Administration & Leadership

5 Steps in Your Path to Becoming a Successful Principal

A former administrator explains how to apply tips from leadership expert John Maxwell in the context of your school.

September 11, 2023
PeopleImages / iStock

Whether you’re a first-year principal or experienced and starting a new assignment, you’ve likely been told or read about the importance of forming strong relationships with staff, students, and parents. That’s critical advice, but how and when do you accomplish that? 

In his book Leadership 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know, best-selling author, coach, and speaker John Maxwell outlines how the formation of relationships occurs during a five-step process of influence development. Relationships are built and solidified during the second step of that process.

Maxwell identified the five steps of leadership as (1) position, (2) permission, (3) production, (4) people development, and (5) pinnacle. Those steps apply to principals, preachers, project managers, and anyone wanting to grow in a position of influence.

When you meet your new teaching staff, at first they’ll be mostly concerned that you’ll be competent in your new role. Remember, most of them will have had experience at the school and will compare your performance with those of your predecessor and others.

Step one: Position

At the position level, people follow you because you’re their assigned boss, and they must listen to you. The position skills they expect to observe should be identified in your job description. Among the most important are the ability to speak effectively in public; command a presence of confidence; make good, timely decisions; maintain order and safety; and ensure that day-to-day school operations run smoothly.

You can be the most charismatic person ever to inhabit a principal’s office, but if people detect weaknesses in your positional skills or a façade to your relationships, chances are the relationships you hope are being formed will be superficial. People will listen to you only because you have stated authority.

When principals lack confidence, people lack commitment; morale will be low. Make sure you have a mentor, and have regular talks with them about the development and growth of your positional skills. 

Step two: Permission

With the permission level, people decide for themselves to follow you and choose to work with you. During this step, people begin to give you permission to be their leader. One of the most important pieces of advice I ever received from my mentor was to “do what you say you will do when you say you will do it.” Follow through. Otherwise, people will think you’re wishy-washy or unreliable, and your influence development will stall. 

Once staff, students, parents, colleagues, and other stakeholders assess that your competencies are solid, they’ll notice that you care. They’ll want to work for you. Commitment will become a two-way street. As a result, the relationships you form will likely be solid and long-lasting, and your influence as a leader will continue to evolve effectively.

Never abandon what you must know and be able to do at the base levels. If you stop showing people that you care at step two, relationships will sour. If you try to force results without giving attention to positional and relational skill building, you’ll likely fail.   

Step three: Production

At the production level, people follow and work with you because they like the results they get. At this level, principals have figured out what they must do to get the highest returns. They understand timing. They become excellent communicators. They unleash the superstars among their staff to become change agents for growth. As they guide and support effective teachers, they’re unafraid to make difficult decisions that will produce positive outcomes.

When you attain this level of influence and growth as a principal, everyone will notice, and quite often principals with a record of producing results are sought after by other districts or transferred internally to turn around another school. And then, they start their process of influence development again from step one. 

Step four: People Development

When you’re focused on people development, you’re investing in the long-term health and wealth of your school. People follow and work with you because of what you’ve done for them.

As you win over hearts, people will develop a sense of loyalty to you that forges the strongest type of relationship. Quite often, principals form mentoring partnerships at this level. They realize the importance of developing a new generation of leaders to follow them when they vacate their position.

Step five: Pinnacle

If you reach the pinnacle stage of your career, you’ll be revered because of who you are and what you represent. It takes years to get to the top, and if you do, the rewards are extremely satisfying and long-lasting. 

Whether you’re a first-year principal or one who is starting a new assignment at the position level, be mindful that as you progress up the steps, it takes longer at each level to move higher.

Don’t try to skip any steps. And remember, the longer you maintain tenure in a position, the more likely you’ll need to focus with different people at varying steps. As new teachers, students, parents, etc., join your school community, they’ll start at the first level assessing the environment and school culture, searching for comfort, finding their fit, and then forming relationships—and you must, too. 

As your competencies strengthen and your relationships solidify, you should begin to see good things happen. For instance, you’ll know you’ve reached the production stage of your leadership influence when people choose to be at your school—as an employee, student, and stakeholder. They’ll talk about the positive results they experience, and that will drive positive morale with low turnover.

And someday, when you reach the pinnacle, people might name the school after you.

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