17 things that effective school leaders do

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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What are the traits of effective school leaders? John Dabell outlines 17 things that successful leaders do...

There are some things that great school leaders make look effortless and automatic. These are the qualities that they have developed over time that can appear as if they are part of their DNA. Effective school leaders:

Develop corporate endeavour

School leaders communicate expectations. They promote and engender a whole-school enterprise contribution to encourage “network performance” so that individual teachers work effectively at contributing to others’ performance and using others’ performance to enhance theirs to build a better school.

Helping others to build an energised network aligned to your school’s goals and values means helping staff to connect, engage and learn from others. It is the art of mobilising others to want to struggle for the shared aspirations.

Are “response-able”

Adapting and responding to challenges is what “response-ability” is all about. How leaders respond matters and so they embrace responsibility and understand what it means. Effective leaders are adaptable and respond with energy and elasticity. They adapt and respond decisively and can navigate through complexity, chaos and confusion and maintain effectiveness.

Build diversity

School leaders are skilful at managing the complexity of different generations and cultures within their school. They enable diverse and innovative thinking, create a sense of belonging and purpose, and build talent and leadership capability that differentiates their school from others.

Develop time-management

School leaders need a good grasp of what can be achieved and so make the best use of their best time. They manage time with a focus on achievement and are goal-driven and results-oriented. They can identify long-term goals, make medium-term plans, plan the day, manage meetings, delegate effectively, make use of committed time, and keep a balance.

Know how to build teams

They are motivated and select people who are highly motivated, they treat each person as an individual, set realistic and challenging targets, remember that progress motivates, create a motivating environment, provide fair rewards and give recognition. They focus on nurturing relationships so they are open, trusting, humorous because they know plenty of good will, graft and enthusiasm will flow naturally into the system.

Have a strong compass

School leaders have a strong strategic compass, have great clarity of purpose and a clear sense of direction while leading their school. Their personal vision is in complete alignment with that of the school’s and they are passionate when communicating corporate goals and values. They have a clear moral purpose with the ability to formulate and shape the future, rather than be shaped by events.

Are versatile

School leaders have many styles that they need to tap into, and they need to be able to shift between multiple roles. Sometimes they need to be “commander-in-chief” and other times they need to be mentor. Versatile leadership is being able to lead effectively across generations, cultures, mindsets and differing sets of motivations.

Are bold

Wherever you see a successful school, its leaders have taken risks and made multiple courageous decisions. To effectively navigate their school through massive challenges and changes, they are leaders with conviction, strong resolve, unwavering focus and a strong sense of purpose.

They combine emotional intelligence, resilience and conviction with passion and personal humility, and have the constant goal of driving school improvement. They are often outward-looking and curious with a foot outside the school looking at what is going on elsewhere and picking up good ideas.

Create safety

Some leaders can be intimidating and so their staff are afraid to speak up, but successful leaders encourage others to voice their opinions because they are experts at making others feel safe to speak-up and confidently, share their ideas and points of view. They create safe spaces and facilitate open and approachable dialogue.

Make decisions

Successful leaders are decisive. This doesn’t mean they make all the decisions because they facilitate a culture to empower their colleagues to reach strategic conclusions. But they focus on making things happen – they do not get distracted or waste time on issues that disrupt momentum but will still consider issues carefully.

They do not procrastinate but tackle issues head-on and are keen to understand and act. They show great judgement, make the right calls and also the wrong calls – but that is what contributes to them being wise.


Effective leaders know their staff and areas for improvement, so they challenge them to get better by providing opportunities for stretch that are outside of their comfort zones. They like to keep staff motivated and are always looking for ways to upgrade their skills. They know their talent pool and how to use it.

Lead by example

School leaders who do not practise what they preach are abandoned very quickly. Successful leaders practise what they preach and are mindful of their actions. They know they are role models for the whole school community and so get hands-on and lead by example with trust, integrity, resilience, clarity and a heart-felt set of personal values.

Provide continuous feedback

Successful leaders are constantly engaged in a dynamic feedback loop. They have a finger on the pulse of their staff and know how to get the best out of people individually and collectively. They are able to create trustworthy relationships with their colleagues who feel respected and able to grow and advance.

Seek counsel

Successful school leaders ask questions, invite challenge, welcome feedback and seek counsel. They don’t pretend to have all the solutions and hold all the cards. They want to grow and progress just like their colleagues, so they too have a need for informal and formal professional development and are on the look-out to learn new things. The most successful school leaders are open-minded and ready to learn from others.

Have positive energy and attitude

Successful leaders create a positive and inspiring school culture that is felt across the whole community. They set a positive tone and bring a can-do attitude that motivates everyone to give their best. Their energy and enthusiasm are infectious and even when things don’t always go how they would like, they don’t allow setbacks to disrupt the momentum. They get people to do things and go that extra mile.


Effective school leaders never stop teaching because they know the importance of relationships, keeping up-to-date and understanding the demands of the role. They are self-motivated to learn themselves and want to improve their teaching. They know they are not the finished article.

And finally…

Successful school leaders love their work because they love to serve, they know it has meaning and they understand the purposeful impact they can make.

The pace of change in schools demands that leaders work more closely together and don’t try to do it all themselves. They are excellent networkers and great opportunists, always in touch with new ideas, events and people.

They involve the whole-school community and take people forward together. Above all else, successful leaders don’t take all the glory.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.com and read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-dabell

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