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NU #13: Five Attributes of High Performing School Leaders

I care a great deal about the future of leaders in our public schools.

Now more than ever, we will require the brightest & most innovative educators to take on this important work.

In this current employment & economic market - where educators are flocking towards other job possibilities or entering retirement - we will need to intensively support those who choose to stay. We will want to help them to build their careers carefully. There is definitely a specific set of skills required to address the future needs of our students. Is this a tall order? You bet it is! And, it’s time to think differently about how to best prepare our new & upcoming school leaders.

There are some key attributes that are non-negotiable to thrive and excel in this role.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to make a couple of assumptions. Our future leaders will have these baseline attributes already in place … let’s assume that:

a) that these candidates have excellent understanding of effective classroom instruction. I am going to assume that planning, delivery, assessment & evaluation are all up to par.

b) these candidates enjoy and love to make a difference in the lives of kids. No person will ever have the necessary impact in schools if they don’t love the day-to-day student contact & interactions.

If I were up to me, I would invest significant time, energy, training and effort in developing the right people in these five areas:

  1. I would ensure that leaders have high levels of emotional resilience & emotional regulation.

  2. I would ensure that he or she was proficient at establishing incredible connections with people.

  3. They need to be an expert communicator.

  4. I support the idea that they need to become a workflow genius.

  5. Lastly, they need to be politically savvy & astute.

Attribute #1: They have high emotional resilience & are experts in emotional regulation.

It is my belief that this is the number one characteristic that a Principal must possess. I recognize that this characteristic can be called something else ( emotional intelligence, social intelligence, emotional awareness…) , but this area is a 100% "must have".

A person who is easily agitated, angered or frustrated is not the right fit. Instead, the role requires an individual who is highly aware of his or her own levels of emotions and their intensity. Furthermore, they need to know how their demeanor impacts those around them. The role requires a person who can remain calm and still exercise good judgment while everyone else is feeling exhausted or losing their minds. The ability to lead with empathy and to think critically in intense situations are skills that can be hard to learn and execute. The job requires a person who is calm, steady and predictable - a person who does not escalate quickly. The ideal candidate is someone who can not only manage their own emotions in situations of difficulty, they can also support other adults & students in stressful situations.

The ideal person is an expert in not taking things personally and can always separate the person from the behavior on display. The mindset of not being easily offended is a huge asset. They also know that diffusing situations that are escalating is well worth the effort.

This highly professional person understands that not everyone will like them and they are perfectly okay with that. They realize that being well-liked is not the gig. Their attention is focused on what’s best for kids and if some of this flies in the face of popular approval, so be it. They are comfortable enough in their own skin to feel confident that their decision-making is on point and have the skills to navigate any objections or criticism that might follow.

This educator has the ability to bounce back from tough situations quickly and knows that it’s much healthier to “let things go” instead of spending energy on things that are in the past or things they cannot control.

Attribute #2 - They are amazing at establishing connections.

The ideal avatar for this position is obsessed with the business of building connections and does this instinctively. Building great connections is in this person’s DNA and is always top of mind.

This "builder of people" knows that facilitating and connecting is everything. They build rapport & trust quickly. They energize the people around them, and they know that they have high credibility because their words and actions match. They are highly visible and people seem to enjoy being in their presence. They have robust networks around them and there is a long line of educators who want to join their team.

This relationship builder is also highly personable and authentic. They know and are genuinely interested in the personal lives of the people they work with and the students they serve - a true “people person”.

Attribute #3: They are an expert communicator.

The modern Principal has a thousand different lines of communication open all at the same time. This is not a responsibility to take lightly.

This educator is articulate, clear and concise. He or she doesn’t mince words and knows their audience at all times.

Being an expert listener is a huge part of being an expert communicator and this person is highly skilled at listening for understanding - and not listening to simply formulate a response. They are also in touch with the "hidden message" which may be buried in the undercurrent of an issue. They know when to ask the deeper question in order to get to the root of the issue.

About feedback… This person is always asking for relevant feedback and giving it. Their feedback loop operates in both directions. He or she speaks openly and with candor. There is no wasted breath on hearsay or gossip. These negative streams of communication get shut down quickly when it comes to their attention.

This person speaks and acts with purpose. There is little left unsaid, no room for assumptions and tough news is delivered in a caring manner where the intention is always to improve - and not to tear down.

They are also dialed in to the importance of their gestures and body language. They hold themselves (physically) in a positive manner and put out good energy with how they behave at all times.

Attribute #4 : They are a genius at creating and managing their workflow.

What exactly do I mean by this? Let me elaborate …

It’s pretty simple… this person builds operating systems that work for them. They don’t allow other people or other events to continuously drive or dictate their workflow or attention. They know exactly where they are headed and have guardrails in place to protect these objectives. They protect their time and energy at all cost.They prioritize like crazy and have no trouble communicating their priorities. They appreciate and value how technology can assist them - without letting it become robotic or impersonal.

These educators automate, delegate or eliminate. They are easily able to prioritize what needs to be done and can sift through the non-important with efficacy. They quickly recognize competing priorities and know where to focus their energy.

These men and women do not micromanage the people around them. They trust that when a task is assigned to a member of their team that it gets done. In the rare instance that something isn’t done on time or correctly, there is a coaching opportunity and the conversation is around responsibility or accountability. There is no blame or shame.

This person knows to focus on the big stuff and to look beyond the noise & the silliness.

Attribute #5 - They are politically savvy & astute.

In short, they know and understand who is connected to who. They pay close attention to this and keep this in mind when communicating ideas and initiatives. This is highly tactical and truly important when working through complex problems and initiatives - both at the school level and District level.

They know - with pretty good accuracy - who is saying what … and to whom. They understand how information flows from Board to School, from School to Parents, from Admin to Staff and from Staff to Students. They are able to predict and anticipate what types of issues may arise next. They are not surprised by likely outcomes because they have good intuition and trust that they can handle whatever comes their way. More importantly, this allows them to act quickly when their intuitions do become reality, because they’ve already thought about how they might proceed.

At the school level, they prioritize their decision-making based on their best teachers. They are not afraid to hold their underperformers accountable and that feedback is given to them on an individual & differentiated basis - not for the high performers to hear - because it’s not relevant to them.

Wrapping Up:

I acknowledge that many will have a different list of "top five" attributes compared to the ones that I have outlined here and that’s perfectly okay. I agree that for many Districts, their criteria for selecting future leaders will depend on a long list of leadership competencies that may vary greatly. At the moment, these five resonate with me & I am open to the possibility that I may need to revisit my selections - in terms of their future relevance or importance.

Setting all that aside, here’s what I care about the most… I care that we’re having this conversation, listening to each other’s points of view so that we can determine what is relevant & practical and what is not.

For me, I want the group of future school leaders to know that the current group of leaders is already looking ahead at how to best support them. We need to share what we have already learned with this aspiring group, while being truly generous in how we contribute to their future success.

That's all I have for now. Thanks for reading.



Do you have anything to add or did I miss something? Drop me a line at

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