The Importance and Complexity of Principal Leadership

by Marie Whelan, Ed.D.
chief HR officer, Hillsborough County Public Schools & adjunct professor, National Louis University

The role of the school principal has evolved over the past century from school manager dealing with the status quo to innovative instructional leader. The role has shifted from following up on requirements and keeping order to demonstrating collaborative instructional practices that ensure all learners demonstrate mastery of rigorous learning benchmarks. 1

Today’s new leaders are expected to be equipped with a new skill set to ensure our new generation of learners will be competitive in a global society. 2  The adjectives to describe the effective principal is an exhaustive list that leaves only the fearless to meet the challenge.

Numerous studies have been conducted and millions of dollars spent studying these new leadership expectations and how to best support these evolutionary leaders to meet the daily challenges in the role as effective school principal.

According to the Wallace Foundation 3:

Today, improving school leadership ranks high on the list of priorities for school reform. In a detailed 2010 survey, school and district administrators, policymakers and others declared principal leadership as among the most pressing matters on a list of issues in public school education.

Teacher quality stood above everything else, but principal leadership came next, outstripping subjects including dropout rates, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, student testing, and preparation for college and careers. [p. 3]

Throughout recent years, school districts have focused on these initiatives while realizing in the absence of quality instruction and leadership it has the possibility of failure.


Principal Leadership Expectations

There is no simple answer to the question: What is leadership? The renewed emphasis on educational leadership is a direct result of district, state, and federal requirements emphasizing accountability for student learning and teaching practices. 4

The Wallace Foundation 3 has supported efforts to improve leadership in public schools and has its own definition. This definition is tied specifically to the principal’s effectiveness in “shaping a vision of academic success for all students; creating a climate hospitable to education; cultivating leadership in others; improving instruction; [and] managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement” [p. 2].

According to Ritchie 5 “a principal’s most valuable role often is not on deciding on and implementing solutions, but helping groups wrestle with and elucidate the true nature of the problems to be solved” [p. 21]. Being an effective problem solver and serving the stakeholders within the school and community are also leadership expectations of principals. The AERA 4 summarized five claims for successful school leadership:

  • Leadership has significant effects on student learning, second only to the effects of the quality of curriculum and teachers’ instruction.
  • Currently, administrators and teacher leaders provide most of the leadership in schools, but other potential sources of leadership exist.
  • A core set of leadership practices form the “basics” of successful leadership and are valuable in almost all educational contexts.
  • Successful school leaders respond productively to challenges and opportunities created by the accountability-oriented policy context in which they work.
  • Successful school leaders respond productively to opportunities and challenges of educating diverse groups of students. [pp. 2-6]

With an understanding of the skill set successful school principals must possess, district leaders are challenged to find candidates willing to take on the critical task of leading schools.

The Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) 6 has identified thirteen critical success factors for effective principals. In this SREB review, successful school leaders:

  1. Create a focused mission to improve student achievement and a vision of the elements of school, curriculum and instructional practices that make higher achievement possible.
  2. Set high expectations for all students to learn higher-level content.
  3. Recognize and encourage implementation of good instructional practices that motivate and increase student achievement.
  4. Know how to lead the creation of a school organization where faculty and staff understand that every student counts and where every student has the support of a caring adult.
  5. Use data to initiate and continue improvement in school and classroom practices and student achievement.
  6. Keep everyone informed and focused on student achievement.
  7. Make parents partners in their students’ education and create a structure for parent and educator collaboration.
  8. Understand the change process and have the leadership and facilitation skills to manage it effectively.
  9. Understand how adults learn and know how to advance meaningful change through quality sustained professional development that benefits students.
  10. Use and organize time in innovative ways to meet the goals and objectives in school improvement.
  11. Acquire and use resources wisely.
  12. Obtain support from the central office and from community and parent leaders for their school improvement agenda.
  13. Continually learn and seek out colleagues who keep them abreast of new research and proven practices. [p. 4]

This is another exhaustive list that supports the numerous expectations placed on principals. I am supporting the notion that the demands of the position may be unrealistic reducing the desire for future leaders to take on these challenges.

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) 7 has identified four leadership domains—student achievement, instructional leadership, organizational leadership, and professional and ethical behavior—which principals must demonstrate. These four domains encompass ten standards which are explained as the following leadership expectations:

Effective school leaders achieve results on the school’s student learning goals; effective school leaders demonstrate that student learning is their top priority through leadership actions that build and support a learning organization focused on student success; effective school leaders work collaboratively to develop and implement an instructional framework that aligns curriculum with state standards, effective instructional practices, student learning needs and assessments; effective school leaders recruit, retain and develop an effective and diverse faculty and staff; effective school leaders structure and monitor a school learning environment that improves learning for all of Florida’s diverse student populations; effective school leaders employ and monitor a decision-making process that is based on vision, mission and improvement priorities using facts and data; effective school leaders actively cultivate, support, and develop other leaders within the organization; effective school leaders manage the organization, operations, and facilities in ways that maximize the use of resources to promote a safe, efficient, legal, and effective learning environment; effective school leaders practice two-way communication and use appropriate oral, written, and electronic communication and collaboration skills to accomplish school and system goals by building and maintaining relationships with students, faculty, parents, and community; effective school leaders demonstrate personal and professional behaviors consistent with quality practices in education and as a community leader.

