Five Characteristics of Great School Leaders

For the past five years, MCESA has worked with pretty amazing school leaders — leaders who have committed themselves to building learning environments where all children can succeed and all educators can thrive. Through this work, five characteristics have stood out in these leaders. The characteristics are:

Setting and communicating clear direction.

Great leaders have a clear vision and consistently communicate that vision with detail.

The best leaders build a shared vision that is based on data, group goals, and high performance expectations.

This is accomplished by:

Creating a shared vision for high academic achievement.

A great school leader continually works with her staff to develop, and sometimes restore, the belief that all students can academically and socially succeed.

This is not necessarily an intuitive belief. Many educators have spent a great deal of time watching some kids fail. After enough examples of working hard and still having kids fail, a feeling of helplessness can set it. Great leaders know how to restore hope by constantly providing examples of student success, so that over time, staff re-build faith and trust that achievement for all is possible.

Great leaders then follow up by connecting all decisions they make to this belief, and explicitly articulating that connection for staff.

Setting rigorous goals and creating action plans that can be incrementally measured.

Rigorous, obtainable goals are critical. Even more critical is the ability to measure progress against those goals- often.

Great leaders put in place the indicators for monitoring growth, a manageable process for collecting and sharing the data, and responding with targeted interventions when necessary.

This 8 1/2 minute video about Data Carousels will inspire you. http://bit.ly/1qJPTuG

Managing school resources to support the vision and planning.

Great school leaders create processes to ensure all resources — time, schedule, technology, staff, and funding support the vision and meet the goals.

Managing resources goes beyond what is allocated to a school. Great leaders think beyond the school and district and connect with other support systems. Understanding that some of a school’s most valuable resources reside in the minds and passions of people in the community. Working hard to make connections and create action- aligned to the vision- takes effort and persistence but is well worth the time. Not only does the school benefit from additional resources, the community benefits from an authentic connection.


Building genuine trusting relationships.

Great leaders foster relationships with students, staff, families, and communities, guided by a sense of mutual respect.

The best leaders affirm and empower others to work in the best interests of all students.

This is accomplished by:

Being accessible to the school and broader community.

Intentional structures are put in place to have frequent and regular opportunities for interactions. These interactions happen in and outside of classrooms and with all members of the school community including parents. They focus on meaningful conversation about student and professional progress.

Careful attention is also paid to two-way written and electronic communications as well. These communications are clear, timely, and relevant to the community.

The school is a welcoming place that values parental involvement.

Developing mutual trust and respect.

Great school leaders demonstrate active listening when having conversations. They stay fully present in the conversation, resisting multi-tasking and distractions.

They build rapport and display empathy and concern for the well-being of individuals.

Facilitating conflict.

Great school leaders do not avoid difficult conversations. They facilitate challenging conversations in a constructive manner.

Watch this somewhat goofy, but practical video about conducting crucial conversations. http://bit.ly/1Sex0lq


Understanding how to develop the organization.

Great leaders build systems that promote a collaborative culture conducive to change.

The best leaders know how to equitably structure the organization for success. They also connect the school to its wider environment.

This is accomplished by:

Being a skilled facilitator.

  • Use agendas with clearly stated objectives;
  • Harness the expertise of participants;
  • Create and reinforce norms;
  • Check for understanding throughout the meeting;
  • Mange time;
  • Capture decisions.

Applying a knowledge of change theory.

Great school leaders have a deep understanding of change theory. They use it to develop and apply specific strategies to support staff in abandoning unaligned practices, and adopting new aligned strategies. They are skillful at applying pressure and supporting and the right times.

Implementing a communication system.

Schools are typically fairly large systems that encompass staff, students, parents, the community at large, and often a school district. Leaders must be strategic in developing and implementing communication systems that achieve shared decision making. Regularly scheduled meetings, newsletters, parent portals, etc., can all be effective tools to facilitate two-way communication between teachers, students, and families.

These systems also include structures to formally and informally acknowledge and celebrate individual and team progress toward goals.

Retaining and sustaining a high quality staff.

In a time where teachers are difficult to find, retaining high quality staff is more important than ever. Great leaders understand that highly engaged and empowered employees desire career pathways or intentional assignments that fulfill their professional aspirations. Identifying, equipping, and thoughtfully placing staff is key to retainment.

Turnover is inevitable so succession plans are critical. Formal and informal mentoring builds leadership capacity and ensures a more successful transition when leaders move on.


Leading instructional improvement.

Great school leaders are great instructional leaders. They provide high quality differentiated professional learning, ensure fidelity of instructional alignment, and implement fair and transparent teacher evaluation processes.

The best leaders balance their managerial and instructional responsibilities.

This is accomplished by:

Observing and evaluating instruction.

The best leaders use fair and transparent observation practices that include:

  • Conducting a planning pre-conference prior to observation;
  • Accurately scripting teacher and student statements;
  • Labeling the script for specific feedback examples;
  • Scoring the script on a high quality teacher evaluation instrument;
  • Conducting a reflective post-conference.

Providing targeted professional development.

Great school leaders ensure professional development is differentiated, team-based, results oriented, and job-embedded. There is a focus on keeping initiatives narrowed and aligned to goals.

Support is adjusted based on the needs of staff and students.


Maintaining a high level of accountability.

Great school leaders create and monitor the continuous improvement plan in order to meet or exceed student achievement goals. They are able to close achievement gaps and ensure high levels of performance.

This is accomplished by:

Holding oneself accountable for goals.

Utilizing effective processes to consistently monitor, review, and revise team goals is critical. Leaders that focus and respond to progress or lack of progress using formative data to ensure school-wide performance goals for all sub-groups are met.

Supervising the alignment between the written, taught, and tested curriculum.

Great leaders monitor teaching to assess alignment and gaps between written, taught, and tested curriculum and student achievement results. This is a difficult task for leaders because it requires a great deal of knowledge about curriculum, standards, and assessment. Great leaders utilize instructional experts, leadership team members, and teacher leaders to support them with this process.

Great school leaders are critical to the success of a school. Becoming a great leader takes intentionality, focus, and support. Seek support from peers, internal experts, and external experts.

There are some great documents that articulate the practices great leaders use to build learning environments where all children succeed and all educators thrive.

MCESA suggests looking at:

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