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Principal Leadership Tips: Part 1

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Steve Hall and Susan K. Green. As a former principal, Hall did award-winning school turnaround work in North Carolina. He is also a national trainer and coach for school leaders. Green is Professor Emerita of Educational Psychology at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She has published articles on classroom assessment and strategies to enhance achievement and motivation.

Principals face an array of stressful challenges, from test-focused accountability pressures (Schlecty, 2011) to devastating budget cuts that reduce services, programs, staff and morale (Ginsberg & Multon, 2011). In our experience, these pressures can put principals in survival mode, so that their role shrinks to that of meeting deadlines and doing what they're told.

At the same time, abundant research urges creative leadership and innovation in schools (e.g., Allison, 2012; Javius, 2009). Clearly, daring leadership is required for today’s challenges. We define daring leadership as managing external and internal demands so that words and actions remain consonant with our core beliefs. We describe two strategies below that can support principals as they navigate the challenges of guiding and inspiring their staff.

For more strategies, see Part 2 of this article.

Within Unpopular Mandates, Cherry-Pick Opportunities for Success

Facing mushrooming mandates accompanied by heightened accountability, many principals have prematurely resigned themselves  to believing that daring leadership is no longer possible. But a committment to "cherry-picking" for opportunities can fundamentally shift both the experience and impact of the principalship.

First, finding opportunities to lead courageously requires that we re-examine why we occupy the leadership position with which we are entrusted. An exercise that has helped many to conduct this inquiry is developing a detailed vision of the school they desire to create. Reconnecting with that possibility, and clarifying your aspiration down to the details of the faces of the children you would serve, can often reignite the courage, passion and focus needed to sustain you over time.

With a compelling vision, you are now ready to cherry-pick by reexamining your apparent constraints through the lens of opportunity. This second step requires overcoming a polarized “either/or” cultural mindset currently prevalent in many areas of life.

We are reminded of an opening-of-schools conversation we facilitated with staff when No Child Left Behind was in its infancy. It was already quite clear there were significant shortcomings to the initiative. Rather than joining the chorus of colleagues being openly critical, we led an emotion-packed conversation identifying just whose child we would be willing to leave behind. Cherry-picking what we saw as the essence of the new law from the many questionable gaps it contained, presented an opportunity that actually catalyzed a redesign of our school-wide intervention program several years before the term “RTI” became popularized. 

We recall another example of an unpopular locally mandated change in our math program, which challenged many teachers with the necessity for more in-depth, collaborative examination of students’ problem-solving work. We might well have joined other principals questioning the program outright, or simply relegated its implementation to a slower track. Instead, this mandate was used as an opportunity to pursue more aggressively our school-wide goal of developing high functioning PLCs--accomplished primarily through professional development embedded within the context of math planning.

In both examples, we found leverage points within unpopular mandates and used them to move forward. We have come to believe that in virtually any circumstance in which we find ourselves mired in “either/or” thinking, we have probably failed to examine all options.  

Use Language to Reinforce Positive School Culture, Build Morale

As school leaders, we are particularly vigilant about the conversations in our buildings. Listening to the conversation in the staff lounge tells us almost everything we need to know about a school’s culture. Similarly, while making daily classroom rounds, we can gauge the ratio and implications of student/ teacher talk, the level of inquiry and rigor encouraged, and so on. We know and rely upon the significance of these and other conversational cues. But few of us fully leverage our opportunities to shape, and largely control, school-wide conversations.

Faculty meetings offer a pivotal platform for many of these opportunities. Consider what you might conclude when you hear a principal greeting his staff by saying, “I know it’s been a long day, and I’ll try to make this as brief as possible to get you out of here early.” The translation of this message is (1) work here is grueling and draining rather than impactful and exhilarating; and (2) what I have to say can be condensed into a “Cliff's Notes" version of key points for easy consumption. Instead, we should convey that our time together is filled with value, and the work to be done is critical. The impact of such messaging can reframe the ongoing dialogue in the building. 

Another example of a missed opportunity to control the conversation at staff  meetings goes like this: “…As you know, the state (or any other external authority of your choice) now says we have to…..” Such statements serve only to make the school leader complicit in fueling the mindset of disempowerment that is so prevalent with public accountability. Instead, the principal can model and begin a dialogue promoting initiative that encourages involvement in designing professional development, strategy and implementation--always well within our prerogative.

The more we communicate focused attention on OUR work, the more the conversation at planning and in the staff lounge will focus on the same content. When we as leaders present a position of ownership and control over our environment, we establish a language for building the same conversation among our staff and students. Remaining conscious of our words and leveraging the platform we occupy as leaders requires constant awareness and intention. 

For more principal leadership strategies, see Part 2 of this article.



  • Allison, E., (2011).  The resilient leader. Educational Leadership, 69(4), 79-81.
  • Ginsberg, R., & Multon, K. (2011). Leading through a fiscal nightmare. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(8), 42-47.
  • Javius, E. (2009). Skills for courageous leaders. Leadership, 38(3), 30-32.
  • Schlechty, P. (2011). The threat of accountabalism.  Educational Leadership, 69(1), 80-81.


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