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April 22, 2021

Four Must-Do's for Empowered Principals

Successful leaders have a clear vision, provide support to see that vision come to life, hold people accountable, and celebrate success.

School Culture
There is no magic characteristic or tendency that leads people to becoming the perfect principal. There are highly effective principals that are focused on data. There are other highly successful principals that are relational. And still others that are absolute curriculum and instruction wizards. There are many different distinguishing characteristics among successful principals.
The more I have studied, read, and worked with principals, however, the more I am convinced that there are four things that all empowered principals do that set them apart from the rest of their colleagues. They all have a clear and compelling vision, provide support to see that vision's end, hold people accountable, and celebrate success. This is, if you will, the secret sauce.
Let me explain why these "simple" characteristics are actually very difficult to put into practice—and how to do so effectively.


Vision is the gatekeeper. If you cannot imagine education at-large and your particular school as significantly better and different than it is in its current state, it is going to be hard to lead significant change. There are hundreds of worthwhile initiatives to chase in education, and your teachers have been forced to chase many of them for years. The issue is that most leaders have not been able to clearly explain how working toward certain goals will lead all educators to a different destination.
This is your charge. Can you succinctly explain to your students, staff, and community where you plan to lead the school in the next 1, 3, and 5 years? Without a compelling vision, the work of school improvement often feels like running on a treadmill—hard work that gets you right back where you started.
The empowering and frustrating element: There is no right answer. You may lead your building down a STEM pathway or work to increase community service or be on a path to increased rigor and relevance. All of these are worthwhile paths, with the right structures that inspire groups of adults to change their behavior.


Leading is more akin to teaching than anything else I have ever experienced. Without remembering this, we often fall into cycles of "assumicide" and project our current levels of understanding and ability onto those we serve. What happens is groups of well-intentioned adults all end up frustrated with each other.
If you want something done in your building—teach it. Whether you want to increase the relevancy of lessons for kids or the academic rigor of locally created assessments, teaching with adults comes into play.
A clear and compelling vision without providing teaching and support simply turns into rhetoric. Structured training without a vision just turns into rudimentary professional development. Empowered leaders connect training, teaching, and support directly to that vision to ensure that it is enacted.


Accountability is often imagined as a stressful meeting behind closed doors. But I always imagine accountability from the lens of a varsity coach. When I watch a varsity practice, I will hear the coach correct missteps and mistakes hundreds of times in a 150-minute practice: "Get your base lower." "Communicate with your teammates."
The coach does not worry about whether or not he is correcting too much. The coach is not measuring their political capital and deciding which battles to fight. The coach is leading. The coach has a clear vision for success and cares so much about the product that they are dogmatic in their approach to what acceptable practice looks like.
Why do we allow varsity coaches to care more about performance than we do?
To me, accountability is driven by three core elements.
  1. Presence: In order to have conversations around professional practice, you must first observe that professional practice.
  2. Simplicity: See something, say something. Don't overthink it. Be kind always, but never shy away from a conversation.
  3. Floors, not ceilings: Believe in potential greatness. The trick I use is to always imagine I am talking to my very best teacher. How I talk to them is how I talk to everybody.


The brother to accountability is celebration. It makes no sense to identify and correct missteps and mistakes if we are not celebrating the wins. The truth is that that are far more wins in a school building every day than we can ever acknowledge.
Teachers that are having breakthroughs with students helping them learn how to read.
Teachers that are going above and beyond to serve the Maslow needs of our students.
Teachers working hard to engage parents in their kids' education despite being rebuffed ten times before. As my wife sometimes tells me, "You just have to look with your eyes open."
The reason that success is the brother to accountability is that they are both different end of the same spectrum that drives toward a specific vision. If, as a leader, you believe strongly in your vision, you are going to do everything you can to reinforce the behaviors getting you closer to actualizing that vision and to remediating the behaviors that bring you farther away. This can never be an either/or proposition.
Vision, Support, Accountability, and Celebrations are interconnected behaviors that are driven from the same mindset: The status quo is not enough. The kids and schools we serve deserve better. In order to create better, we must have vision. In order to move toward our vision, we must teach and support our adults along the journey. If we are serious about our learning journey, we will care enough to provide accountability when adult behaviors do not align with where we want to go. But, if we care enough to provide accountability, we must also be constantly looking for and celebrating the successes taking place in our building.
This formula may seem simple, but I've seen time and time again, for effective and empowered principals, it works.
End Notes

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