Finding Your Style to Become a Successful School Leader

Understanding the relational dynamics of the school community

by Tamara Fyke

After over twenty-five years in retirement, why do faculty, staff and students keep in touch with their former principal?  It can only be that she built a loving and caring environment for everyone.  Her school was diverse―evenly split between black, white, and Latino students―when she was the leader in the 1980s.  All students were expected to learn and excel.  Teachers and parents were expected to have the same high standards for student achievement.  If teachers did not hold this belief, they were asked to transfer to another school.  Bus drivers, cafeteria staff and maintenance staff were all considered vital parts of the school community and were treated with the same dignity and respect afforded all staff and faculty.  All stakeholders had an equal responsibility for educating the children and helping them become productive citizens in their career of choice.  This principal had learned the power of positive leadership.

For a new principal, whether he is new to the position or new to the building,  it is imperative that he position himself properly from the start.  Part of this positioning involves an awareness of the different relational dynamics in the school community – principal to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to student, parent to school – and how what he does and says impacts those dynamics.  There are four basic leadership styles:  absent, authoritarian, delegator, and role model:

The absent leader― This principal does not have a presence in the building because he hides in his office.  There is no clear structure of role or processes.  The seeming disinterest sets the stage for conflicting end goals.  This leads to a power struggle without any clear sense of what the one fighting for power wants to accomplish.

The authoritarian leader―On the opposite end of the spectrum is the authoritarian leader who refuses to share power.  He is often accused of micromanaging, and his faculty and staff tend to function more like children than adults.  This style may work in crisis situations, such as when there is a threat of being taken over by the State.  However, more often than not this style only fuels the negativity of faculty and staff.

The delegator―This leader shares power by providing leadership opportunities for those who desire them.  He knows that leadership is often best developed in the trenches.  By empowering others to be risk-takers, he inspires their own leadership potential.  This person feels he has done his job when all those on the team discover that they don’t need him to tell them what to do.

The role model or servant leader―He practices the behaviors, relationship building and engagement he wishes to see in all of his staff.  He is willing to do whatever it takes to support his faculty, staff and students to make them successful.  

A new principal may try on these different styles to see what suits.  However, what is proven time and again to be most effective is supporting and empowering others to succeed.  This helps build trust and loyalty among faculty and staff.

After determining what leadership style he will use, one of the first things a new principal must do is an environmental audit.  This audit can begin even before he assumes his official role.  He must look at the physical aspects of the building.  This includes everything from layout to paint to signage to floors to front office to landscape to lighting to hallway traffic flow to furniture to cleanliness. From a physical standpoint, is the school a welcoming and nurturing place for all stakeholders?  If not, he must develop a plan to make necessary changes by asking himself what it would take to make the school a place students and teachers want to be each day.

An additional component to this environmental audit is the social and emotional piece.  What does the building feel like?  Does the front office staff kindly greet visitors?  Are students and teachers smiling?  Are transitions occurring in an orderly manner?  Are inviting parent materials clearly displayed?  Answering these questions will provide insight into the climate of the building.

When students, faculty, staff and parents see physical changes occur in the building, they will know that the principal is committed to change.  Although everyone may not agree with every decision, new paint, clean floors, different front office protocol speak volumes about the value of both the building and the people.  Making tangible changes can help create more buy-in from the stakeholders.

A school principal is much like an entrepreneur.  He must keep many plates spinning at once.  At times the task can seem daunting.  However, he can enlist help from faculty, staff and parents by communicating clearly with them.  One of the first things he needs to communicate explicitly is his philosophy of leadership.  In other words, what is his leadership style and why?  By communicating his philosophy, other stakeholders will gain an understanding of what is expected of them and what they can expect of their leader.  Unspoken expectations destroy trust; spoken expectations build trust.  

A natural outgrowth of the philosophy of leadership is the vision and mission.  The vision is the lofty goal – the desired state; the mission tells who, what and how will work toward that vision.  Having a clearly defined vision and mission gives all stakeholders direction – a unified common goal.  Principals may choose to write the vision and mission independently or as a team.  The chosen process tells much about his leadership style.  Once the vision and mission are written, it is important to formally introduce the vision and mission to the entire school community.  One cannot assume that it will be read and understood because it is posted on the school website.  Setting the direction for the school is worth having conversations at faculty meetings, parent meetings and school-wide assemblies so everyone can buy-in.

In addition to having open conversations about the vision and mission, it is imperative that the principal have continual conversations with teachers, parents and students.  Perhaps, he can set open office hours to facilitate these conversations or schedule meetings on a regular basis with teachers who are influencers in the building.  These meetings need to be about more than business; they need to be about connecting as individuals.  He also needs to be present in the hallways and classrooms during class changes to interact with the school community.  It is especially important for him to greet students in the morning when they arrive and in the afternoon when they leave.  

This leads us to the most important part…the students.  In the end, education is not about test scores or fancy buildings, winning teams or state recognition.  It is about the students.  Students need to feel valued.  A smile or high-five in the hallway is more than a greeting; it communicates value.  It tells the student, “I am important enough for this busy adult to take time for me.”  In addition to value, students need to have clear expectations communicated to them.  They need to know that they are expected to behave and expected to learn.  If they struggle with behavior or academics, appropriate support needs to be provided for them, whether this is daily check-ins with another adult in the building or peer tutoring.  By providing support for success, the principal is addressing the social and emotional needs of the students.  Research shows that when social and emotional needs are met, student’s behavior and academics will improve.  Students, teachers and parents need to know that failure is not an option because everyone is working together.

All of the pieces mentioned above are constantly interworking.  Since school is a human institution, it will never be perfect.  There is room for continuous improvement.  It is the principal’s job to communicate that this evolution process is both natural and desirable.  This gives people room to be human…to be honest…to work authentically instead of striving for unrealistic perfection.  In order to manage this continuous improvement, be sure to define focus areas, identify actions, specify responsibilities and allocate resources.  

The ultimate goal of a principal is to create a safe place where people want to be, a place where teachers want to teach and students want to learn…a place where everyone belongs.  In the end, it’s all about relationships…principal to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to student, and parent to school.  Relationships start with caring.  People know you care when you take time for them.

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