Walter McKenzie

The Best Principals

Who's the best principal you ever worked for? And why do you say so? Ask this question of educators from the classroom to the superintendent's office and the common denominator answer is quite consistent: he or she cared. Cared about what? Content? Pedagogy? Test scores? Well sure, those are a given. But in this case, the principal cared about them. They felt a connection with this principal, that he was more than just a supervisor. He made a difference in their day, much in the same way they made a difference in their students' day. It's all about the relationship.

This is significant, because in the current issue of Educational Leadership, the role of the principal is examined from a variety of perspectives, and one thing is clear: the duties, expectations, and pressures have changed and increased over time. As EL editor Marge Scherer notes in her opening remarks for the issue, the skills of the principal are often compared to those of a mayor. The size of the town or city in question may change, but the common skills are the same. So I ask you, when you think of the greatest mayors we still remember, what is that common attribute that makes them stand out? Financial expertise? Law and order background? Political finesse? No. It's their ability connect to their constituents and make them feel valued and validated. That they really matter and are an important factor in getting the job done.

Daniel Goleman termed this ability emotional intelligence: self-aware interaction with others that validates their values and feelings. In other words, regardless of the presenting challenges and opportunities, emotionally intelligent leaders put their relationships first. Not every situation can be a win-win—or even a win—but at the end of the day, all stakeholders feel that their voices have been heard and their needs considered, and the outcome is fair and reasonable. That's it. And when that pattern of leadership is demonstrated consistently over time, people learn to trust and believe in you not just as a leader, but as a person.

Howard Gardner breaks it down into two discrete kinds of intelligence: the interpersonal and the intrapersonal. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to effectively interact with others, and those who master this are often described as popular, well-liked, even loved. Intrapersonal intelligence is the awareness of one's own feelings, values and attitudes, and those who master this are typically seen to be considerate, thoughtful, and trustworthy. Combine these attributes and you have the profile of an incredibly potent leader with the ability to reach out, connect, and bring stakeholders together to vet out issues and build consensus.

Make no mistake: this is not a formula for leading a feel-good no-hassle happiness club. School principals implement difficult decisions (that they often have no control over) from the central office, local government, and the taxpaying public, and they do it with composure and competence. Emotionally intelligent principals confront the difficult questions and take on the tough issues, but they do so with caring, class, and inclusion. No hidden agendas. No dividing to conquer. No manipulation of situations or personalities. People don't like feeling "handled" when they are  passionately advocating for their beliefs. The best principals openly listen and honestly seek out what is in the best interests of the school community, espousing a common vision for everyone to embrace. They act openly and responsibly and expect those who work with them to do the same. Everyone is engaged because everyone understands their efforts and contributions are valued, regardless of the decision made on any particular issue.

Principals come to the job with an assortment of strengths and skills, and any combination of these can bring them success leading a school community. The pressures and demands of the job are always there, and there is no getting around them. What sets certain principals above their colleagues is their ability to sustain relationships that inspire caring about people and hope for the future. They are connected, trusted, admired, and emulated by everyone working with them: parents, students, teachers, aides, custodians, secretaries, cooks, bus drivers, ... everyone. Let this be the defining idea you take with you as we conclude our look at the principalship. Boil away all the other administrative and instructional requirements of the job: crunching the data, balancing the books, and protecting positions and programs. The principal is the role model for everyone within the school to realize their full potential, as people and as professionals.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at

Comments (2)

Vian Guzman

April 27, 2013

Agree… a wake up call to everyone. True principals are models. They should wear the characteristics of a good leader though it is hard to internalized but as an educators it should be for the followers to imitate. Followers should also widen their horizon of understanding. Sometimes great talks circulate but it is good to wear the shoes of being a principal to understand them better.

Walter McKenzie

July 17, 2013

Vian I like your description!

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