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Ten Character Traits of Top School Leaders

Leadership and Management

Ten Character Traits of Top School Leaders

As conversations in academia turn to identifying top educational leaders, what, precisely, constitutes their characteristics? In addition to planning carefully and adapting quickly to unforeseen circumstances, highly effective school leaders seem to have the following 10 traits in common.

1. Confidence

Strong school leaders exude confidence. They trust in their judgment, take calculated risks, and understand that “fail” is an acronym for “first attempt in learning” (Fry 2012). Successful school leaders understand that their ideas and proposals may neither be accepted nor supported, and setbacks can be learning experiences for future successes. Rather than cower, they actively seek input, delineate goals, and seek to inspire staff to remain industrious and always do their best.

2. Flexibility

The most successful school leaders are flexible. They adapt to ever-changing rules and regulations, contend with myriad personalities, evaluate progress, and carefully revise goals (ccsso.org, 2008). Great school leaders remain flexible in the face of adverse conditions, which may include peculiar workplace personalities, and are adaptable when department curricula may need fine-tuning or readjustment. Finally, successful school leaders reach out for assistance and glean insight from others’ unique backgrounds and career achievements.

3. Good nature

Strong school leaders are good-natured and remain positive in the face of adversity. They view the proverbial cup as half full, look for resources when required and remain composed in stressful situations. In addition, their humor helps defuse potentially tense situations and enables them to focus on progress rather than pitfalls. Above all, they remain quick-witted and positive. There will always be naysayers, so they seek out supporters and tap into their talents to never allow negative attitudes to prevail over sound policy.

4. Unyielding enthusiasm

Successful school leaders possess an unyielding enthusiasm to not only get the job done, but to get it done right the first time. Great school leaders develop positive relationships, meet often with employees to address concerns, convey optimism, and set goals (Kowalski 2012). My father, a successful educator and businessperson, rolled up his sleeves and contributed to any task; no job was beneath him, and this attitude led to enthusiastic students, and later, motivated employees.

5. Innovative

Strong school leaders are innovative. They are quick to think outside the proverbial box and solve problems and are even quicker to find creative, tenable solutions. Successful school leaders determine what is working and are careful not to dwell entirely on data; they consider situations thoughtfully, make decisions rationally, and use sound judgment to embrace change.

6. Willing to empower others

Successful school leaders empower others by trusting colleagues and subordinates with delegated tasks. By relating to others on a personal level and developing an understanding of how to utilize a variety of unique talents, they engender loyalty and inspire greater productivity. By building coalitions, including stakeholders in decision-making processes, and motivating staff to partake in relevant professional discussions and planning, top school leaders enable educators to feel empowered and take control of their professional growth, academic learning, and life-long careers.

7. Analytical

Successful school leaders consider budget alignment with school goals, demographic data and students’ socioeconomic status, home languages spoken, and students’ overall levels of support to determine how these factors may influence learning, climate, and culture. They survey staff and consider supplementary materials and new technologies. Successful school leaders also support inquiry-based learning and professional learning to enhance school-wide competency.

8. Honest

Strong school leaders are honest. They do not lie to themselves or staff members about complications or missteps, and their honesty inspires others to follow. “Everyone’s effectiveness depends at least in part on what they expect of themselves, not of others” (Whitaker, 2014, p. 24). Successful school leaders also tend to convey “that our personal integrity or self-mastery is the basis for our success with others” (Covey, 1992, p. 77). They understand that ethical leadership, transparency, and demonstrating concern for all staff invariably affects morale.

9. Visible

Great school leaders are visible at events, demonstrate concern, and engender industry by aligning their leadership with key standards in the profession. They take pride in all staff and student accomplishments, ensure educators have an authentic voice in curricula, and create “a culture of collaboration, trust, learning, and high expectations” (ccsso.org, 2008, 2A).

10. Entirely dedicated

Great school leaders provide necessary instructional tools, such as equipment and professional development, whenever possible. To strive for school-wide efficiency, successful school leaders infuse standards with research-based frameworks for planning and curricula implementation, and invite staff to utilize technology to collaborate. By incorporating technology and instilling expectations for academic excellence, successful school leaders foster trust, enhance creativity, and improve collaboration, which generally leads to coherent instruction and an improved esprit de corps in all staff.


Council of Chief State School Officers. 2008. “Educational Leadership Policy Standards: ISLLC 2008. Washington, DC.” http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2008/Educational_Leadership_Policy_Standards_2008.pdf.

Covey, S. R. 1992. Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Free Press.

Fry, D. 2012. “First Attempt in Learning–FAIL.” https://fryed.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/first-attempt-in-learning-fail.

Kowalski, T. J. (2012). Case Studies in Educational Administration. 6th Edition. New York: Pearson Education, Ltd.

Whitaker, T. (2014). What Great Principals Do Differently: Eighteen Things That Matter Most. New York: Routledge.

Scott Freiberger is an ENL teacher at John Bowne Elementary School for Global Studies in New York City and the recipient of the New York State TESOL “Outstanding Teacher Award” 2015. He holds a master’s in Pacific international affairs from the University of California, San Diego, and a master’s in TESOL from the University of Central Florida and is completing his third master’s degree in school leadership at the Touro College Graduate School of Education in New York. 


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