious efforts to implement alternatives to traditional staffing structures in public schools. Most principals continue to live with a job that is as complex and demanding as any in education.
Three Achievement Keys
Over nearly 20 years, school districts across the U.S. and Canada have participated in a number of studies to identify the talents that are consistently found in outstanding principals. Three broad categories help organize Gallup’s findings on the consistencies in what outstanding principals do:
Motivating describes how principals inspire themselves and their staff members to constantly strive for improved student outcomes. Sustaining high levels of motivation in the face of all the demands placed on America’s schools requires inspiration. Schools can’t improve to the extent that we need them to unless those working in them feel a deep commitment to that change. That inspiration begins with a simple, compelling purpose. The natural altruism of most talented teachers increases the importance of that clearly communicated purpose and amplifies its effect. If it taps into and expands on their personal sense of mission, a principal’s message can inspire teachers to unusual levels of achievement.
Relating encompasses the ways in which outstanding principals establish relationships with and garner support from teachers, students, parents, and community members, and the ways they foster teachers’ professional growth and development. The most obvious is simply by not being afraid to show they care. Great principals typically show a great deal of personal concern for staff members and students. This builds trust and breaks down barriers to communication. “Nobody tells you that 99% of the job is dealing with relationships,” said a Midwestern principal. Said another from the West Coast: “A lot of being a principal has to do with relationship building and being able to connect at a personal level with students and teachers.” That ability isn’t something that can be taught or gained from experience. Teachers often describe genuine caring as the single most important quality of a good principal. In Gallup’s focus groups, teachers from elementary schools or smaller secondary schools tended to feel that the principal had a huge impact on their feelings about the job. Those in larger secondary schools usually interacted more often with a vice principal or department head. Elementary school teachers were more likely than secondary school teachers to agree with the statement, “My principal, or someone at my school, seems to care about me as a person.”
Empowering the staff explains how principals provide resources for growth and ensure that staff members can participate in the school’s ongoing development. Promoting staff members’ development obviously helps expand their repertoire of skills and knowledge. But the point here is that it also elevates the teacher-administrator relationship to a highly personal partnership. Most of us can think of a time when someone saw a spark of talent in us even before we did and helped fan it into a flame. In challenging us, this person offered insight and a high level of respect—and created an expectation that we wanted to meet. Many of our successes in life can be traced back to these pivotal relationships.
Outstanding principals create these opportunities for teachers, sometimes without knowing it. For them, it’s just part of the job. Often, we see certain schools in a district move disproportionate numbers of people to leadership roles within the district. When this happens, we know that there are principals who are functioning as talent scouts and development partners. Though they most often affect student outcomes indirectly, good principals are typically the individuals most essential to creating schools that leverage the strengths of staff members and students. Unfortunately, many school districts fail to fully understand that such a complex and pivotal role calls for finding people with the right talents upon which to build.
Carrying out that search as a generation of principals retires means identifying individuals with talents similar to those of the district’s best principals and then providing opportunities for those people to build on that foundation. The training for these prospective leaders must be geared toward helping them recognize their potential. They should be given duties and assignments with real responsibility for outcomes. If a succession program is working, the school leaders emerging from it should be capable of performing at the same level as the best in the district. @