School Leadership

Jim Rosborg

Chapter One


(Second edition, 2007)


The greatest single ingredient to the success of an educational organization is still school leadership. Much has been written about it. The purpose of this book is not to debate the great theorists but to enhance their work with some practical insights that come from being a respected superintendent or principal.

We greatly appreciate the works of Amitai Etzioni, Fred Fiedler, Frederick Herzberg, Wayne Hoy, Douglas McGregor, B. F. Skinner, Ralph Stogdill, and the other great theorists. Yet many of their leadership theories were written before the development of unions, collective bargaininglaws, email, and state standards. Times have changed. Our goal is to offer you modern-day suggestions for success in school leadership.

Effectiveness has to be the goal of school leadership. What is effectiveness? In school administration today, effectiveness is defined by the use of the qualities discussed in this chapter.

Effectiveness is a huge challenge, particularly since school systems have become easy targets in today’s society. The general public hears about declining test scores, teacher discontent, and the lack of disciplinein the schools. School officials must deal with decreasing parent support, declining enrollments, and more mandates unaccompanied by necessary funds. School leaders used to be able to focus on short-term individual student performance problems. Recent issues such as charter schools, vouchers, school choice, federal legislation, declining enrollments, and the consolidation of small schools present the leaders with long-term problems of survival.

As the school leader, you must attack these problems head on. You must face the reality that your success is going to be defined by your ability to reach objectives having to do with a multitude of sub-systems. Your job success will be evaluated by such subjects as physical facilities and equipment; the effectiveness of teachers; the school’s curriculum; test scores; public relations; your effectiveness with the media, stakeholders, and politicians; collective bargaining; diversity; changing demographics; school safety; the perception of school discipline; and the monies available to fund programs. Add to this your need to have specific knowledge about transportation, special education, technology, buildings and grounds, food services, diversity issues, unionorganizations, health issues, and personnel. Talk about a challenging road to success!

This success has to be achieved in a time when control is continually being taken away from the local Board of Education. While the authors of this book disagree with the philosophy of less local control, it is a reality that all school leaders must face in the 21st century. Can a school leader be effective when confronted by all of these obstacles? Our opinion is that you can by putting together your own formula for success. Within that formula, we feel that, whatever your leadership style, the following 20 topics must be considered and included:


What is best for kids?


Many times superintendents and principals find themselves in a thankless middle position in conflicts between personnel. No matter what decision is made, at best there will be a winner and a loser; at worst, both lose. In part, that’s because a successful school leader will not base his/her decision on the individuals involved but on the decision’s outcome for kids. Often that is not the easiest decision, but it’s always the right one.

Successful leaders work to maximize the academic success of students. They also find time to be with kids. How can you find that time?


1. Allocate 15 minutes each day to walk through a school in your district. If you have just one school, walk from one end to the other every day.

2. Start talking to kids two days a week as they enter school. If you are a building principal, make every effort to be out in the hallways before and after school to converse with students, parents, and teachers.

3. Pick two events per week in your district to attend. If your schedule is tight, don’t sit down. Circulate through the room. This makes it much easier to leave unnoticed.

4. Be aware of building and individual classroom calendars so you can attend special events such as grandparents’ day, parent volunteer day, and other special awards days.

5. Send notes to kids who earn special achievements, even if the achievement is outside the school (like Eagle Scouts award ceremonies and scholarships). Attendance at these ceremonies makes the event even more special for the student.


Always be nice to students—one day they may be Board members! Once an administrator gets the reputation of being proactive for students, respect will be gained in every stakeholdercircle.


Show a good work ethic


If you expect those around you to give maximum effort, then you as the leader must also be perceived as a hard worker willing to put in the time needed for student success. In an educational organization, everyone simply has to work hard. The example for this work ethicmust start at the top. People will know how hard you work. There is no need to “toot your own horn.” Hard work pays off for system success. You must be there for your staff. You must be willing to roll up your sleeves to get the job done. Many times I have helped my maintenance men and custodians. They ask if I’m concerned about getting my clothes dirty. My reply is, “If the cleaners can’t clean my clothes after helping get a job done, then I need to change cleaners.”


