What Is My Purpose for Leading?
Self-reflection is key to helping drive school improvement. By Baruti Kafele
The principalship is a complex position replete with numerous day-to-day challenges that, quite frankly, not all principal candidates are built to meet. To be successful in this business, a principal must skillfully juggle challenges that range from student achievement, motivation, and conduct to staff effectiveness and morale to parental engagement and school safety—and everything in between. It takes a special person to lead a school, whether at the elementary, middle, or high school level and whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.
With the myriad challenges that principals face, the self-reflection process is unavoidable. To perform consistently at an optimal level, self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-adjustment must be major components of each principal’s practice.
There are so many aspects of the principalship that require regular self-reflection. When I compiled my 50 reflective questions for The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, I categorized them into the following 10 categories:
- The Attitude of the Leader
- School Brand
- School Climate and Culture
- Building Collegial Relationships
- Instructional Leadership
- Accountability and Responsibility
- Planning, Organization, and Time Management
- Professional Learning for the Leader
- Professional Learning for Staff
- Parental and Community Engagement
The first category—the Attitude of the Leader—sets the stage for everything that comes next in a principal’s school and career. The first question I pose in this category is simple but important: Do I lead with a definite purpose that drives everything I say and do? With this question, I’m asking the principal to reflect on several more specific questions: Why do you lead? Why do you want to lead? What is your purpose? What drives and moves you? Why do you bother to do this work?
A principal must have a clear and personal purpose for leading that goes beyond traditional responses such as “to provide my students with a world-class education.” While this is indeed a noble purpose, I want the principal to dig much deeper―to develop a unique purpose that is both reflective of himself and the overall school community. This will be the driving force behind everything he says and does within the realm of the principalship.
I often compare the principal’s purpose to the words in a dictionary. Each word has a definition. None has a blank space next to it. The definition is what gives the word meaning. The principal’s purpose must work the same way. If the principal has no defined purpose for her principalship―if there’s a blank space where a purpose should be―then the principalship has no meaning. The principal may show up to work and take the required actions on a day-to-day basis yet still remain at a leadership deficit with no direction. The principal’s leadership style and goals, in this case, are undefined.
A school’s overall success is directly tied to the principal’s sense of purpose. When I was a school leader, my purpose was “to motivate, educate, and empower every student in the building.” It was my alarm clock—my personal reminder of why I woke up in the morning. It screamed out to me every day and reminded me what was important and what I needed to focus on.
Finding and pursuing a purpose is not as simple as it sounds. A purpose brings expectations with it. Mine brought with it a heavy—but worthy—load to bear: my students’ motivation, education, and empowerment began with me. But, once that purpose was established and that expectation was set, they drove my daily words and actions.
Just like I did, I strongly encourage every principal to pay attention to why he or she leads. Determining this will then help the principal better understand his or her role and establish a plan. When it comes to school success, the attitude of the principal is a crucial factor: A school needs a principal with clear purpose and the drive to bring that purpose to life.
Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author. His most recent book, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, was published by ASCD in March. Under his leadership, Newark (N.J.) Tech High School went from being a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's best high schools.