Effective principal leadership drives district success. These barriers might be holding your principals back.


Effective principal leadership drives district success. These barriers might be holding your principals back.

Supportive and effective principals are critical to a school’s overall success. They are the common denominator for school improvement, with direct impacts on teacher retention and indirect influence on student achievement. With ever-growing demands on principals’ time, district leaders need to equip them with essential leadership skills that will help them to succeed in their positions.

Regardless of industry, strong analytical thinking and interpersonal skills are the core competencies of an effective leader. However, our research found principals often lack formal training or opportunities to learn and practice these skills. Here are the four key barriers hindering principals from leading effectively.

Most Training Offerings Don’t Focus on Leadership Competencies

Problem: Many district-led principal development offerings overemphasize school-specific or education-focused topics, like instructional expertise, rather than equipping principals with essential leadership skills. Our review of higher education principal prep programs and district leadership development opportunities reveals that principals either receive insufficient or no formal training to hone core leadership competencies.

Potential solution: Cultivating strategic and interpersonal skills prepares principals to tackle the complexities of their roles. For example, offer training in root cause problem-solving and data analysis during principal onboarding and professional development to build core analytical thinking.

Hiring Remains Subjective and Inconsistent

Problem: District leaders rarely screen for core leadership skills when hiring principals. Many rely on their subjective perspectives during the hiring process, as analytical thinking can be difficult to test. As a result, district leaders don’t screen for how a candidate thinks, problem-solves, or works with others, even though they are critical for successful leadership.

Potential solution: Utilize case interview prompts, interpersonal demonstration exercises, and quantified feedback scorecards to better screen prospective candidates for core leadership skills. These roleplay activities allow candidates to demonstrate how they would handle common challenges.

Districts Often Limit Ongoing, Personalized Support to Early-Tenured Principals

Problem: Most principal supervisors have limited time and capacity to offer consistent support, and external coaches are costly. They focus the lion’s share of their time on new principals, forgoing regular development with tenured professionals. As a result, roughly 75 percent of principals feel ill-prepared to lead today’s schools according to an EAB survey.

Potential solution: Provide personalized support throughout a principal’s tenure, like business executive peer mentorships, so they can explore and learn cross-sector leadership skills. These mentorships offer applied examples of leadership skills grounded in practice rather than theory.

Many Principals Struggle to Find Enough Time to Focus on High-Impact Activities

Problem: Even when principals have the necessary skills to lead, competing demands still take up most of their time. In fact, the same EAB survey found 77 percent of principals report their outsized workload and increasing responsibilities remain the biggest barriers to effective leadership. As a result, many principals react to immediate demands, like tackling school flashpoints, spending most of their time on activities that yield minimal impact on student success.

Potential solution: Consider incorporating time audits and prioritization support to assist principals in reallocating their time toward key priorities. This way, principals can identify gaps between their time use and supervisor expectations, finding areas to refocus for high-impact activities.

Ready to find out more?

Learn more about the best practices for equipping principals with essential leadership skills by accessing the full study.

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