Be teacher friendly


Almost all school administrators were once teachers themselves. Sad to say, many administrators forget this. School leaders must not forget what it took to be a successful teacher. Teaching takes as much hard work and dedication as it does to be a school administrator. Teachers just have different responsibilities within the organization. No position is better than another. People have simply made different choices in what they want to be. Teachers are still the front line of defense for schools and the front line of success for students. The goal of school administrators has to be the removal of barriers that impede the teaching and learning process. If teachers are successful, there is a good chance the school administrator will be successful. Being supportive of teachers and being friendly with them not only makes good sense, it leads to better relations with the teachers’ union, and that helps reach settlements in the collective bargainingprocess. How do you do it?


1. Strongly support teachers when they disciplinestudents.

2. Work hard to help your staff be recognized for local, state, and national awards.

3. Meet monthly with district and building leaders to discuss problems and formulate solutions.

4. Attend events that involve faculty.

5. Write positive notes to staff memberspraising the great job that they do.

6. Support professional developmentactivities. If these activities can be done in conjunction with the teachers’ union, an even more powerful bond between the administrator and teachers will develop.


Grow mule skin


Mules are noted for their thick skin. A successful school leader needs the same. In the education business, administrators deal with many people, each with his/her own opinion about schools. Not all of those opinions concur. Consequently, there will be many disagreements about the decision a school leader makes. In addition, when we are dealing with children, emotionalism appears when there is a disagreement with the final decision and the philosophy supporting that decision. Nothing good is accomplished when both parties are in an emotional state. The school leader’s responsibility is to remain professional and calm at that time. Leaders must look beyond the situation. Questions must be asked, like “Why is this parent acting like this?” “Is something else going on in his/her life that is dictating this behavior?”

For example, we have found that in districts where many families suffer economically, December is a particularly tough month for parents when dealing with their child’s discipline. Once we get past the initial issue, we find that parents are experiencing extreme guilt for not being able to provide as they’d like to for their child’s Christmas. So instead of backing the school regarding their child’s discipline, parents feel compelled to come to the school and raise havoc with the authorities to show support for the child and the fact that they, as the parent, love that child. In reality, this is a very poor parenting technique that sends the wrong message toward helping the child achieve self-discipline. With these facts, patience, and professionalism, the school leader can help the parent work through the situation so that parent can help his/her child attain the needed self-discipline.

Diffusing anger is part of a school administrator’s job. One way to get parents to calm down is to ask if they are mad at you, the leader, or if they are mad at the situation. Many times this will help the parents get out of their emotional state. When meeting with hot-tempered parents, never lose your temper. Whatever they say, don’t get angry. Politely ask them to cool down. If they are swearing, politely ask them to stop, noting that you are not swearing and that nothing will be accomplished by swearing. If you cannot get the individual to calm down, ask him/her to make an appointment to see you later. If the parent does calm down (which happens 99% of the time), calmly ask him/her to continue. Take notes. Only interrupt for clarification. Wait until the person is done (or worn out), then restate what was said to make sure that both of you are in accord. From there, an opportunity to problem solve takes place. This makes you the leader, the problem solver. Most people are excellent problem identifiers, but very few are problem solvers. Patience and mule skin pay off in problem solving.


Be consistent in decision making


Individuals in the school arena expect leaders to be consistent. One of the greatest causes of school leadershipfailure, in our opinion, is that the school leader has mood changes depending on the environment. Parents, students, staff, and the community shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are dealing with the Good Humor Man or Attila the Hun.

We have also observed many administrators letting one negative situation impact their decision makingfor the rest of the day. The individuals dealing with this administrator have no idea of the earlier negative situation. Their perception of the administrator is based upon the response to their own individual need, not on previous scenarios. For them, the most important issue is theirs. A successful school administrator always remembers that no matter how trivial the issue may seem, the issue is of great importance to the individual who has brought it. Consistency in the decision-makingprocess is imperative to success.


Be a decision maker


As a superintendent or principal, you are in a decision-makingposition. Therefore, after seeking input from others and further researching the issue, make the decision. Many times a well thought out mistake is better in the decision-making process than no decision at all. You must expect to make some mistakes. The key is to learn from them, rectify them, and not make them again. The stakeholdersassociated with the school district want a decision maker. They want the school leader to consistently push a point of view and make decisions supported by that point of view. The general public still looks to the superintendent or principal to be the expert. They want decisions made.


Be consistent with discipline


A vast majority of administrative positions deal in one way or another with discipline, whether it involves a student or a staff member. Your reputation for consistency in this area plays a vital role in the perception of your success. This issue, along with zero tolerance, will be discussed in greater depth in Chapter 10, Successful Teaching and Learning.


