As a director of secondary education for one of the largest school districts in California, I coach, support, and supervise many principals. If I’ve learned anything from doing so, it is that they are all quite different—each with their own unique style, skill set, and challenges. A principal of mine was in tears on the phone one day, needing to process a heated exchange that had just occurred with a teacher. The same day, another principal struggled aloud with how to bridge an interpersonal gap with a group of students.
Often in these conversations, I put my high school principal hat back on and think about how I would have handled a similar situation. Of course, the fallacy of this approach is in its failure to recognize that leadership styles are as unique as the number of principals out there. I admit, I’m guilty of coaching site leaders to be more like I was as a principal—the heart-on-your-sleeve, vulnerable type—when I need to be tapping into who they are and drawing the best out of them. Depending on the structure and culture of your district, you may or may not receive much coaching support from the central office at all; either way, you can tap into your style and strengths as a blueprint for how you can lead most effectively. In my experience with principals, I’ve witnessed the following strengths in action, often in ways I could never have pulled off myself as a principal.
Some of our deepest thinkers can appear to have the least to say. In reality, they’re processing, reflecting, and making meaningful connections. They don’t make rash decisions and are adept at considering ramifications and impacts on people and systems. If you are a deep thinker, let people know that you will need time to process information or arrive at a decision. Be sure to revisit topics that were left unresolved. When possible, share your thoughts aloud with others; that metacognitive process can be illuminating for those of us who speak first and think later.
If you can read the emotional temperature in a room and easily adjust, you likely possess this strength. And if you’ve ever given a speech that made people cry, you probably are one who connects emotionally with your audience. This strength can be leveraged to rally your school community around a shared sense of purpose while demonstrating insight and empathy for others. However, be careful not to burn out by taking on others’ emotions too deeply or by personalizing reactions pointed at your position or institution and not at you as a person.
When a problem needs to be solved, some principals’ first thoughts are, “I know just the team to tackle this,” and “I wonder how my mentor/colleague would approach this?” Collaborative leaders are energized by the ideas and input of others and recognize collective wisdom as more powerful than their own. Often humble to a fault, principals who possess this strength celebrate and showcase the talents of others in ways that inspire and build shared efficacy. Collaborators also need to accept praise and credit when due and even toot their own horns occasionally, as uncomfortable as that is for them.
Principals with strong analytical skills are not just comfortable with data; they need it to make sense of all they are charged with managing. This ability to analyze programs, performance, and actions based on concrete measures is undervalued in public education and tremendously important. In addition to seeing the patterns and outcomes, if you can question, interpret, and convey them to others, your analytical skills will serve you well. Beware that many of us in your sphere are much less comfortable with data and need you to tell us the story of what it represents so that we can get on board with digging into it.
Some principals are “big picture” people who are comfortable in uncertain spaces—where innovation is required—while others are terrified by this space. Having a vision for your school and, more importantly, bringing in stakeholders so that it becomes a shared vision are critical attributes for principals to possess. If this is a natural process for you, you are fortunate—just bear in mind that many are skeptical of “vision people,” wondering if they will follow through when it comes down to the nitty-gritty details. Know that you’ll need to balance creativity and vision with boots-on-the-ground implementation to build trust and shared ownership within your organization.
Each of us, as leaders, dreams of possessing all these strengths, although we know it’s not our reality. Instead, you’ll get the most mileage out of really knowing yourself and your values, strengths, and frailties so that you can leverage those attributes while actively surrounding yourself with others who possess the qualities you lack. Whatever it is that makes you tick, share it with those you lead so that they can understand your perspective. That way, they’re more likely to become invested in what you’re trying to accomplish.
Amy L. Besler, EdD, is the director of secondary education for Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, CA.