5 Things Great Principals Do Differently

Steven WeberBlog, Lead Better


  • Great principals have the opportunity to lead by focusing on five key areas.
  • Build relationships with all stakeholders by being present and investing in others. Communicate regularly by using social media.
  • Be an instructional leader who leads the direction of school growth by supporting teachers and learners as well as uses data to inform the path for continuous improvement.

Successful schools require leaders who lead differently. There has never been a higher demand for building principals. The principal can set the tone for a school. Schools are learning organizations and the leader of the organization should help staff understand the priorities. Anyone who has served as a building principal will share that school leadership is on-the-job training.

“Leading people is the most challenging and, therefore, the most gratifying undertaking of all human endeavors” (Willink & Babin, 2015, p. 287). Principals have the opportunity to coach, encourage, transform, and communicate. Great principals focus on the following key areas of leadership.

Great school leaders focus on adding value to others and providing leadership opportunities. Click To Tweet

Build Relationships

Be present. This is advice that teachers, students, families, and stakeholders would give aspiring principals. A principal should learn the names of students and staff. Great principals focus on others. They understand that investing in others is an important part of leading. “In short, the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another’s lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools” (Barth, 2006). Fist bumps, high fives, and lunch with the principal are investments that have a high return on investment (ROI).

Establish a Culture of Instructional Excellence

Instructional leaders provide a system that supports teaching and learning. In the absence of a system, students will fall through the cracks. Instructional leaders must strive to identify the main focus for each grade level or course. In addition, they must work collaboratively to ensure that each student is challenged.

As a result, when instructional leadership becomes a priority for administrators, student understanding will grow. “The job is not to hope that optimal learning will occur, based on our curriculum and initial teaching. The job is to ensure that learning occurs, and when it doesn’t, to intervene in altering the syllabus and instruction decisively, quickly, and often” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 55). As an instructional leader, hundreds of students and families are counting on you to give the school direction and help students grow as lifelong learners.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication skills are critically important in education. In a world where most people use a smartphone for Twitter, Facebook, alerts from the pharmacy, and driving directions, families expect to receive real-time communication. While it is important to focus on curriculum development, assessment, and student safety, schools could benefit from how well principals communicate.

Eric Sheninger wrote that school leaders need to become the “Storyteller-in-Chief.” There is a story told about every school in the United States. In the 1980s, the story was told in the daily newspaper. In the 1990s, the story was told through pictures and videos. Social media allows principals to communicate and connect with key stakeholders.

Use Data To Make Informed Decisions

Data-driven schools focus on key indicators that support teaching and learning. There are two types of schools: Schools where student growth is increasing and schools where student growth is declining. “Timely indicators are hugely important if institutional leaders are to know whether things are on track or off track – before it’s too late” (Offenstein, Moore, & Shulock, 2010, p. 1). Principals should monitor attendance, behavior, grades, formative assessment scores, summative assessment scores, and other indicators that are available. Data-driven schools are focused on continuous improvement so it’s not a surprise that many establishments are looking to learn how they can use charts, data and software to implement this continuous improvement. “The ultimate validation of a curriculum lies in its results; that is, did it help students achieve the desired outcomes?” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 159). Great principals use data to determine if the written curriculum and instructional strategies are yielding the desired outcomes.

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Multiply Leaders

School leaders often fall into the trap of feeling like their job is to have all the answers and to be the perfect leader. There is no such thing as a perfect leader and great principals lead by providing others with leadership opportunities. Tony Dungy (2001) wrote, “By touching the lives of the people right around us, and by replicating leaders who in turn can replicate more leaders, we can create value far beyond the small sphere that we can reach and touch directly” (p. 201). Teacher leaders can provide instructional leadership. Great school leaders focus on adding value to others and providing leadership opportunities. Maxwell (1995) wrote, “If you really want to be a successful leader, you must develop other leaders around you. You must establish a team” (p. 2). Are you focused on developing followers or multiplying leaders?


Traditionally, the principal resembled the middle manager suggested in William Whyte’s 1950’s classic The Organization Man—an overseer of buses, boilers, and books (The Wallace Foundation, 2013, p. 6). Today, the principal builds relationships, establishes a culture of instructional excellence, communicates with stakeholders, uses data to make informed decisions, and multiplies leaders.

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (AR). His areas of research include curriculum design, formative assessment, professional learning, and school leadership.