Top Three Attributes of a Successful School Leader

Brenda Hamm | May 25, 2024

A quick search for “attributes of a successful educational leader” produces a plethora of sites to check out. Each provides a list of attributes. Regardless if the site is Pinterest (yep!), or a respected academic organization’s website, or something in between, the lists are pretty similar to one another suggesting there is actually a finite number of characteristics that make up a successful educational leader, unlike the seemingly infinite number of sites producing these lists. So, here they are in alphabetical order, the twenty-six common characteristics repeatedly identified as being features of a successful educational leader.

  • Ability with data
  • Accountability
  • Adaptability
  • Collaboration
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Decision-making or ability to be authoritative
  • Delegation
  • Empathy or emotional intelligence
  • Good communication
  • Growth mindset
  • Humility
  • Innovation
  • Inspire others
  • Integrity
  • Listening ability
  • Passion
  • Positivity
  • Relational, community building
  • Resilience
  • Respect
  • Risk management
  • Self-awareness
  • Strategic thinking
  • Transparency
  • Vision

Success can mean different things to different institutions, so let’s take a moment to examine some of the reasons for which a school leader could be considered successful. An obvious measure of success is longevity of tenure. After all, ten to fifteen years as the head of a school is impossible without the healthy support of the board and the community. Success could be about transformational change. Guiding a school through a significant transition such as from single-gender to co-ed or from two separate institutions merged into one is no easy feat and requires clear leadership. Perhaps success is demonstrated through goal achievement as evidenced in data. An increased enrollment yield, greater breadth of annual fund donations, or a reduction in teacher turnover are all easily measured and can prove success if they are goals the school wishes to achieve. Maintaining morale through difficult times is another sign of success. Guiding a school through a pandemic or an issue such as historical sexual abuse can be extremely challenging for a community and, therefore, requires delicate and inspired leadership by the head of school. Now imagine how those twenty-six attributes could, in one situation or another, be instrumental to that success. The reality is that not every school leader is going to be strong in every attribute attributed to being successful. However, it is likely that every school leader is strong in at least a few of those areas and can activate other attributes/skills/characteristics well enough as needed.

My personal theory is that you’ll always find three attributes consistently present in all excellent, successful, school leaders. 

1) Being able to listen well whether actively seeking out or passively receiving information and ideas, even controversial ones. 

2) Being able to make decisions when decisions need to be made. Process is often helpful but not always necessary and process, when needed, still has to reach a conclusion.  

3) Having a healthy sense of humor. 

Two of these characteristics make it into the internet’s top twenty-six list. One, a healthy sense of humor, does not but should.

Two of my all time favorite school leaders to work with, and who were considered highly successful by all measures and constituents, certainly were excellent listeners and able decision-makers. Each sought out varying opinions when that made sense to do so and each knew when it was time to make the call. Neither was averse to making an unpopular decision if it was the right one to make.

What I also noticed and know about them is that they can see the humor in absurdity and irony. At times they each would be chuckling entirely to themselves. Other times each would seek out their confidant–another head of school, a spouse or partner, etc.–with whom they could share the silliness of a situation that falls into the category of, “you can’t make this stuff up.” Without this understanding that people will be people who all have stories, hot buttons, weirdnesses, hopes, and so much more, a school leader will miss out on an opportunity to appreciate the crazy beauty of humanity. To distance oneself just enough through humor is to be able to work within any complex mess presented to you. It doesn’t mean you get to laugh at someone’s pain. It does mean that it is okay to privately smile about the parent who, because it is the first time it has happened to their child, doesn’t understand that you have seen it a hundred times before and know that it is normal student behavior. Or, when a long, hot bus ride with several car sick students on board ends up at the training location for crane (the machine) operators rather than the intended sanctuary for injured cranes, as in birds. Or, you receive a resignation letter, from an English teacher, written entirely by AI. Or, when the parent who is also a philosophy professor at a neighboring college says, “My daughter never lies and when she does I always catch her,” while simultaneously arguing that it isn’t dishonorable behavior to digitally change a report card.

The list of twenty-six attributes is a good reminder of the kind of skills you have, use, or need to brush up on. You should pat yourself on the back for the ones you bring to the table on a daily basis because your job is people management all day every day and people are complicated. I also hope you will take a moment to consider new skills or personal characteristics you’d like to use or exhibit more often next year. And, if you need help choosing, I’d vote for you to focus on listening, making clear decisions, and developing a kind, healthy sense of humor.

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