Keep a straight backbone


In school administration, the individual leader is going to be attacked, criticized, and accused on many issues. When this happens, the administrator has to stand tall behind his or her own beliefs and value systems. In addition, an effective school leaderstands behind the decisions of fellow staff membersas long as they have followed school law, Board policies, and school procedures.


Recognize and respect diversity


As minority populations continue to grow in the United States, leadership in schools must adapt in recognition of this change. We believe that all children can learn no matter what their race, financial background, creed, color, or origin. What we do not believe is that all children can learn at the same rate. This learning rate is in itself a diversitythat should be recognized. Not all children can be nuclear scientists, nor do we want them all to be.

For the most part, educational goals at the state level are set for the college-bound student. In 2002, the Congress of the United States followed suit with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Our opinion is that the goal of 100% of all students meeting those state academic standards is a ridiculous expectation. This allows for no educational diversityand expects all students to achieve at the college-bound level. Yet consider the diversity in our society among service providers, skilled craftsmen, medical doctors, government workers, business leaders, educators, etc. For example, some career projections show potentially large shortages in service career positions. So let’s cultivate the knowledge needed for students to be successful in those positions too.

While we agree with the stared goals of the No Child Left Behind Act and the emphasis on reading and math, we cannot forget the need for programs in the fine/practical arts, vocational education, gifted education, physical education, creative writing, and social studies.

Let’s recognize differences in race, financial background, creed, color, and origin. As educational leaders, it is our responsibility to find strengths in each of our children to help them thrive as successful citizens in our society, no matter what occupation they choose. It is our responsibility to help each child be in an environment that secures his/her basic needs of food, shelter, safety, and clothing. When these needs are met, then we can begin to maximize their learning opportunities in reading, writing, and arithmetic. We must recognize that diversityis the biggest challenge we face, particularly in terms of the academic achievementgap. We will discuss how to deal with this gap in Chapter 9, which addresses overcoming the impact of poverty.


Collaborate, delegate


We feel that the day of the autocratic superintendent or principal is over. With the rise of state and federal mandates; limitations on discipline; and the increased influence of teacher organizations, parent groups, and the business community, autocratic decision makinghas slowly eroded. The authors do not necessarily think this is bad. Why not collaborate? Why not get a wide variety of opinions before making a decision? This greatly improves the working environment and gives more individuals a legitimate feeling of ownership in the organization. It also gives the organization a better chance of success. Many leaders fail when they want to take all of the credit for success but none of the responsibility for failure. Collaboration helps the leader find a greater middle ground of responsibility between success and failure.

Likewise, as a leader, we have to have confidence in the people that are part of the employee team. A confident leader empowers others by delegating. The responsibilities placed on superintendents and principals in today’s society are extraordinary. Delegation helps relieve some of those stresses as it gives ownership to the fellow employee.

It is impossible to do everything by ourselves in today’s educational environment. Celebrate and implement collaboration and delegation.



Recognize power brokersand stakeholders


For school leaders, the ultimate local power broker is the Board of Education. Likewise, each state legislature and state Board has direct impact on the local education agency, superintendents, and principals.

Let’s discuss other power brokers. When it comes to voting, senior citizensare exerting more influence than ever before. Up to 65% of all voters in many elections are senior citizens. A school leader has to look carefully at the local community to see who else carries the greatest influence. This influence could be from parent groups, unionleadership, a service organization, a wealthy landowner or businessperson, a local government official, a secretary, a cook, or a custodian from within the school system itself.

Working successfully with key stakeholderscan also help us achieve our goals. These stakeholders change within the school community as different issues emerge. Sometimes a power broker and stakeholdercan be the same person. This often evolves into a pressure group on the school system. The power brokersand stakeholders have to be identified and communicated with, hopefully in a collaborative way. Then a plan has to be developed to gain their support. Leadership is the will, sensitivity, and intelligence to put these pieces of the puzzle together to reach specific goals.


Accept change


Change is a reality in today’s education, as it will continue to be in the future. In our opinion, change is good as long as it is research based. Too often, change is done for change’s sake and is based on emotion rather than on research. Since it is going to occur, on which side of the spectrum do you want to be? Are you going to complain about change or are you going to cause positive, research-based change? Are you going to be proactive or reactive? Be a change agent rather than a change victim. Accept the change process and make life better for those around you. By accepting the status quo in education, we retard the potential of advancement. As leaders of education, we need to lead the change process by using research-based methods, like lesson designs by Hunter, higher-order thinking by Bloom, and cognitive growth by Piaget.

