By Angus S. Mungal, PhD and Richard Sorenson, EdD
The answer may lie in learning from one another, looking at research, and sharing your successes and failures, so all can learn to move more directly toward success. – Carl Glickman (Educational Leadership: Failure to Use Our Imagination, 2006, p. 690)
A well-known fact: More school principals fail than succeed. A sad, but true reality. First, a question worthy of serious consideration: Why do so many principals fail, considering a vast number of principal preparation programs exist and turn out hundreds of leader candidates each school year? A second query: Why are certain principals successful school leaders while others are dismal failures? Possibly the answer to the preceding questions lie in this third and final question: What guiding principles make for a successful principal?
The best way to determine the answer to each of these three questions is to recognize and understand what has been addressed by Carl Glickman in the opening quote. We can learn from one another, from the research literature, and by the sharing of our own personal successes, and failures, too. Consider the following 10 guiding principles to a successful principalship.
Principle #1: Communication
Few skills are more vital to successful school leadership. Effective communication inspires others, better conveys instructional initiatives, alleviates stressors often associated with change, and readily relates the quality as well as the quantity of information. Successful principals inspire and effectively communicate by speaking clearly and concisely. They avoid rambling or drawn-out explanations which can readily lose the attention of others. Successful school leaders recognize that communication is:
- Distinguishing the effects of what is said by self and by others.
- Expressing written, verbal, and nonverbal messages appropriately.
- Conveying feelings and ideas.
- Articulating arguments.
- Advocating positions.
- Listening to and learning from others.
- Influencing and persuading others.
- Stating unique and important facts as well as revealing essential information.
Successful principals inspire by communicating with clarity and by exuding confidence, maintaining eye contact, and exhibiting positive body language. These school leaders stay on topic, provide necessary information to get a point across—never digressing, and they cultivate an environment of give and take, where all parties feel valued and supported to freely express themselves—interjecting, without fear of reprisal, their own questions, thoughts, and ideas. The more a principal effectively communicates, the more likely the principal inspires others and thus, buy-in occurs.
Principle #2: Commitment
Comitment has been described as four-fold: 1) how connected a leader feels to the position and to the organization; 2) a searching for purpose and solution, not an escape; 3) the quality of a person’s perseverance as related to character, excellence, and servitude; and 4) the key to the unrelenting pursuit of personal goal development and professional success. Principal commitment relates to the achievement of team goals and organizational objectives. Principals who can commit to their leadership role as well as their students, faculty, staff, parents, and supervisors are more likely to appreciate their job, strive for organizational as well as personal excellence, and reveal a high rate of productivity —all for the greater good of the learning community.
Principals who reveal a high-level of commitment are more apt to exhibit a positive attitude. And remember, attitude is contagious! A positive can-do attitude toward work, campus colleagues, leader tasks and responsibilities, and the school system, encourages others to do the same. Successful principals readily commit by engaging, inspiring, and leading students, faculty, and staff toward developing a positive communal spirit and collaborative connection.
Principle #3: Empowerment
School leaders who empower others inspire them as well. Faculty and students benefit from the encouragement of a principal to be engaged in decision-making, problem-solving, and collaborative processes. Such authorization emboldens and galvanizes team members and is a clear indicator of trust. Trust in the workplace is a sign of contentment if not happiness. Now, recognize that contentment and happiness is not the absence of problems. Contentment and happiness in the leadership role relates to a principal’s ability to confidently handle problems.
There is never a school day in which a principal and team do not face a problem or a series of problems. All principals and teams have issues to resolve, and sometime wonder if the pursuit of happiness has somehow along the way, been abandoned. When a leader is willing to trust and empower others, daily problems, issues, and moments of misery can and will be overcome. Happiness is just around the corner when empowerment is a vehicle of choice. Remember, when a principal empowers others, the associated trust:
- Creates professional engagement.
- Encourages creative thinking.
- Facilitates organizational growth and development.
- Develops greater job satisfaction and overall performance.
- Motivates personnel to go the extra mile.
- Increases productivity.
- Ensures the positive embracing of change.
- Increases a closer adherence to district policies and campus procedures.
Principle #4: Decisiveness
Principals who are decisive build capacity within and across the learning community by making critical and conclusive decisions as they work to solve crucial problems with an aura of confidence, credibility, certainty, and resolute conviction. The best and most effective decision-makers and problem-solvers are leaders who are steadfast in their demeanor and ability. These principals are achievement-oriented, individuals of strong assertiveness, even-temperament, high intelligence, task- and relationship-orientations, and possess effective feedback as well as active listening skills.
Decisive principals are risk-takers. They plan for errors which can accompany risk-taking. These principals, however, recognize that errors result from a leading and learning environment of risk-taking. Lemov (2015) suggests that risks not taken equate, more often than not, to a more destructive and long-lasting and systemic failure within and across the school organization.
