Five Habits of Successful Principals: What Separates Good from Great?
August 7th, 2018
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”1 Not only do we see the role our education system plays on building the future leaders of America, but it reminds us that even individuals who serve in leadership roles—such as our principals—must never stop learning either. Continual education leads to continual evolution, and when it comes to leading critical operations and initiatives in our schools, our principals play a vital role, and one that requires constant personal reflection and skill refinement.
Research shows that there are subtle, but critical behaviors that make the difference between good and great leadership. There are five essential habits of successful leaders that the principals in your district should strive to adopt, and that you should strive to encourage and support.
The Five Habits of Successful Principals:
#1 – They Make Time to be a Leader and a Manager.
Principals must be both taskmasters and agents of transformation. The ability to balance daily tasks such as teacher assessments, state reports, and parent meetings with planning and leading visionary initiatives that move a school forward is a critical skill of successful principals. Where good—but not great—leaders often struggle is on finding time for both necessary tasks and leadership initiatives.
Great leaders know how to make time for both by prioritizing and balancing what must be done now with what needs to be done tomorrow. The most effective principal leaders end each school year with a plan for strategic initiatives for the following year and for their own leadership and development. More importantly, they take the time to review, reflect, and act upon the tasks outlined in their plan throughout the year to ensure their visions become realities.
#2 – They are Assertive.
Principals must do what is best for their school and their students. This expectation requires policy and decision making that is not always popular and may come under criticism and questioning. To be a successful leader, one must be steadfast in his or her decisions because they are in the best interest of the students and school, and they must be assertive in their explanation and presentation of changes and new initiatives.
On the other side of the coin, leaders must also realize that being assertive does not mean being aggressive, argumentative, or unwilling to listen to feedback or opinions from others. One can be assertive and but still have respectful, open to dialogue and discussions with those who disagree, and know that such collaborations are essential to great leadership. It is in the ability to listen to the perspectives of others but maintain course and help others see the efficacy of that course, where true leaders emerge.
#3 – They Foster a Culture of Innovation.
The most successful leaders not only ideate and execute paradigm-shifting initiatives, they also inspire and enable those around them to do the same. A principal is an essential agent of change in a school, but every faculty and staff member has just as much of an ability to conceive of and lead initiatives that have the potential to improve your school, including the academic and personal outcomes of your students. Not only do principals need to inspire individual teachers and faculty members to aspire to positive improvements, but they may also find that they need to encourage overarching cultural evolution. To foster positive changes, principals must enable initiatives that move long-standing, collective sets of values forward to better align them with the school’s current mission and vision.
Also, an essential component of innovation requires principals to be open to new ideas coming from a wide variety of sources. Great principals must accept that the leadership of their school is bigger than any one person, and that great ideas can come from anywhere—parents, district administrators, teachers, and even students. It is not enough to encourage innovation and elicit feedback. One must be willing to collaborate, explore possibilities, and advance on new ideas that stem from others.
#4 – They Manage Conflict by Listening and Collaborating.
A significant component of a principal’s role is to resolve conflicts amongst students, address the needs of concerned parents, and smooth tensions between faculty and staff members. The most effective leaders understand how to negotiate conflict by listening and understanding the underlying concerns of both parties and identify common ground where they can achieve compromise. When it comes to conflict resolution, exceptional communication skills, compassion, and the ability to assert one’s decision are vital.
Further, great leaders also maintain the wisdom to understand what is not said. For example, an underperforming student who complains that he or she is too tired to pay attention during class may be suffering from issues at home, or anxiety, that can be addressed if identified by a keen principal who can interpret the truth behind veiled feedback.
#5 – They Regularly Reflect, Assess, and Strive to Improve.
Great leaders are never satisfied with their current level of achievement. They continually take time to debrief at the culmination of projects and initiatives to ask, what went well, what did not go well, and how can we do better in the future? This process of reflection, adjustment, and optimization is one of the most critical aspects of greater leadership. Principals must assess the effectiveness of programs, initiatives, and processes by framing them within the context of the school’s ultimate goal: achieving student academic success. By continually asking the question, what is best for our students and their development, as part of every assessment, great principals can identify the types of opportunities that move their school’s mission and vision forward.
Not only do great leaders push for greatness around them, but they also strive to improve their own skills and capabilities as well. This process requires honest assessment; peer, supervisor, and staff feedback; and the ability to establish a personal development plan with identified milestones to progress toward ultimate goals. As a superintendent, your job is to provide structure and actionable steps to such initiatives. An online system that facilitates principal evaluations, measures performance, and promotes healthy leadership teams is critical to helping good leaders evolve into great leaders—and for enabling schools to evolve from good to great under their stewardship as well.
SuperEval helps school leaders go from good to great.
Did you know that the SuperEval evaluation tool uses two rubric options to assess the performance of principals in New York State: the Multidimensional Principal Performance Rubric (MPPR), and the Marshall Principal Evaluation Rubric, or “Marshall” rubric, which was authored by educator Kim Marshall. SuperEval also offers a rubric for principals located in Pennsylvania: The PA Department of Education Framework for Leadership.
As author James C. Collins, said in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”2 To move your school from good to great, and your students’ academic performance from good to great, you need great—not good—leaders in roles that enable change and inspire excellence in those around them. By cultivating these five skills in your principals, you will put them on the path to achieving the type of leadership that will enable your school, staff, and students excel.
2. Collins, Jim. “From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.” HarperCollins, 19 Jul. 2011. ↩