Personal characteristics define an excellent administrator/instructional leader. Advanced educational degrees and state certification fulfill minimum qualifications for hire, but leadership dispositions matter even more when it comes to stellar job performance. The impact of a principal or superintendent on a school district is pivotal to student achievement. In fact, “excellent school administrators have a profound impact on student learning, teaching excellence and overall school performance,” according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Excellent Administrator Leadership Qualities
Professional organizations for education leaders put forth school leadership definitions that articulate key performance indicators. For example, the National Policy Board for Educational Administration describes excellent administrators as “… tenacious change agents who are creative, inspirational and willing to weather the potential risks, uncertainties and political fall-out to make their schools places where each student thrives.” Leadership qualities of a good educational administrator further include determination, self-confidence and high emotional intelligence.
Embraces Mission and Vision
An excellent school starts with a well-defined mission and vision statement developed in collaboration with key stakeholders, including teachers, parents, students and community members. An excellent administrator articulates and institutionalizes the school’s mission and vision. Excellent school leaders ensure that opportunity exists for each child to receive a top-notch education along with preparation for college or a vocation.
Nimble administrators understand that mission and vision should be revisited periodically to keep pace with the changing needs and expectations of students and schools. Above all, high-performing school administrators must personally embrace and role model an authentic commitment to student success. Multiple measurements are used to evaluate effort, achievement and progress.
Possesses Ethical and Moral Core
Ethics, integrity and basic human decency are important personal characteristics of excellent administrators. Without a moral compass, leaders can turn into cult figures or evil dictators like Adolf Hitler. School leaders must be honest, fair, trustworthy and transparent.
Similarly, an excellent administrator is a good steward of the school’s budget and appropriately allocates funds. Resources are properly used, managed and monitored. Record keeping and accounting are above reproach. School leaders with a solid reputation earn public trust, which is needed to gain support for school-funding referendums.
Promotes Equity and Inclusion
Excellent administrators embrace diversity and welcome students from all backgrounds. Curriculum is taught from a culturally inclusive lens that makes lessons meaningful to diverse students. Respect and tolerance permeate the culture of the school. Students feel safe and secure when an effective leader is at the helm.
Excellent administrators ensure that student disciplinary codes are consistently enforced with an emphasis on positive behavioral supports. Strong leaders have the courage to confront institutional bias or marginalization of certain student groups. Teachers and staff must demonstrate cultural sensitivity and unbiased treatment of students as a condition of continued employment.
Values Professional Development
High-performing school leaders consistently strive for greatness and don’t allow excuses for why improvements aren’t possible. They affirmatively recruit, hire, mentor and support teachers and staff. Professional development is strongly encouraged to help teachers stay abreast of emerging technologies and pedagogy.
Qualities of a good educational administrator also include a passion for lifelong learning. Teachers aspiring to senior school leadership jobs pursue graduate education, such as a specialist credential, master’s degree or doctorate in education. Other learning activities include membership in professional organizations and participation in educational conferences each year.
Cultivates a Collaborative Workplace
Teachers and professional staff appreciate an excellent administrator who creates an interesting, fun and nurturing work environment. High-performing schools are typically run by a school administrator who strives for outstanding teaching, learning and innovation. Teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively.
Under the leadership of an excellent administrator, relationships between co-workers, teachers, students and parents are warm, trusting and open. Problems are identified and resolved productively. School staff see themselves as valuable members of a team.
Engages Parents and Community Members
School leaders with a reputation for excellence are approachable, friendly and accessible. They are highly visible at school functions and are active in the larger community. They seek out opportunities to personally meet and greet students and their families. An open-door policy welcomes anyone who has a concern or suggestion, even angry or upset parents.
Parents are treated as partners in their students' educational progress. Families are kept well informed of school happenings and are invited to volunteer. Regular updates are sent to parents noting attendance, test scores and missing assignments.
Exceeds Job Expectations
Excellent school administrators go above and beyond when executing their duties. They strive for maximum efficiency, high productivity and ongoing improvements in curriculum, equipment and facilities. Every effort is made to follow proposed changes to local, state or federal laws that may affect school policy or funding allocations.
Gains in student achievement are often tied to initiatives spearheaded by top leadership. For instance, new programs to narrow the performance gap among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds can level the playing field as students prepare for college. Exemplary leadership performance can bring recognition such as the National School Principal of the Year award by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Exudes Passion and Commitment
Exceptional administrators share a passion for providing a quality education to all students attending the school. “Passion is the ardor or the fire to develop and maintain an excellent school,” as defined by the National School Boards Association. Top administrators inspire others to get on board and achieve stretch goals. Motivation runs deeper than a desire to simply comply with state or federal testing benchmarks.
Commitment is evident in long hours spent attending school board meetings, speaking at school functions, attending conferences, following up on major incidents and keeping up with professional literature. Some principals and superintendents see their role as a calling to serve others. Balancing endless job responsibilities with their own personal and family commitments requires exceptional time management and personal sacrifice.
Strives for Innovation
Effective educational leaders are analytical thinkers who base decisions on research, theory, evidence and best practices. Time and money is not wasted on programs that are not impactful. Stakeholders are brought into the strategic-planning process to analyze data, discuss emerging trends and forecast future needs. Assessment is an ongoing process that provides immediate feedback on what students are learning and how they learn best.
Teachers and staff are encouraged to be leaders and innovators in their discipline. Hard work is expected but is also recognized and rewarded. Innovation and professional networking is encouraged. Quantifiable goals and objectives consistently aim for above-average outcomes.
Makes Tough Decisions
Excellent principals and superintendents have the courage and wisdom to make tough decisions when it comes to balancing the budget, investing in new initiatives, managing a teachers’ strike, responding to a lawsuit against the school and other challenging circumstances. Diplomacy, tact and decisiveness are essential personal characteristics when it comes to handling heated issues. Other important qualities are empathy, patience, willingness to listen and fair mindedness.
An excellent school leader maintains composure and provides direction in times of a crisis or a serious weather emergency. If a tragedy occurs at school, an excellent administrator possesses the confidence and composure to assess the situation, intervene and share frequent updates. An exceptional administrator is comfortable speaking to the media and law enforcement after an incident on school grounds.
- National Association of Secondary School Principals: Principal of the Year
- National Association of State Boards of Education: NASBE Analysis Outlines Seven Questions States Should Ask about Effective School Leadership
- National School Boards Association: Getting the Best Principals
- The Wallace Foundation: Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy
- International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership: What Makes Them the Best? An Analysis of the Relationship Between State Education Quality and Principal Preparation Practices
Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.