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Greg Farr

When looking for a strong administrator it is critical to look beyond the widely acknowledged prescribed skill sets. It is equally important to look at the personality traits of today’s successful administrators (with the ability to handle stress and dissonance being such a widely assumed prerequisite behavior that is doesn’t even need to be listed.) The newly required traits for the “Ideal 21st Century Administrator” must now include a love for risk-taking, being deaf to criticism, having a sense of balance that allows one to navigate with finesse through any chaotic maze (political, economical, etc), and holding absolutely no love for the status quo.

Scott McLeod

Greg, how do you assess these critical capacities as part of the hiring / interview process for new administrators? In other words, how do you know if your administrative candidates possess these qualities and how do you distinguish between people?

Greg Farr


I understand that it would be nice to have a process that somehow automatically quantifies these qualities. Unfortunately, as your question implies, there is no recipe or standardized way to pull these identifiers out. But here's the best I can offer:

Aside from all the usual things one looks for in searching for an administrator, I consider the following to be the parts that tell me the most about their true ability at handling the job’s real demands (i.e. including the handling of stress / dissonance):

Aside from all the usual things one looks for in searching for an administrator, I consider the following to be the parts that tell me the most about their true ability at handling the job’s real demands:

First: PASSION. From the moment I meet a candidate, I am reading their eyes, their body language, and listening carefully between the lines. During the interview process I need to hear a passion for life, a love of kids, an advocate’s willingness to fight for what they believe in. There is an energy that successful administrators have and convey. From their handshake to their eye contact. Do they melt into their chair or sit forward and lean into engaging you during a conversation? You could almost describe it as an “aggressiveness”, (but not in the negative connotation that suggests).

Second: WORK HISTORY. Evaluate their past work history with a microscope. Two parts are critical: reference checks and site-visits. Have they been in stressful positions before? (What size school have they previously run? What were the demographics? What kind of record did they leave behind?) If possible, visit their previous work place. From what you discover, what possible insights might be discovered regarding the political climate? The economic pressures? The performance expectations? (I was recommending one of my employees for an assistant principalship once and the principal of the school where the vacancy was – located in a different district and different city – literally showed up in my office one morning and asked if she could spend the morning with the candidate. After four hours shadowing the candidate, talking to students, talking to other staff, she made her decision to hire him.)

Third: TIME MANAGEMENT. I always ask candidates to describe IN DETAIL their time management methods. I avoid work-a-holics who live at their jobs. I want to know what time they usually go to work and what time they usually leave. I won’t hire anyone who makes a point of talking about working long hours. And I would NEVER hire anyone who says they never take lunch breaks.

Fourth: OUTSIDE INTERESTS. I want to know what they are involved in outside of work.
I always ask two questions in this area: what is the last book they read for pleasure, who is their favorite musician, and what do they do for exercise.

Fifth: SENSE OF HUMOR. I ALWAYS ask candidates to tell me a joke. I look for three things: their initial reaction to the request, how well they actually tell the joke (do they seem to be comfortable, or is it like they never told a joke in their life?), and do they laugh?

When all is said and done, I want the candidate to have made an impression on me. Did they have a strong personality?...a sense of confidence and control? Would I hand this person the keys to my building and leave for a month?

Jan Borelli

When I became a secondary administrator YEARS ago, I didn't fit the mind set for the time. Secondary principals were supposed to be men because (after all) a frail young thing couldn't run a secondary school (What if they had to get in someone's face? What if they had to break up a fight? Blah, blah, blah)

I was not any of the things that administrators were supposed to be (including a former coach). So, I think it's critical that we try not to define what a good principal is. My style is very different from the style of my best friend; and yet we are equally successful in different ways.

I recommend that we have a REAL belief that we can train anyone who strives to be a principal. Because, no matter what anyone wants to say or believe... leadership can and should be learned. I am so much more than I was when I came to the principal ranks; and I sure plan to be more still before I leave.

If 50% of new teachers leave the teacher ranks within the first five years if not brought through an effective induction program, then how many more principals leave the ranks because we FAIL to have effective principal induction programs?

pete reilly

When interviewing a leader for a position I try to balance listening to the words and ideas of the candidate ( the mind) with what I am feeling from them.

Do I feel the heart of the leader? (strength and courage). Do I feel the spirit of the leader?(compassion, caring, and optimism) Do I fee the body of the leader? (not in the sense of trim and "buff" body) but a body that has presence, confidence, strong grounding.

Many of a leader's most important attributes are intangibles.


John Switzer


In international schools, we also talk about CULTURAL dissonance. As in many international schools, our students here at Seoul Foreign School in Korea come from a variety of different cultures (1500 students, 54 nationalities), and sometimes find that their cultural values are in dissonance with those from other cultures. Someone from Europe will have a completely different way of operating in a school environment than someone from Asia. Add a preponderance of North American or UK trained teachers, and voila, cultural dissonance emerges.

We've embedded an Expected Student Learning Results (ESLR's) into our school to help deal with cultural dissonance. hrough both formal and informal ways, students will be expected to demonstrate respect, compassion, and acceptance of cultures other than their own. No student should feel that their cultural values are superior to another. It is not enough to simply tolerate another's culture. Rather, students must give others the dignity to be different, as others, with their differences, can also be right.

Scott McLeod

Thanks, John. I think we see cultural dissonance here in the States too. For example, when middle-class white administrators intersect with disadvantaged non-Caucasian school and family cultures.

John Switzer


Yes, I'm sure that is the case at your end as well. I know from my administrative training (in Canada) that there is little or no attention paid to this type of dissonance. As such, administrators (at least in Canada) are not able to adequately or appropriately respond to the varying needs of their children (and parents). My sense is that this will be an increasing problem in the future, as more cultures appear on our doorsteps.

In an international context, there is more opportunities for administrators to learn about cultural dissonance, both in in-service sesions as well as first-hand knowledge based on the fact that we're all living in cultures other than our own. I've led in-service training for intercultural understanding based on the work of Geert Hofstede and the teachers (particularly new to the international profession) have found it very relevant.

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