The principal or superintendent that stands in front of the staff and downplays the importance of a state initiative or federal legislation, like the No Child Left Behind Actin 2002, cannot expect the staff to maximize their efforts to make the school or district its best in the age of accountability. Successful leaders motivate acceptance of change and work towards accepting it. If the program has flaws, indicate what you as a leader think the problems are and what you are going to do to change those flaws. In the meantime, we have to do our best to implement the new programs. Successful implementation helps minimize the impact of the change and keeps the district from having to deal with further bureaucratic rules. Furthermore, local control is preserved when change is dictated through collaboration between the staff, parents, and community.


Get rid of the ego


Too often our ego gets in the way of leadership success. We feel that you should not be afraid to admit when you are wrong. It will happen! As a leader, you are dealing with people. And you are not going to know every aspect of the educational system. For example, if your background is at the high school level, you probably are not going to know how a first-grade teacher teaches reading. The solution is simple: ask a first-grade teacher to let you observe him/her teach reading. Ask the teacher to explain the difference between the phonetic, whole-language, and sight method. You will command more respect by admitting your weakness than by trying to cover it up. There will be times when you have to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ll research it and get back to you.” Take a good look at yourself. Know what pulls your chain. Look at who you are and what you want. Plan how you can coach your employee team to reach mutual goals for the benefit of your students. In the process, remember to laugh at yourself often!


Keep personal integrity and honesty


My father always told me as a child, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” I would now say as a school administrator, if you want to survive in administration, always tell the truth. When you tell the truth, you are always sure of what you previously said.

As an administrator, you owe your fellow employees the reason for your decisions. They may disagree with you, but if you are honest with them, more often than not the employee will respect you for your honesty.

Likewise, personal integrity leads to long-term success. We truly do live in a glass house in terms of our employment. People know and talk about what we do. This “gossip” is the part of education that we have to live with but should never be part of. Many times the vehemence behind an issue is based upon how a person feels about the superintendent’s or principal’s personal integrity and honesty.


Continually maintain buildings and grounds


What does updating buildings and groundshave to do with leadership? A great deal, from a perception standpoint. More than 70% of the general population never steps into a school. Their perception of the school usually comes from the mediaor from driving by. Items that we may consider trivial are important to some community members. Is the grass mowed? The flag raised? Are the bushes trimmed? Is there evidence of vandalism? Does it look like a place where students learn? All are important to the success of school leadership. For school and leadership success, a good leader demands that any vandalism, along with broken equipment and furniture, are repaired immediately. Inside the building, stress pride and cleanliness. Don’t forget the office, cafeteria, gym, computer room, and library since these are the most frequently visited rooms by parents and community members. Do you want to keep the neighborhood around the school looking good? Pride in the school grounds spreads to the community that surrounds and uses them.


Be mediafriendly


When a company buys ink by the barrel, be friendly with that company! A local newspapercan make or break a school district and its administrators. The school administrator must realize that the local newspaper’s goal is to sell newspapers (and advertisements) for its profit. Sad to say, the mediacontends that negative stories sell more newspapers than positive ones. Consequently, the school administrator must spend a great deal of time helping the local media develop positive articles about his/her schools. This includes maintaining constant dialog with the local reporter. More will be shared about this subject in Chapter 4, Communications.


Be a visionary leader


Being a great visionary leaderdoes not necessarily mean being a great innovator. Sometimes it means being able to assimilate earlier innovations that led to student success. A visionary leader develops a plan for success, sometimes by listening to other peoples’ ideas and observing their accomplishments both inside and outside of the organization. The leader creates a leadership team with its major focus being the success of kids. From this teamwork philosophy can also come a collaborative vision that helps the superintendent and principal become visionary leaders.


Get out of your office


Because of all of the seemingly useless bureaucratic paperwork being thrust upon school administrators today, many administrators feel compelled to stay in their office to take care of the paperwork duties. This is a mistake. The students, staff, and community need to see their school leaders. If the school leader can find a couple of hours during the weekend to do paperwork, he or she might be surprised at how much faster and more efficiently it can be completed. This will create time to be with stakeholdersoutside the office complex. Despite the recent attacks on the American education system, people, overall, still respect school administrators and want to see them and gather their opinions. Chapter 2, Civic Leadershipand Ethics, explores this topic in depth.

