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An essential element of the principal’s character is the will to take the lead.

I had what I thought were pretty good optics around what was required to be a principal in an independent school in Australia when I first considered the role. I had conceptions about the traits and qualities I would need. As I reflect on more than 20 years as a Principal, I now know character to be a most important trait.

What is “character”?

Character can comprise ethical and moral decision-making; honesty, integrity, stamina and drive; the ability to inspire; abundant self-confidence; unflinching passion for the job; sound moral judgement; and social and emotional intelligence.

An essential element of the principal’s character is the will to take the lead. I have felt I was at my best when I was leading by example. Indeed, unless I led by example, none of the things that I was trying to achieve happened. I always insisted on high standards, which is vitally important in leadership, but I had to walk my talk.

I felt it was my job to set, demonstrate and expect exacting standards of professionalism, modelling core values for staff, students, and the community. That was my job; I had to define and set the professional standards I expected in my schools. No one else could do that. It takes a strong sense of self and who you are as a leader – a strong character – to lead in this way.

Often, coming to a fork in the road when making tough decisions, I felt strong and assured when I could say in a staff meeting or a parent meeting, “No, that is not ethically or morally right, and we won’t be doing that. That is not the way we do things around here.” But I occasionally found myself in situations where the decision was not mine alone.

Character, like integrity, is knowing who you are, being true to yourself and acting accordingly. Knowing who you are means holding yourself accountable. If you accept responsibility for all that is required of you as a principal, you must, by extension, accept that you will be held accountable and take personal responsibility. It’s easy to lose your leadership way if you don’t have a strong character. Without it, you’ll find yourself bending to the demands of others and departing from your own values and beliefs.

In each of my roles as principal, I accepted ultimate accountability for the school’s performance and success, or lack thereof. Accountability to me meant confronting: behaviour and choices that were inconsistent with the school’s ideals, values, and beliefs; a performance that fell short of all, not just some, of the metrics that matter; decisions on how to spend time and money that were inconsistent with strategic intent. True accountability required me not just to acknowledge and confront behaviour, performance and decisions that fell short but also to implement real consequences. Consequences can range from direct conversations to course correction to punitive action, but consequences must occur. Without accountability and consequence, words are just words. Your character will be tested when you are held to account.

No matter how lofty, well-intentioned or brilliant your talk is, your character is displayed in your walk. People in your community may appreciate your talk but watch your walk. It is our walk that defines us as principals, not our talk. Actions always speak louder than words.

Authentic charisma is an attribute that a principal must hold. You are going to be far more effective with it than without it. I knew I had to be visible, accessible, and available in my schools. I had to have a presence; I set the tone and led through an energetic example. I led effectively through engaging and connected one-on-one and small group interactions, but I also had to command an audience of hundreds. The good news is that you can learn to be charismatic if it is a trait you want to develop. And you can build grit and toughness too.

Your character should become your beacon, easily observed by your community and the standard by which you will be accountable for your leadership.

I like to think that I maintained a thick skin and a soft heart during my years as principal. All principals and CEOs carry the burden of leadership and must (most of the time) keep cool or maintain composure. It is okay to occasionally show your annoyance in a dignified way if that is possible. Projecting calm in a storm is essential because, during the storm, people look to you, as the leader, to rise above the turbulence.

I acknowledge that I made a few mistakes, learned to forgive myself, and moved on. You can have thick skin and maintain a tender heart. It gives you social and political capital. As such a leader, I cared deeply about people but didn’t need them to define me. When appointing key staff, I felt it was important to choose people who complement my leadership style. Sometimes that meant choosing those who were quite different as leaders. This is important – the executive team must have diverse interests, styles, and backgrounds.

With thick skin and a tender heart, I was trustworthy, effective, compassionate and focused.