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3 Minute Read
May 9, 2024

Characteristics of Great School Principals

What exactly makes a good principal? We have seven top qualities to guide your path forward.

Our nation’s schools need more good leaders. The impact of a strong school principal cannot be underestimated. Did you know that highly effective principals can fuel up to three months of added learning each year? In fact, the impact of an above-average principal compared to an average principal can be as much as 20 percentage points on student achievement. 

How do principals do this? We can teach you. 

Our list of top leadership qualities includes a range of characteristics that we’ve seen effective principals bring to life in their schools. For more than 20 years, New Leaders has equipped equity-minded education leaders to be powerful and positive forces for change, especially in the most marginalized communities. We’ve seen first-hand what school leadership takes. 

But it’s equally important to remember that leaders are developed. At New Leaders, we believe that everyone has untapped leadership potential. Of course, some leaders may seem like naturals (as if they were born a school leader), but most education leaders cultivate and refine their skills over time. You can too. This is what it means to have a growth mindset

It’s not necessary to have every quality. No leader does; all leaders have growth areas. But a combination of several key leadership qualities will increase your impact. 

Seven qualities of a successful school leader

  1. Empowering: A shared vision drives lasting change in schools, but that vision for instruction can’t be held by the principal alone. Instructional leadership means providing clear direction on what learning and teaching look like for all involved. Do you motivate others in your circle of influence to implement best practices in their classrooms?
  2. Inclusive: In addition to having an unwavering belief in the brilliance of every child, as an effective leader, it is essential to listen, value, and engage with multiple perspectives beyond your own viewpoint. In what ways do you welcome and honor all voices in your decision making or classroom community?
  3. Adaptive: Leading for change is never easy, but maintaining the status quo in schools is not an option either. Adaptive leaders see challenges less as obstacles and more as a way to learn together and uncover novel solutions. Do you see yourself as a learner or as someone who has all the answers?
  4. Equity-focused: An equity mindset is essential for driving lasting change in our nation’s schools. Being an equity-focused leader means you replace systems that do not serve all students with systems that do. You work to ensure all students are seen, heard, and valued. In what ways do you recognize bias in yourself or in others and work to challenge it? 
  5. Self-reflective: Taking time to pause and look in the “mirror” not only helps leaders to grow, it strengthens their problem-solving skills and nurtures a healthy school culture. It is also a key ingredient for professional learning. How often do you stop to self-reflect before jumping in and taking action?
  6. Systems thinker: Effective school leaders create systems that advance equity, support teacher growth, and improve student achievement by transforming corners of excellence into schoolwide excellence. How do you use or create systems to improve your instruction or support your team in accelerating student learning outcomes?  
  7. Resilient: Unpredictable and constant are often the adjectives school principals choose to describe their days. Being resilient means staying focused on what matters most—student success—amid times of uncertainty and crisis. How have you demonstrated resilience or empowered others to be more resilient?

These qualities help great leaders to build great schools and create the conditions in which students and teachers thrive. And they will help you as you learn to lead and become a great principal too. Our Fellowship develops leaders who redefine what is possible. 

If you’re still not sure about your next step, take our Principal Readiness Quiz.

Fellow, Michelle Means, cut out in orange square frame | Fellowship Images
Michelle Means
Fellowship Alum, '23
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