Getting the Best Principals

Why are some schools great? Look to the principal

Robert L. Zorn

All school board members want their districts to have outstanding schools. There’s no doubt that outstanding schools are developed by and led by great leadership in the school principal’s position. So, getting the best principals for your district is critical. There is probably no single definition we could all agree on as to what constitutes a great principal. However, there is enough common ground for us to agree on the personal leadership qualities for traits found in outstanding school principals -- kind of a best practices list for superior principals.

These leadership traits are in addition to those cognitive career competencies always found in school district job descriptions such as state certification, degrees required, experience, and duties for the position. These are all too familiar, and meeting these does not mean the candidate will be a great principal.

Unfortunately, the personal leadership skills or traits needed by outstanding school principals can’t be mandated by job descriptions and can’t be taught in graduate school courses in school administration even when efforts are made to bland theory into practice. Nevertheless, people recognize outstanding leadership traits when they see them. Principal-leadership programs by necessity, focus on cognition skills and professional competencies and state-of-the-art practices in school administration.

An examination of school principal preparation programs in college and universities across the U.S. will show a commonality of topics taught such as: school law, principal’s role and responsibilities, goal setting, facilities management, class scheduling, conflict resolution, budgeting, recruitment, interviewing and hiring processes, providing safe school environment, managing material resources, pupil services, curriculum development, dealing with community groups and school support groups, participating in arbitration and grievance hearings, student’s rights and discipline.

These topics are studied in all principal preparation programs so that aspiring principals come away from their graduate studies with the cognitive skills and knowledge of these professional practices and competencies in leading a school.

The Graduate School principal preparation program at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, is like those of many other colleges and universities having a culminating end-of-program capstone activity consisting of a comprehensive exam covering the course content of the entire principal’s graduate program.

Additionally, most state education agencies -- 36 states at least count -- have requirements on the licensing of new principals that require the passage of a specific state-required standardized school leadership test. These tests are designed to provide a comprehensive assessment that measure the skills and content knowledge of candidates desiring to enter the field of educational leadership. These tests are designed to measure course content specifics in educational administration and specific educational leadership practices.

What makes good leaders?
The common denominator in these college/university end-of-program comprehensive exams as well as in the state-required standardized tests for principals is the focus on cognitive practices and administrative trends in the profession of school leadership. What is not found in any of these assessments of potential school leaders is an identification of the personal leadership traits that make up great educational leaders. The college/university and state tests are designed to test specific cognitive areas of knowledge needed by school leaders and do not test personal leadership traits.

However, when the discussion turns to what makes great school leaders or superior principals the talk is not about the course content mastered in graduate school or the test scores on college comprehensive exams or GPAs or scores on state required tests for principal certification.

These high-stakes tests and graduate school degrees are understood to be minimum requirements for entry into the school principalship. The talk or discussion about outstanding principals as great leaders usually focuses on the personal leadership traits that can’t be measured in graduate school courses, college GPAs and state standardized tests.

The goal of these standardized test by states and colleges is not to predict great educational leaders or school principals. The goal of these tests is to measure specific skills or knowledge needed by school principals. These tests measure the learning of aspiring principals, not their personal leadership traits. States set minimum test scores needed to qualify for state certification of school principals. Such licensing or certification standards are needed in all professions.

More than the basics
School boards have come to realize that there’s more to getting the best principals than just considering the basics such as references, degrees, experience, state certification, and scores on state tests. School boards are advised to look for key leadership traits in addition to those criteria just cited. These leadership traits can be gleaned by a careful and thorough examination of the candidate.

Once the school board identifies specific leadership traits desired in the candidates, the board can then inform the administration accordingly as to what traits are desired. The administration and/or search committee then looks for these traits in addition to the qualifications listed on the job posting.

Leadership traits needed by the best principals or the suggested list of best practices held by superior principals are:

  • Vision: Great leaders have a concept, a dream, a goal, or an anticipation of that which could be achieved in their school. Great leaders have great visions and strive to make them into reality – often when others do not have this vision or yet see the dream.
  • Commitment: Great leaders are very passionate or to achieving their goal or their vision in their schools and keep at it until it is achieved – or when others would have given up long before. They are committed to making a school great.
  • Passion: Great leaders are intense or very ardent and enthusiastic about that which they are striving to achieve in their school. Passion is different from commitment. Passion is the ardor or the fire to develop and maintain an excellent school. Commitment is the stick-to-itiveness.
  • Knowledge: It is a given that great leaders have the cognitive skills and knowledge of what they are attempting to achieve. Great leaders strive to impart the knowledge and cognition needed to lead others to reach the same conclusions about their schools.
  • People skills: Great education leaders have great people skills. To make great ideas into reality and to make schools into great schools, it takes people. Great leaders can lead others to achieve that which is often thought to be unachievable It is the TEAM rule that Together Everyone Achieves More rule that makes a great school.
  • Thoughtful: Great leaders always put others above self. Great leaders are always thoughtful of others. Great leaders generate loyalty in their faculty and staff by their thoughtfulness.
  • Energetic: Great leaders put in time and energy into making their vision become a reality. Exceptional achievement always takes exceptional energy. Great schools are often made because of great energy from great leaders.
  • Sets and maintains standards: Great leaders set minimum performance standards and require those in their schools to meet these levels. Excellence is a goal of all great leaders.
  • Great communicator: Great leaders are always great communicators. Great leaders can and do effectively communicate their ideas, which often are far ahead of other’s thinking. Great principals and educational leaders are always highly verbal and very articulate.
  • Great principals are visible in the organization: The axiom of MBWA (Management by wandering around) is a key ingredient often seen in great leaders. Great leaders are not locked in their offices isolated from faculty, staff, students and parents. Great principals get out of the office and frequently see faculty, staff, students by visits, walk-throughs, attending events, and meetings.
  • Gives credit to others: Great leaders always give credit to others for the success of a great school. Great leaders follow the old axiom that “success has a thousand fathers whereas failure has but one” and great principals know success breeds more and more success.
  • Have integrity: Great leaders have ethics and honor.
  • Hire the best: Great school leaders hire “team players” or “helpers” who assist in making the vision happen. As the saying goes, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus” in great schools under great leaders. Great leaders surround themselves with the best.

Why are some schools great?
There is no claim that this list of personal traits found in great principals is inclusive. I am sure you can think of some personal leadership traits that are not listed here. And not all great school leaders have all these traits. School leadership is the process of enlisting and guiding the talents and energies of teachers, support staff, students, and parents toward achieving certain specific educational aims that culminate in a great school.

The skills to effectively lead and influence people in school organizations do vary greatly from leader to leader. Best practices tell us while these skills obviously vary from leader to leader, all great leaders have commonalities in leadership traits such as those listed here. The passage of college coursework, college-university comprehensive exams, and state required standardized tests are all only the beginning – they only open the door to actual school leadership as a principal. Great educational leaders then build from this point, using their exceptional personal leadership talents in conjunction with all the cognition skills and knowledge required of all school leaders.

Having served for years as a school superintendent, before retiring and going into higher education, I can tell you that I hired many principals, assistant superintendents, and central office directors. I was always looking for those who could become great school leaders. During the screening and interview process or during the entire personnel search process, I was always looking for those personal leadership traits in the candidates because I knew these were needed to become a great educational leader, and I know great leaders build great schools. These personal leadership traits in candidates could not be gleaned from all the paper credentials submitted such as applications, resumes, credentials, transcripts and state test scores.

When the question is asked why are some schools great, the answer is always great leadership in the principal. The determinants of great leadership that take a school from good to great are usually found in the personal leadership traits that the best principals have.

Great principals are made, not born. Great principals have developed these outstanding personal leadership skills from their graduate school days through their early employment years. School board members who want great schools should seek the best principals. Great principals build great schools.

Robert L. Zorn (, a retired school superintendent, is the director of the Westminster College Graduate School in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

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