How a leader communicates with staff, students, parents, the Board of Education, and community members helps form the perception of the leader’s job performance. Get out of the office and communicate positive happenings about the district and long-term needs to stakeholders. Here are some simple things an administrator can do to help manage the paperwork:


1. Have your secretary forward papers to other administrators that deal with their area of responsibility. For example, the business manager generally deals with all finance mailings from the state even though states generally mail all of their material to the superintendent.

2. Make use of email for communication. Develop lists on your computer so you can type the message once and send it to all those who are appropriate recipients, like principals, other superintendents, etc. The more that you as the school administrator can learn about and use technology, the better prepared you will be to handle the paperwork.

3. Develop a good filing system. Studies show that leaders waste a great deal of time looking for lost paperwork.

4. Don’t procrastinate with paperwork. Clean your desk, organize your priorities, and get to it.

5. Find quiet time to get the job done. The concentration level must be high to manage paperwork efficiently.


Find time for family and friends


Successful school administrators have unbelievably time-consuming jobs. In fact, school administrators could work 24 hours a day. And while the job is important, it’s not as important as family. Our family is our strength. Behind most successful administrators is a strong spouse who silently does things to make the administrator successful. Likewise, our legacy is borne by our children. Our children don’t expect their school administrator parent to be with them every moment, but they do expect Mom or Dad to be with them and support them as much as possible. Being a good parent is also a great modeling role for others.

Friends are people the administrator can fall back on and who can provide support in times of need. They can be trusted and can provide an occasional laugh to help relieve the stress of the workplace. A friend is a person whom the administrator can disagree with on issues and still maintain the friendship. It works both ways: administrators can also help and support their friends. This concept is studied in depth in Chapter 12, Taking Care of You.


Be Prepared for Crises Situations


In every administrative career, there will be crises situationswhen you must react quickly, decisively, and effectively. Crisis procedures are needed so you and your staff can respond properly, especially during the first hour.

For example, when I served as superintendent in Belleville, Illinois District 118, we developed the following crisis procedures for:


* Death away from school

* Disaster or storm

* Fire or explosion

* Earthquake

* Student runaway

* Abduction

* Bus accident

* Suicide threat

* Death at or near school

* Serious injury at school

* Bomb threat, gas leak, or chemical leak

* Armed intruder

* Hostage situation


Immediate delegation is important in these situations. You and your staff need to know the chain of command for specific emergencies. An example: in a bomb threat, after securing students in a safe location, the administrator should turn the situation over to the police and fire department as soon as possible.

There are many ways you can create and implement a Crisis Management Plan. See if your state has a model plan. In Illinois, the State Board of Educationand the Governor’s office have made available a guidance template titled School Crisis Response Handbook for Education by Timothy J. Daley and Melissa Jamula.[1]

As a leader, you must have a plan in place. Part of your plan will be pre-emptive, to prevent crises. One such deterrent is having an effective disciplineprogram with students closely supervised on campus. Other pre-emptive measures include:


* Setting up a crisis preventionand intervention team

* Having inservicefor the team, then the entire staff

* Establishing communication procedures with emergency agencies such as the police, fire, and ambulance service

* Making sure first aid supplies are available for each class

* Identifying an alternate facility to house your students

* Training some of your staff (if not all) in CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and first aid

* Establishing emergency codes for the staff

* Preparing for the following events during the crisis:

         Facility evacuation

         Full- or partial-school communication: how and which students and staff will be warned

         Emergency services notification

         Student movement route to the alternate facility


The effectiveness of your crisis plan reflects directly upon you. It will be a criterion by which you are evaluated by your staff, peers, and community.

You can’t pre-empt or plan for every eventuality, but having a Crisis Prevention Planin effect will help you make better decisions to ensure the health and safetyof your students and personnel.




Being a school leader has become an increasingly complex position to hold over the past 20 years. Our feeling is that school administrators can nonetheless be successful and effective. What leads to effectiveness? You have seen in this chapter that you need to care about kids, staff, community, family, and yourself. You need to work hard and have a passion for your job. You need to have patience with people and trust those around you so that collaboration and delegation can take place. You need to be organized and have a plan. The school leader also needs to be organized to deal with paperwork demands. The effective leader is visible in the school and community. The effective school administrator leads by example. The effective school leaderrecognizes that the job is still one of the most important jobs in the United States for the preservation of our society and the development of its future citizens.


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[1] Reading, PA: New Century Solutions, 1998.