Guest Column

Only the Extraordinary for Next Generation’s Leaders

by Bill Brown and Harry McLenighan

The combination of projected leadership shortages and steadily increasing K-12 enrollments suggests a promising job market for aspiring principals and superintendents. But getting jobs and keeping them are distinctly different propositions. The changing demands on tomorrow’s educational leaders will require mastery of distinctly 21st century competencies.


The fundamental qualification for principals and superintendents won’t change. As is the case today, tomorrow’s educational leaders will need to be driven by an uncompromising commitment to children's success. At the same time, changes in K-12 education are dramatically redefining the skill sets required to bring that vision to reality.

What are the new 21st century administrative competencies? We think the competencies can be grouped in 10 categories.

The Best Test

Leadership and management. New school leaders will need to be excellent managers. The 20th century choice between leadership and management won’t apply anymore. The best test of leadership remains the ability to bring about commitment to a cause greater than self. But today’s K-12 issues (notably the laser focus on student achievement, data-driven decisions and the integration of technology) require specialized expertise. Without it, articulating the vision to which they seek commitment will be a daunting if not impossible challenge.

Data managers. The new generation of administrators will need to know how to read, interpret and apply data to increase student achievement. They will need the skills to disaggregate and clearly communicate achievement data so their communities can develop effective school improvement plans. The requirements of No Child Left Behind and state standards require administrators to have the ability to look at achievement gaps on norm-referenced standardized assessments and develop plans to close those gaps.

Technology. Schools will move beyond traditional space- and time-bound classrooms toward virtual environments that serve children as the demands of their lives require. The 21st century leader needs the technical skills to manage schools without walls and students who never set foot in a school building.

Diverse learners. As schools become increasingly diverse in the 21st century, the ability to understand and respond appropriately to students’ cultural, racial, economic, social and learning differences will become increasingly important prerequisites to effective school leadership.

Positive school culture. Much has been written about the importance of positive school climate on student achievement. Tomorrow’s leaders will need the interpersonal, process and technical skills to maintain positive, productive stakeholder relationships in increasingly traditional as well as virtual school communities.

Digital Savvy

Global knowledge. School administrators will need to be exceptional researchers with a global perspective. Internet savvy will not be a nice-to-have capacity; it will be a must-have. For students in a digital world to become masterful researchers and critical thinkers, administrators must possess those same skills.

Professional development. Tomorrow’s educational leaders need to understand the principles of effective professional development. Responsibility for professional development no longer can be delegated to specialists. Professional development needs to be integrated into the life of the learning community. In learning communities with effective leaders, professional development is viewed as essential, and teachers and school administrators know and apply best practices to overcome barriers to student learning.

Honesty and openness. Tomorrow’s leaders must be honest, ethical and open. Because the public has been taught by corporate and governmental misconduct to be suspicious of their leaders, school administrators will need to model ethical behavior if they expect to have the credibility to lead a school or district in continuous improvement.

School governance. Tomorrow's administrators will need to be prepared to lead regardless of the governance model in fashion. They will need to have the collaborative skills demanded of exceptional facilitators as well as the decision-making and project management skills associated with traditional managers.

Support teacher leaders. Regardless of the governance model in place, tomorrow’s administrators will need to engage all building staff in shared school leadership if they hope to successfully increase student achievement. Tomorrow's principals need to be prepared to support learning communities in which teacher leadership is the norm. Superintendents need to encourage their principals’ efforts to cultivate teacher leadership when building learning communities.

Likely Prospects?

When you look at the skills needed to be an effective administrator it makes you wonder how we will ever find these extraordinary individuals. Any time a group of superintendents talks about the available pool of principal applicants, the conversation always reverts to the apparent dearth of high-quality candidates. If we are to staff our schools and districts with 21st century leaders, we must start recruiting and training them now.

To address the shortage of qualified school administrators, there needs to be improvement in the way we certify administrators. School districts will have to become increasingly involved with promoting and training their own rising leaders. The job cannot be left to universities alone.

Tomorrow's educational leaders will need to do it all: Increase achievement, satisfy demanding stakeholders, create effective learning communities, be expert in school law, finance, public relations, assessment and instructional practice, all in a 70- to 80-hour work week. Plenty of opportunities will be available, but only those with 21st century skills need apply.

Bill Brown is superintendent of the Silver Grove Public Schools, P.O. Box 400, Silver Grove, KY 41085. E-mail: Harry McLenighan is faculty director for K-12 program development and delivery with Capella University.