What makes an effective principal?

What makes an effective principal?

As the custodians of the next generation’s education, principals have one of the most busy and important jobs there are, yet the time and material resources to support this mammoth responsibility are often lacking.

However, as evidenced by many principals’ tremendous teaching and learning outcomes, some have found a recipe for success, whether it’s of their own initiative or from a collaborative effort.

So, what makes an effective school principal?

Renowned Finnish author, speaker and education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, said great leaders are also leading learners.

“If leaders don’t learn, then the learning in the organisations they lead is not likely to flourish,” Sahlberg told The Educator.

“Effective school principals take risks when they learn and try out new ways to do things better. This means that good school leaders learn how to fail, learn from their mistakes, and continuously improve what they do based on their lessons from previous experiences.”

Sahlberg said effective school principals don’t operate in a vacuum but rather reflect the values, beliefs, traditions, and cultures embedded in their schools.

“It is no wonder, then, that leadership cultures in schools vary greatly from education system to another,” Sahlberg said.

“We have known for decades based on international research that school leadership is one of the most important in-school factors that explain how well students learn in school.”

However, Sahlberg pointed out that effectiveness of leadership is often overlooked when trying to explain why some school systems perform better than the rest.

“For example, since the early 2000s, most of the efforts to explain Finland’s educational success in international assessments have paid only marginal attention to educational leadership,” he said.

“I would argue, however, that Finland has a unique culture of leadership characterized by the abovementioned features, just like Australia, that deserves to be noted.”

‘Effective principals relish in their role’

Beth Blackwood is CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), said effective principals are passionate about “human flourishing”.

“They relish their role in helping students become the best humans they can be,” Blackwood told The Educator.

However, she pointed out that moral and mental toughness are also pre-requisites of the job. 

“The health of a whole community may depend on a principal’s courage to stand by their values. Effective school leadership is only possible when Heads are guided by a strong moral compass,” she explained.

“Heads will often sum up their leadership style as servant leadership. An important attribute of servant leadership is the readiness to learn – from the ideas of others as much as from one’s own or others’ mistakes.”

Blackwood said that in independent schools this is seen as evident in innovations in curriculum and co-curriculum delivery, student and staff wellbeing programs, technological adaptation and in the built learning environment.

“Readiness to listen to and learn from others is an essential skill for building staff engagement and creating team building. And perhaps this is the secret to effective school leadership today,” she said.

“A principal may tick many of the boxes of good management, but without relational skills they will not be highly successful school leaders. For effective leadership of intensely human endeavours such as schools, EQ is just as important as IQ.”

‘Seeing the bigger picture’

To Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals' Association (ASPA) president, there are five key characteristics that all effective secondary principals have.

“The first is that are purposeful, making a difference to young people’ futures. They demonstrate education gravitas,” Pierpoint told The Educator.

Secondly, says Pierpoint, they are strategic. “This involves bringing together challenge, complexity, problem solving and diversity. They see the big picture,” he said.

“Principals must also be edu-preneurial; that is, being creative, educative, imaginative, dynamic and have political acumen.”

The fourth key characteristic Pierpoint cites is the need for principals to be collaborative.

“Leaders must work together to create positive futures and strong communities through relational trust,” he said.

“Finally, they are inspirational – positively influencing others, giving joy and fulfilment.”

'The effective leader is not alone'

South Australian Primary Principals' Association (SAPPA) president, Angela Falkenberg, said the effective principal "knows what is important and holds the line on the things that matter."

"Every school context is different, and the effective leader understands this and attends to what is important," Falkenberg told The Educator.

Another important trait of effective leaders, says Falkenberg, is being aware that they not alone and leveraging the available support when they require it. 

"They have access to the support they need, when they need it, be it staff recruitment, wellbeing or in creating the culture where all can experience psychological and physical safety," she said.

"An effective school leader believes that things can be better and finds creative ways to do so; their mantra is 'as we know better, we do better'. They are an influencer and understand the power of effort in creating the learning that every child deserves."

‘A strong sense of purpose and stewardship’

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president, Chris Presland, largely agrees with Pierpoint, saying an effective school leader embodies “a strong sense of purpose and stewardship”.

“Quality leadership is about having the knowledge, capabilities and processes necessary to explore and articulate a collaboratively developed sense of purpose,” Presland told The Educator.

“Good leaders are driven by a sense of stewardship and possess the capabilities to engender in others that same sense of personal responsibility and accountability for what happens in their own domain.”

Presland said the best school leaders are inspirational in that they inspire those around them to reach even higher capabilities and to be driven by a belief in the value of serving the needs of every child.

“These leaders constantly work to develop quality relationships at all levels, to build community, to embody the concept of service to others and to engage in a relentless pursuit of self and organisational improvement,” he said.