As I have emphasized, the never ending qualities, skills, expectations, requirements, non-negotiables, and essential characteristics for principals are noted on the national and state levels. Principals must be adept at conceptualizing and prioritizing their leadership influence to impact student learning. 8

Being able to determine if they need to focus on providing quality feedback to teachers or creating the conditions to increase teacher efficacy will have a positive effect on student learning outcomes. This also ensures all students have access to high quality teachers and leaders throughout their educational journey.


Leadership and Student Learning

According to Ikemoto, Taliaferro, and Adams 9 “a principal accounts for 25% of a school’s total impact on student achievement-significant for a single individual” [p. 5]. This means the school principal must step into this demanding role equipped to meet the high achievement and accountability standards expected of all stakeholders.

According to the Wallace Foundation 3, “Although they say it in different ways, researchers who have examined education leadership agree that effective principals are responsible for establishing a schoolwide vision of commitment to high standards and the success of all students” [p. 5].

Unfortunately, only 10% of principals feel they are focusing the amount of time they would like to or need to on instructional leadership. 10 There has been much debate about the principal’s role and research has suggested “the primary way principals’ impact student achievement is by improving teacher effectiveness” [p. 5]. 9

This is significant since teachers spend the majority of the school day with the students. Teachers also possess the content expertise secondary principals may lack. According to the Wallace Foundation, 3 “Effective principals ensure that their schools allow both adults and children to put learning at the center of their daily activities” [p. 6]. The most important activities within our schools are teaching and learning. Principals must ensure this is the primary focus and act as the gatekeepers to protect the instructional time throughout the day.

Principals are expected to decrease the achievement gap that is often manifested in schools with a lower socioeconomic status or where large groups of students are failing to demonstrate proficiency benchmarks. As Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, and Washington 11 note:

Leadership is widely regarded as a key factor in accounting for differences in the success with which schools foster the learning of their students. Indeed, the contributions of effective leadership are largest when it is needed most; there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around in the absence of intervention of talented leaders. While other factors within the school also contribute to such turnarounds, leadership is the catalyst. [p. 17]

Discipline issues, high staff turnover, low student attendance, and high poverty rates are just a few of the issues which plague these schools. This focus is supported through the emphasis on quality leadership demonstrated by the principal.

The ability to know specifically what curriculum is expected to be taught and monitoring student progress are two areas that positively impact a principal’s rating and increases student achievement. 3 “Whether they call it formal evaluation, classroom visits or learning walks, principals intent on promoting growth in both students and adults spend time in classrooms (or ensure that someone who’s qualified does), observing and commenting on what’s working well and what is not” [p. 11]. Without effective principals, the national goal we’ve set of transforming failing schools will be next to impossible to achieve” [p. 14]. It will also mean districts will be challenged to fulfill a vision and mission to ensure students are college and career ready.

Strong leadership and high-quality principals are essential to the long-term success of our students and our schools. We all win when our principals and teachers are empowered and provided with the right support, and we all benefit when our students are better prepared for college or a career.



1   Markle, B., & VanKoevering, S. (2013, May). Reviving Edward Bell: Would a 1960s-era principal have what it takes to handle the job of today’s principal. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 8-12.

2  Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3  Wallace Foundation. (2011). Perspectives: The school principal as leader: Guiding schools to better teaching and learning (Jan 2012 ed.).

4  American Educational Research Association (2003, January). What we know about successful school leadership. New Brunswick, NJ: Leithwood, K.A., & Riehl, C.

5  Ritchie, J. (2013, May). The effective and reflective principal. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 18-21.

6  Southern Regional Education Board (2005). The Principal Internship: How Can We Get It Right? (05V02).

7  Florida Department of Education (2006). Florida principal leadership standards. Retrieved from

8  Leithwood, K., Patten, S., & Jantzi, D. (2010). Testing a Conception of How School Leadership Influences Student Learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46, 671-706. doi:10.1177/0013161X10377347

9  Ikemoto, G., Taliaferro, L., & Adams, E. (2012). Playmakers: How Great Principals Build and Lead Great Teams of Teachers. New York, NY: New Leaders, Inc.

10  Hess, F.M. (2013, May). Principals: Don’t Settle for Rolling the Boulder. Phi Delta Kappan 94(8), 22-26.

11  Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How Leadership Influences Student Learning.