Qualities of Effective Principals

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post: Effective Leadership in the Age of Reform.

School improvement efforts rely heavily on quality leadership.   Educational leaders are tasked with establishing a collective vision for school improvement and initiating change to spur innovation, ensure student learning, and increase achievement.  On July 13th I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. James Strong, from the College of William and Mary, deliver a keynote address at the NJ Department of Education Leadership Institute entitled “Qualities of Effective Principals.”  Dr. Strong emphasized that the job of a principal, or school leader for that matter, is about making a difference in the lives of children.  Leading and teaching is challenging work that requires a high level of understanding and patience.

What do good principals do?  The audience at the leadership institute identified what they perceived to be the top elements.  These included the following items below where I have added some of my personal thoughts:

  • Great communicator: Principals need to be able to communicate what the school is all about.  School leaders don’t always do the best in terms of epitomizing effective communication.  In terms of evaluations, we can’t keep telling teachers that they are doing good work when they are not.  Being a direct communicator is often lost during discussions on teacher performance.
  • Difference maker:  Principals need to be able to keep the focus on important initiatives and culture characteristics that have an impact on student learning and achievement.  They establish accountability measures to hold teachers and students accountable for learning.    Great principals see solutions, not just problems.
  • Risky, but not too risky:  Principals have to be willing to try new things and have a mindset to keep trying until improvement is the end result.  They need a backstop of support that allows them to fail in these efforts.  The most effective decision makers take risks, but do not bet the farm or take quantum leaps without knowing the end result.
  • Manage by walking around: Principals that consistently walk around know the students, can better identify areas where teachers can improve, and set the tone for practices to be emulated throughout the building.  The human factor is extremely important.  Great principals establish a positive school culture by treating people the way they would like to be treated.  How we smile, say hello, and engage in conversations all are important factors in setting a positive tone.
  • Address problems:  Strong principals will do the hard, dissatisfying work associated with addressing and removing ineffective staff.  This requires addressing problems head on with a positive attitude. When hiring new staff, principals need to go to great efforts to hire educators that align best with the vision of the school.
  • Cares about students and staff:  Effective principals never give up on kids and their support staff.  They are the epitome of instructional leadership and will show teachers how to become more effective based on evaluative data.

As noted by Dr. Strong, the elements above are important at a personal level.  He then identified the following indicators of principal quality that is supported by research.

  • Instructional leadership: building a vision, establishing a shared leadership model, leading a learning community, using data, and monitoring curriculum & instruction.  The most effective teachers seamlessly use multiple instructional strategies during a lesson and good principals can identify them.
  • School climate: creating a positive culture, establishing high expectations, adhering to a practice of respect.
  • Human resource administration:  hiring quality teachers & other staff, inducting & supporting current staff, providing meaningful opportunities for growth, retaining quality staff, and effectively evaluating teacher performance.
  • Organization management: safety, daily operations, facilities maintenance, and securing & using resources to increase student achievement.
  • Communication and community relations: effective communicator with all stakeholder groups.
  • Professionalism: ethical standards, serves as a role model, models life-long learning.

Now more than ever schools need great leaders.  As the reform movement continues to swell across the country more eyes will be on the principal, as well as other district leaders, and their ability to ensure student learning and increase achievement.  The task now at hand is to develop a plan on how to support principal effectiveness while developing an evaluation tool that will help us do the best job possible for the students that we serve.

For more information in this area check out the resources at NASSP.



  1. Randy said:

    As I read through the list of elements and indicators, I asked myself the question – would this list look the same 10 or 20 years ago if we were describing effective principals? I think it would. How would we expand the list if we embrace the notion that principal leadership today is different than it was 10 or 20 years ago? We say teaching must look different. We say learning looks different. How does – should – leading look different?

    July 30, 2011
  2. Bruce said:

    I think the big difference is how we empower our staff as opposed to how we “lead” them in the past. A greater emphasis on building a community of learners comprised of teacher-leaders is the direction we need to take.

    July 30, 2011
  3. Liam said:

    I would not necessarily argue with the lists above, but the next question is how do we measure that ?

    November 21, 2011
  4. SUNIL MISRA said:

    Respected sir,
    I am handling a CBSE school located in rural area.Plz help me how to convince parents of rural areas? And how to train students of rural background?

    August 20, 2012
    • Seetha Murty said:

      To Sunil Misra
      Actions speak louder than words..work more with teachers and students..parents will see it all. coming to training the students…contextualize the curriculum- even CBSE can be contextualized. You are most welcome to contact us..we are ready to support.

      August 21, 2012
      • There is capable rights of human keep this man and not encouraged there senses!

        December 31, 2012
    • OTOTW said:

      Rural students need to enjoy school. Often there are fewer learning activities within the community because resources are limited. They need activities after school that are learning experiences that require them to maintain excellent academic performance. Tutoring after school is important, but what about the fun stuff that students cannot necessarily do durng the school day? Are there clubs, music lessons, dance or tumbling classes, chess competitions and the like that cn be offered at the school by community members. They need to see the school as a place where they are growing in areas other than just reading and math. Rural students often have to find a reason outside of their family or home life to be motivated. In brain research language, when they think about school, their brains should produce dopamine which plays a significant role in reward-motivated behavior. Providing activities that make students feel good about themselves will connect them to an adult in the school whom they cherish and respect as well as will give them a reason to want to learn and do better academically.

      October 16, 2013
  5. Cleveland Anderson said:

    I agree with the elements and indicators. I am jubilant to see the human factor included. Many administrators fail to include the human factor in their leadership. To that end, some administrators take it personal when a subordinate disagrees with their approach and take it personal. As a result, this category of administrators have a passion for leading by establishing – FEAR – in his or her subordinates. Including, hiring individuals who possess a similar leadership style or who are mere “YES” administrators.

    March 7, 2013
  6. Shaune Beatty said:

    Pleased I came across this article though I missed its original post. Definitely an agreeable piece. I don’t believe we can underestimate the power of relationships, even during those tougher moments. With students, teachers and members within the school community. With relationships, I am pleased it shares ethics and students as compass points. Within my school, I also feel there is a balance of “pressure” and “support” from the office. Changes are not always popular as people get comfortable, but some risks need to be taken. When decided upon, there may be some “pressures” to change. As long as this is met with equitable “support” I believe a principal is acting within an effective capacity given that the change makes sense.

    May 5, 2013
  7. […] school. Yet until very recently there was little rigorous research demonstrating the importance Qualities of Effective Principals | Connected Principals 29 Jul 2011 Crossposted at the Huffington Post: Effective Leadership in the Age of Reform. School […]

    February 8, 2014
  8. Abdul Salam said:

    working in a challenging environment like leadership of a school is very tough. this article is giving some sort of guide line to solve it. but a question arises what to do with parents not cooperating. Answer please.Thanks

    April 18, 2014
  9. Not Preffered to be Disclosed said:

    I would like to know what the leadership qualities are when it comes to issues in school, do they have to directly and strictly take action against the concerned students, or let teachers handle problems?

    September 16, 2014

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