Searching for the "IT" Factor in Principals...
Is it Talent or Skill?
The difficulty of the role of the principal is well documented. If you are an educational junkie like me, chances are you have stumbled on more than a handful of articles and books on school leadership in general, and being an effective school principal specifically. I should know, I have written about it myself. In my years as a principal at both the elementary and secondary level, and later as a person responsible for both hiring and training them, I have gained some valuable insight into what makes a school leader effective. No lesson has been greater than this: It is next to impossible to predict who will be a great principal and who will not. There are so many styles and variables between school settings that predicting the “IT” factor needed for a particular situation is very difficult.
I have worked with individuals over the years that I was convinced were going to be great principals, but once they were in the role, they struggled mightily. Even more humbling, I have witnessed individuals thrive in the role when I was convinced they would have a very short shelf life. While my own incompetence may play a part in the hits and misses, I can also say with confidence I am not the only one.
It is in that vein, that I began the process of intentionally searching for what I believe to be the key characteristics to principal effectiveness. I am searching for the “IT” factor that principals need to be successful. One Google search can lead you down a path of enough “effectiveness” articles to keep you reading from now until the next school year. Basha Krasnoff, in an article entitled Leadership Qualities of Effective Principals did an excellent job of summarizing the literature. Much of the research will include a reference to creating a learning climate and/or being an instructional leader, having high expectations, being a good communicator, improving instruction, etc. A 2019 eSchool News article, What Makes a Great Principal? shared by East Carolina University recognized seven characteristics of a great principal. It identified:
All of these, I would agree, help principals be more effective and lead their schools in a positive and productive way. Even research companies such as Gallup have identified cultivating school climate, high expectations, and investing in others as the keys to effective principals.
As my search for the “IT” factor continues, I believe that many school districts and those that mentor and train principals may be asking the wrong questions of themselves and those they are trying to support. While the literature is pretty clear on the characteristics of a great school principal (some variation of the characteristics noted above), and there is no doubt that Leadership Matters as a key to creating great schools, the answer to identifying the “IT” factor may be buried into the concept of Talent vs. Skill.
If you are willing to conclude that we have a pretty consistent set of characteristics identified commonly in the literature regarding top qualities of effective principals then the next question must be, can these characteristics be learned by campus administrators, or are they naturally ingrained? The idea that you either have them or you don't.
To do this, we must discuss the differences between Talent vs. Skill. A talent is something that someone is born with and it generally comes naturally to him/her. Talents can be cultivated and improved through practice and coaching, but there is a certain amount of innate ability that these people have that makes them naturally good at things. Another consideration to keep in mind is that any recognized talent is generally shared by a small percentage of people. Not everyone has natural talent. Singing, for example, could be considered a natural talent...while anyone can sing, many people probably shouldn’t.
A skill, on the other hand, is something that a person can learn to do. It may not come naturally to them, but through proper training and hard work, they can become more than proficient to perform any given task.
I am convinced that five key areas make an effective principal and I will argue that all five of them are skills that can be cultivated and therefore the elusive “IT” factor may not be as mysterious as it seems. What if the "IT" factor can be learned?
An exemplary principal should practice and have supportive training in the following five skills.
Instructional Leadership- No one is born an instructional leader. They develop these skills over time. The primary purpose of a school leader is to influence and guide instructional practices on campus. This includes, but is not limited to, providing feedback, supporting teachers, designing and modeling expectations for lesson design, pedagogy, and accountability. Some educators may gravitate to it more than others, but through proper training AND persistence, those willing to work hard can greatly improve their skills in this area. The important thing to remember is that you are responsible for the learning and teaching in your building. You may not be in front of students every day, but you are the “lead learner” in your school and you must be actively involved every day. School districts that hire principals and fail to share adequate and ongoing training in instructional leadership do a disservice to well-meaning campus administrators.
Servant Leadership- Now, more than ever, our campus administrators need to lead with a servant's heart. It may be easy to say that of the five skills, this one comes the closest to being a natural talent, but I believe with guidance, practice, and embedded expectations, principals can develop servant leadership skills. Principals that are intentional about planning activities that can model servant leadership will gain trust and credibility from those they are trying to lead. Little things like covering a class for a sick teacher or developing a system that ensures you check on everyone, students, and staff can go a long way. Again, it may seem as if this is something that comes naturally to some, but by providing a mentor and having open and honest conversations, servant leadership is also a skill that can be developed.
Learning Leader - A school leader must model life-long learning. This is most definitely a skill that can be developed. It takes persistence and time but considers this section a personal accountability piece. Are you willing to accept the responsibility to keep learning? Many principals were excellent teachers, but some may have been experts in a particular content or grade level. Building instructional credibility with your staff is important. Perhaps even more important is for a principal to be curious and constantly seeking new and innovative ways to impact learning and teaching on their campus. Principals with the “IT” factor when it comes to being a Learning Leader do two essential things: 1. They are intentional about saving time for their own learning. You cannot be innovative or grow if you do not take some time each week to learn more about your craft. They are absolutely curious. 2. They find ways to make sure their staff, and even their students and parents, know they are learning. They share with them. They ask them questions. They become a collaborative learner with everyone.
Communication Leader- The “IT” factor for principals must include building the skills to communicate with all stakeholders in a variety of ways. Some call it school branding, but the most effective principals know how to share their expectations, but they also know how to use such tools as social media to continually build goodwill and communicate the positive things happening at their schools. I have seen twenty-year veteran principals that once thought they could never navigate Twitter, begin to use it to highlight students and teachers daily. This is a skill they developed, not a natural talent. How do you communicate with your school community? Newsletters, social media, stump speeches, etc. All of these things are often overlooked skills, but the principal is the face and the voice of the campus and communication is key. They may have a talent for it, but it is a skill that can be learned if one is intentional about it. Branding your campus is important. Too often, the great things happening at a school go unrecognized, but they don't have to. In this day and age of social media and the ease in which technology can be utilized, a principal should seek ways to effectively communicate both internally and externally with all stakeholders.
Celebrations/Reflection- Both of these are skills that must be developed over time. Principals must intentionally plan time to both celebrate and reflect on what is going on at their school. I encourage you NOT to be random with neither your celebrations nor reflections each week. Have you ever worked at a place where your boss did neither? There probably were not bad people, but it was just not the type of thing they did naturally. It wasn't a talent. Environments like this can be draining because most people want to be recognized and celebrated. A strong principal will develop the skills needed to ensure a healthy culture and climate. In addition to the celebrations, an "It" factor principal implements individual and group reflection in order to continually develop a learning culture.
The good news is that the "IT" factor in principals, while difficult to predict in advance, can be skills that are developed systematically over time. Proper levels of support, mixed with hard work and persistence can transform a well-meaning principal into a truly exemplary one.