Additionally, decisive school leaders exhibit strong moral dimensions, and are quality-centered and focused. Decisive principals are individuals of principle who never waiver in their determination to do what is best for students and the school organization. They are individuals of courage and determination who resolve to practice what they preach, and they preach a strong, competent, and worthy message. These principals have backbone, willpower, and fortitude of mind, character, and purpose.
Principle #5: Motivate
Mungal and Sorenson in their text, Steps to Success: What Successful Principals Do Every Day (2020), reveal several measures principals must take and follow if they intend to motivate others and thus aspire to become successful campus leaders. Successful principals are able to motivate members of the learning community by:
- Embracing the day and the leadership role.
- Being organized and prepared.
- Leading and delegating, but never dumping.
- Anticipating, adjusting, and learning.
- Recognizing, understanding, and embracing diversity.
- Meeting, greeting, and engaging in good humor.
- Building capacity (the ability, capability, function, and potential of a team).
- Engaging in self-reflection.
- Understanding both the power and problems with social networking.
- Protecting against cyber-bullying and other forms of intimidation.
- Encouraging, stimulating, influencing, and persuading.
Here is an idea worthy of consideration: Create a “You Rock” by taking a nice size rock and placing it in a conspicuous place on campus where everyone will see it. Paint or inscribe the word “INSPIRE” on the front of the rock. Then, prior to each faculty meeting, encourage staff members to present the rock to a coworker as acknowledgment for being an awesome team member—for inspiring or motivating others. During each faculty meeting, identify the person who has recently received the “You Rock” and have the presenter explain, with a public acknowledgement, the reason for giving the “You Rock” to the recipient. This simple activity is not only a motivator, but also a team morale booster! Plus, others will recognize that “You Rock” too!
Principle #6: Empathize
Being an individual of empathy is a mark of true and effective school leadership. Empathy has been defined as the ability to acknowledge and relate to the thinking, emotions, feelings, and experiences of others. When a principal is able to recognize, understand, and readily react to the needs of others, struggles are lessened and feelings are lifted. Empathy is not necessarily replicated in touchy-feely moments or via in-depth conversations. Empathy is simply revealing that a principal genuinely cares and sees beyond the policies and procedures of everyday campus life (Sorenson, 2022).
Moreover, empathy is never the reduction of instructional expectations. Empathy is revealed when a principal recognizes, respects, and gracefully regards another member of the campus team. The empathetic principal creates a teaching, leading, and learning environment of teamwork with a “we’re all in this together” attitude of benevolent consideration.
Principle #7: High-Leverage Conduct
High-leverage principal behavior and leadership processes are widely touted today in educational leadership circles and in the research literature. Text writings by Bambrick-Santoyo (2018), Desravines, Aquino, & Fenton (2016), Mungal & Sorenson (2020) focus on high-leverage principal leadership in terms of practices and actions. Each book, individually or collectively, are excellent sources for principal book studies.
Practices and actions, as noted in the research literature, refer to principal initiatives (those deeds, activities, programs, measures, behaviors, conduct, performance, acts, plans, proposals, ideas, tactics, designs, developments, and/or devices) that a campus instructional leader demonstrates and expects teachers to incorporate and highlight as exemplars in classrooms. Practices and actions also relate to specific teaching techniques, strategies, and methods that are student-centered best-practices. Principals who leverage expectancies associated with high-level instructional practices and actions establish and maintain high expectations for all teachers and therefore, each student. What are these high-leverage instructional practices and actions? Successful principals:
- Lead the development of data-driven instruction. The very best principals specifically target and support exceptional teaching techniques and strategies, and regularly monitor student learning and achievement —all such actions based on data-driven analyses and assessments. These principals also acknowledge, understand, and utilize data-driven instruction as a means of recognizing what students must learn, and just as important, what and why students did or did not learn. Successful principals, along with their administrative team and instructional coaches, then —incorporating data-base instruction—lead others in understanding how to teach and re-teach to mastery.
- Examine teacher planning practices and procedures and provide feedback. The very best principals provide reliable, relatable, and essential feedback to better improve teaching and learning.
- Impact teaching and learning. Hattie (2012) reminds us that visible teaching and learning centers on what is noticeable and observable, not just detectable. Successful principals ensure teachers clearly identify those attributes that make a perceptible difference in a student’s ability to learn. Principals must ensure that teachers clearly recognize the impact (both positive and negative) they can have on student achievement. The very best principals lead faculty in seeking causal or root factors which are inhibiting student achievement and organizational success. This process, what Sorenson, Goldsmith, Méndez, and Maxwell (2011) have called a quality analysis, is all about regularly conducting needs assessments, scrutinizing curricular and instructional issues that are problematic to advancing student learning, and identifying and assessing patterns and trends through the analysis of multiple data sources.
