The essence of the principal’s role is a combination of school leader and school manager, and the leadership and management components are far from mutually exclusive. In fact, a strong management framework must be in place before sustainable leadership has a legitimate chance to prosper.

Management issues tend to be more immediate and shorter-term, whereas leadership initiatives extend well into the future. School management is typically about maintaining the status quo, whereas school leadership is largely about embracing change and facilitating ongoing growth.

The principal’s attitude towards change and growth understandably plays a critical role in encouraging genuine staff engagement. Teachers need to know that the leader is actually going to “walk the talk” and support their work with the appropriate allocation of time, resources and finances.

It is important to stress, however, that any changes in school direction should represent relatively minor detours within the annual school plan. Conversely, frequently charting significantly new courses becomes very disconcerting and frustrating for staff, as they feel they are working in the midst of a leadership void. The bottom line is that school leaders need to be flexible, but within an established framework.

The reality for any principal is that a given school day, or week for that matter, may require an intense management focus with little or no time devoted to leadership per se. Over the course of the school year, however, the principal must be committed to spending the vast majority of his/her time on leadership. There are five key tenets of this leadership mandate: embracing change, monitoring progress, recognizing responsibilities, sharing concerns and promoting growth.

Embracing Change

Ongoing change in greater society is inevitable, and the school system is far from immune. The tremendous impact of the pandemic on long-standing educational practices is an extreme example of unforeseen, and very fluid, circumstances that can demand sudden and profound change. Principals need to continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure a safe teaching and learning environment.

The vast majority of change initiatives clearly evolve at a much slower pace than the immediacy of the pandemic. Principals need to take the time to establish and nurture a collaborative culture in which people feel comfortable in sharing their hesitations and concerns. More dialogue undoubtedly slows the change process somewhat, but it makes it far more likely that the ultimate decisions will be well received and sustainable.

Monitoring Progress

Working with staff to get their genuine “buy in” on school initiatives is a key part of the principal’s role, but it only represents the tip of the leadership iceberg. Ensuring a much deeper level of commitment requires the principal to monitor actively the implementation of these agreed upon foci.

This monitoring process relies on both quantitative and qualitative data. In today’s technological world, the stream of potential quantitative data is virtually endless, but qualitative data can also yield some important and insightful information. It is essential for principals to routinely utilize both types of data to determine the next best steps if results fall below expectations.

Recognizing Responsibilities

The essence of successful servant leadership is working collaboratively with others rather than simply trying to impose one’s vision. Staff members must know that the principal is working with them, not around them. People must feel genuinely empowered, and know that their thoughts and opinions are truly valued.

There are times, however, when the principal needs to step up and unilaterally take charge of a situation. These types of circumstances are typically triggered by some kind of significant conflict, which is generally rooted in a major safety concern and/or an issue with a highly agitated parent. At these times, the principal’s life in the leadership fishbowl is at its most heavily scrutinized. All eyes and ears are fixed upon the leader, and all stakeholders expect, and deserve, calmness and clarity far more than any sense of collaboration.

Sharing Concerns

The need for the vast majority of challenging conversations will arise when some staff are either not buying in or genuinely struggling to keep up. Principals can never turn a blind eye to these types of concerns, as ensuring the optimal learning environment for every child in the school is one’s moral imperative.

Even the most contentious issues must always be addressed in a respectful and productive manner. Such conversations with staff have traditionally been defined by words such as critical and courageous, but their lasting impact is far more about being creative than anything else.

The principal’s goal, and responsibility, is ultimately to get everyone on board. This journey is time consuming and includes many expected, and unexpected, twists and turns. True leaders convey the right amount of pressure and support, while avoiding the temptation of presenting heavy handed ultimatums.

Promoting Growth

Another key aspect of impactful school leadership involves actively supporting aspiring leaders with both short-term opportunities for growth and long-term career guidance. One key aspect of the principal’s role is obviously to model for and mentor the vice-principal, but there will also be other staff members who deserve active support and encouragement.

Progressive leaders recognize that supporting worthy teachers in future pursuits may well result in the departure of some quality staff members from the school. Actively advocating for skilled and motivated people, however, creates a win-win scenario. Most importantly, in the shorter-term students receive a high quality education through current pedagogy and passionate instruction. In the longer term, schools with a reputation as a fertile ground for professional advancement become attractive options for potential incoming staff.

About the authors

Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Ontario. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast.