Building Leadership Capacity

on May 25, 2011
By DICK FLANARY, Senior Director of Leadership Programs and Services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Accountability is the mantra for today’s schools. Expectations for schools are ever increasing, and sanctions for poor performance include takeovers and replacement of staff members and principals.  In this tough economic time, additional resources for school improvement are scarce.

As a practicing principal, how do you lead your school toward significant improvement in the midst of the current economic realities and the ever-present public scrutiny?

I’ve often heard that there are three ways to improve schools. First, you can replace the student body with a higher-achieving student population.  I suspect that the parents in your school community are sending you the best they have, so this isn’t a realistic option. Second, you can replace the faculty and staff members with more highly qualified staff members. We know that this isn’t a realistic option. Finally, because the first two options aren’t viable, you are faced with building the capacity of your faculty and staff members, which will enable them to better serve the needs of each of your students.

Long-Term Capacity Building

To change an organization and increase its capacity to produce greater results, the people within the organization must change and increase their capacity. School change begins with changes in the principal, assistant principals, and leadership team members. This group must generate greater capacity by developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable and sustain effective performance. It is imperative for the principal and leadership team to clearly demonstrate that capacity building is a priority for every adult in the school including themselves. Setting an example of substantive self-development begins to build a culture that ensures a safe learning environment for staff as well as students.

Immediate Capacity Building

Here are a few things you can do to start building capacity now, drawn from NASSP work on school redesign:

  • Have a clear vision and utilize your leadership to improve your school’s intangibles. Your vision can drive your school’s performance: a school’s culture echoes the principal’s expectations, so never pass up the opportunity to express your vision verbally and in writing.
  • Make the distinction between demography and destiny. A student’s zip code should not determine his or her educational achievement.
  • Reverse the perception that time is a constant and achievement a variable to view time as a variable and achievement as a constant.
  • Convey the urgency of teaching each student at a higher level to your school community. Without your commitment, teachers will never understand the importance of teaching advanced content to most students. Until you change what teachers do in their classrooms, you won’t substantively change the school. Is there bell-to-bell instruction in your school? What is the level of student engagement in your school?
  • Understand the difference between assessment for learning and assessment of learning; understand that assessments must be ongoing and have context.
  • Clarify what should be taught in the core curriculum: What do kids need to know? How are you going to determine if they know it? What are you going to do if they don’t know it?
  • Begin your redesign by focusing on one student at a time. It is easy to get caught up in macro fixes and to focus on problems that are difficult to remedy.
  • Be a literacy leader and be able to recognize whether teachers are advancing students’ literacy skills and requiring students to use these skills to learn in all courses. Ensure that every teacher in every discipline is teaching his or her students the vocabulary of that discipline.
  • Commit to building capacity in adult learners as well as student learners. Lateral development offers many opportunities for growth.
  • Manage and leverage systems; don’t let systems manage you.
  • Model ethical and professional behavior and expect it from others.
  • Insist that the core mission of your school drive your day. As a leader, you make many decisions, so let the school’s core mission be the arbiter in your decision-making process.

It is easy to get caught up in the pressure and to seek short-term fixes, but don’t lose sight of the improvement that comes from systemic capacity-building strategies. This is an investment that will ultimately provide a solid foundation for your improvement efforts.

Copyright 2009 National Association of Secondary School Principals.
 Dick Flanary ( is the Senior Director of Leadership Programs and Services at NASSP. For more information about NASSP programs and leadership development services, visit

About the author

At the Center for Educational Leadership we partner with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. Our vision is transformed schools empowering all students regardless of background to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
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