- Develop a campus vision. The very best principals ensure teacher buy-in with the collaborative development of a campus vision. Visionary practices or actions include engaging faculty in recognizing and incorporating student-centered, research-based, and best-practice instruction.
- The very best principals frequently observe teachers and key aspects of the instructional program. They identify what’s right with teaching and instruction and also target areas for development and improving what is wrong. Successful principals continuously initiate a teaching, leading, and learning improvement cycle. These principals 1) collaborate, 2) establish effective organizational norms and high expectations, 3) define an overall purpose (vision/mission), 4) develop and focus on outcomes (SMART goals and objectives), 5) create evaluative methods, 6) develop and lead campus professional development, 7) establish benchmark targets, 8) collect data from multiple sources, 9) analyze the collected data to better inform teaching, leading, and learning, and 10) deliver effective feedback to include but not limited to actual principal modeling of appropriate and exceptional instructional teaching methods. A continuous improvement cycle must be more than information transferred; it must be all about an organization that is transformed.
- Provide for and lead professional development. The very best principals regularly train and teach in professional development sessions correlated to what has been discovered through drilling down into the data. To ensure the professional development has effectively accomplished campus and/or district goals, these principals provide for extensive follow-up and offer additional feedback.
- Develop an open culture and a positive climate. The very best principals create and strongly support the enhancement and advancement of a teaching, leading, and learning environment whereby student academic achievement is of the highest priority. These principals regularly monitor and measure culture, climate, and vision via personal interactions with all members of the learning community and by means of regularly developed and disseminated survey instruments.
- Recruit carefully, select cautiously, and monitor frequently members of their school leadership team. These school leaders inspect what they expect. They trust but verify! The very best principals train their leadership team and lead effective, if not exceptional, meetings. A relatable guide for principals is The Principal’s Guide to Time Management: Instructional Leadership in the Digital Age—specifically, Chapters 3, 4, and 5.
- Find time and use their time, wisely. How? The very best principals covet their time. They build a daily and weekly schedule. These principals monitor and defend their time. They utilize their time wisely by focusing on each of the bulleted items identified in the above noted listing.
Principle #8: Effective Schools Actions
It has often been stated that nothing is new in education. We have a tendency to recycle everything in our profession. There is a great deal of truth to the previous two statements. The recent trend in education calls for leadership and teaching that encompasses the Effective Schools Framework—a program that serves as an essential instructional guide for principals and teachers.
A complementary process that is decades old and was once the educational rage beginning in the mid-1980s is the 7 Correlates of Effective Schools. The seven correlates have passed the test of time through multiple generations and resurgences, beginning with the work of the late Ron Edmonds (1979), progressing to the research conducted by Joseph Murphy, et al. (1985), and onto the studies and writings of Larry Lezotte (1991). In recent years, Jaap Scheerens (2014) reintroduced the movement to a new generation of educators through his own effective schools research and revelations.
A close examination of the multiple reincarnations of effective schools research, as related to instructional leadership and strong teaching practice, reveals numerous similarities—all of which are most conducive to a successful principalship. Successful principals, working with teachers and instructional coaches, adopt and embrace the effective schools framework, recognizing: 1) strong principal leadership—with a focus on implementing and monitoring best practice instruction—significantly increases student achievement; 2) the development of a safe and orderly learning environment where effective and well-supported teachers are the result of a principal strategically recruiting, selecting, and assigning personnel, as well as building capacity within the instructional team; 3) a positive school climate and open culture—combined with a compelling and aligned vision, mission, campus goals and objectives, high expectations, and proactive/responsive student support and focus, as well as involved members of the learning community—readily advances student academic success; 4) a high-quality research-based curriculum—aligned with state standards and local assessment processes and resources—aid faculty in engaging student learning and promoting appropriate levels of instructional rigor combined with high teaching and learning expectations; and 5) effective instruction—with an opportunity to learn whereby all students are engaged in rigorous, student-centered, and best-practice teaching and learning experiences —is based on continuous data analysis, thus yielding positive instructional approaches, delivery, and teacher competence.
The five noted aspects of the effective schools framework readily and appropriately correlate with several of the long-present and proven 7 Correlates of Effective Schools: 1) strong instructional leadership equates with frequent leader monitoring of student progress; 2) a safe and orderly learning environment better ensures students will be academically challenged; 3) a clear and focused campus mission and vision promotes more positive home/school relations; 4) a climate of high expectations with opportunities for rigorous learning and student time on task enhances achievement; and 5) outstanding campus leadership with principal and administrative team frequently monitoring teacher instruction and student learning and progress promotes student and organizational success.
Principle #9: Incorporate the TExES Principal Standards
New principal standards, incorporated into principal preparation programs beginning in January 2019, serve to establish domains, competencies, and descriptive statements for the purpose of exemplary leadership development and mastery. Every principal must take time to review and recognize the critical importance of these standards as related to: 1) the development of an open school culture, 2) leading learning at the school-site level, 3) incorporating human capital, 4) extending executive leadership (communication and organizational management), 5) establishing strategic operations, and 6) developing strong ethical, moral, and legal leadership practices Learn more about the Principal Standards.
Principle #10: Lead with Conviction and Integrity
Last but not least, integrity relates to sound moral and ethical judgment, character, and behavior. Principals who possess and exhibit a high level of personal and professional integrity not only understand but demonstrate an ability to recognize right from wrong, incorporate and utilize sound reasoning, and lead by moral and ethical conviction and example (Sorenson, 2021). The very best principals are morally decent human beings. They set a high standard for personal behavior that establishes a solid foundation of personnel expectations. These principles are reflected in accountable actions, whereby a leader is honest, kind, patient, and willing to develop a collaborative, transparent, and open culture.
Duggan and Theurer (2017) believe resilient leadership is about conviction. These principals act with confidence, are aware of anxiety levels in self and others, exhibit a visionary capacity, possess high values, demonstrate personal resolve, and maintain a core set of values and build strong personal relationships and support systems.
Successful principals demonstrate a willingness to learn from and work with others. They readily accept constructive criticism. These principals work to improve those areas that must be targeted for growth and development. Successful principals are student-centered, always encouraging, and they never hesitate to engage in those most difficult yet often-required conversations. Recall the words of Mary Waldrop: “It’s important that people know what you stand for. It’s equally important that they know what you won’t stand for!”
Finally, permit each of the 10 guiding principles to successful school leadership to serve as an inspirational GPS—a roadmap of sorts—to better lead you, the school principal, to a higher and greater level of leadership success. Remember:
Seize your goal, no matter how difficult or challenging.
Understand the ever-present pitfalls and obstacles.
Create positive solutions to overcoming the many campus complications.
Clear your mind of any self-doubt.
Embrace the challenges presented.
Enhance your focus and stay on track.
Demonstrate to yourself and everyone else that you can do it!
S-U-C-C-E-E-D is more than a word or an acrostic when it comes to principal leadership. S-U-C-C-E-E-D is all about extending effort. When a principal brings effort to the school leadership role, visionary ideas and creative inventiveness happen. Then, student-centered instruction becomes an attainment within a leader and team’s grasp. And that is how positive and enlightened organizational change and student achievement occurs! So, YOU ROCK, and while you are at it, ROCK ON!
Dr. Angus S. Mungal is an Assistant Professor in Leadership Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi. He served as a teacher and administrator in Canada and Japan. He teaches graduate coursework in leadership and administration, focusing on Research Methodology, Diversity and Community Leadership. He has also taught Analysis and Evaluation Policy and Advocacy Leadership—aimed at producing future leaders to understand and work in non-government organizations (NGO), community-based organizations (CBO), and grassroots organizations. His publications have appeared in the International Journal of Educational Management and Education Policy Analysis Archives.
Dr. Richard Sorenson is Professor Emeritus and former Chairperson of the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department. He served for 7 years as Director of the Principal Preparation Program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He was a public school educator for 25 years in roles as a teacher, principal, and associate superintendent for Human Resources. He has taught graduate classes in educational administration at UTEP, specializing in school personnel, educational law, school-based budgeting, and leadership development.
Dr. Mungal and Dr. Sorenson are the co-authors of “Steps to Success: What Successful Principals Do Every Day” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
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Desravines, J., Aquino, J., & Fenton, B. (2016). Breakthrough principals: A step-by-step guide to building stronger schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Duggan, B., & Theurer, B. (2017). Leadership 2.0: Leading with calm, clarity, and conviction in anxious times. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37(1), 15-18, 20-24.
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Hattie, J. (2015). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lemov, D. (2012). Teach like a champion 2.0. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lezotte, L. W. (1991). Correlates of effective schools: The first and second generation. Okemos, MI: Effective Schools Products, Ltd.
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Murphy, J. Hallinger, P., & Mesa, R. P. (1985). School effectiveness: Checking progress and assumptions and developing a role for state and federal government. Retrieved February 10, 2022, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/016146818508600407?journalCode=tcza.
Scheerens, J. (2014). School quality and the educational effectiveness knowledge base. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from http://www.qualitynow.eu/CE_2014_Publicatie_Quality_Now.pdf#page=35.
Sorenson, R. D. (2022). Equity, equality, and empathy: What principals can do for the well-being of the learning community.
Sorenson, R. D. (2021). Responding to resisters: Tactics that work for principals. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
Sorenson, R. D., Goldsmith, L. M., Mendez, Z. Y., & Maxwell, K. T. (2011). The principal’s guide to curriculum leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
TEPSA Leader, Summer 2022, Vol 35, No 3
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