Five Factors of High-performing Leaders in Education

In Brief

8-Minute Read

Educators are highly familiar with research. Research helps them become better teachers and leaders, and expands the boundaries of their knowledge. Also, research can drive change.


  • To improve the performance in school systems, it’s critical that executive and senior leaders are committed to improvement.

  • Continuous development is a cornerstone to high performance in K12 institutions.

  • Leaders build trust and relationships by asking for feedback on their performance, being transparent and ensuring that employees understand the why behind changes.

To explore characteristics of high-performing organizations, Huron researchers completed in-depth personal interviews with senior-level managers in various school districts. Five factors consistently emerged as the most influential in their success:

  1. Executive and senior leadership commitment (relentlessness)
  2. Leadership evaluation (accountability)
  3. Leadership institutes and training (development)
  4. Employee forums (communication)
  5. Knowing this was the right thing to do (connect to purpose and ‘why’)

Executive and Senior Leadership Commitment

The first success factor was the executive and senior leadership team’s relentless commitment. These leaders didn’t rationalize why they didn’t get a particular result. They didn’t make excuses. They were relentless in pursuing their goals. This is similar to what Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes as a Level 5 leader. Collins describes these types of leaders as those who focus their drive on the success of the organization they’re leading rather than on themselves.

Former superintendent Pat Greco of the School District of Menomonee Falls is an example of a leader focused on achieving results. Here’s what makes her a relentless leader:

Dr. Greco and her entire leadership team showed unified discipline in their pursuit of continuous-improvement processes, including Evidence-Based Leadership and Plan-Do-Study-Act in classrooms and school buildings as well as Lean and Six Sigma process-improvement tools. Dr. Greco modeled these behaviors herself, seeking opportunities to showcase the school district and continuing her lifelong work of making public education systems better for students and families. At meetings, she turned over the stage to the leaders and teachers who carry out the work every day. As Jim Collins says, it’s not that Level 5 leaders do not have egos; rather, they channel their ego away from themselves and toward the larger good of the organization.

Dr. Greco is defined by her passion, vision, and commitment. She claims that for years she’s been looking for the right formula to make a difference in school reform and improvement. Finally, she sees success as a result of finding the right combination and not wavering from achieving the district’s goals.

Leaders like Dr. Greco demonstrate how passion, vision, and commitment of top leadership are paramount for an organization be successful. They lead the management team’s unified vision, clear outlining of expectations, determination to stay focused and discipline in following the process and vision. These committed and relentless leaders, along with their leadership teams, “walk the walk” and model all the behaviors they expect others to perform.

Leadership Evaluation

The second success factor was a leadership evaluation tool that created accountability. All the organizations studied had an objective, weighted evaluation tool that helped the leaders know exactly what they were going to accomplish and what their priorities were. This moved leaders away from making excuses such as “my plate is full” or “I have too many priorities.” They might still have had a full schedule, but they understood their priorities.

When school districts apply a measurable leader evaluation system that integrates alignment of superintendents, executive team leaders, principals and department leaders, they set the stage for building a culture of excellence and continuous improvement.

When Tim Wyrosdick was the Superintendent of Santa Rosa County School District in Florida, he made a bold decision to shift his evaluation to a transparent, open and measurable evaluation that included growth measures on student achievement, employee engagement scores, parent satisfaction, satisfaction of principals with district services and financial effectiveness.

Superintendent Wyrosdick was not evaluated by the board. He was evaluated by the citizens of the community. By bravely sharing his results openly, he made a conscious choice to use “hard” measures and to make the results transparent to the board and the public. Superintendent Wyrosdick serves as a model for other leaders, who made at least 75 percent of their evaluation dependent on measurable goals.

Today, Santa Rosa County remains one of the highest-performing districts in Florida. The leaders made a conscious decision to be held accountable when being complacent was probably easier.

When a district implements leader evaluation measures, a new and different perspective on systems improvement is formed within the district. Leaders like Superintendent Wyrosdick demonstrate how transparent leader evaluation helps improve and sustain district measures, including student achievement results.

Leadership Institutes and Training

The third influential success factor was leader development. Each organization invested heavily in training. Every one of these organizations provided more than 60 hours each year in leadership and management development training. It was mandatory for everyone in a supervisory role, without exception. Leadership development is priority one.

As part of the Evidence-Based Leadership framework, Huron works with superintendents to hold Leadership Development Institutes (LDIs) to develop all leaders and to engage teams of leaders to plan the curriculum. The School District of Janesville in Wisconsin, under the leadership of superintendent Karen Schulte, committed to holding four LDIs each year.

The LDIs are planned by leadership teams that may include a curriculum team (during the event), linkage team (continuous learning from one event to the next), logistics team (event planning and setup), and social team (integrating relationship-building learning events into the day). The superintendent provides direction and begins each institute by presenting a current state address.

School districts can and must put all their leaders in one room. Superintendent Schulte created a “win-win” situation to do this. She scheduled teams of teacher leaders (who could be the next generation of principals) to provide fill-in leadership to schools so that principals and assistant principals can attend LDIs.

Employee Forums

High-performing organizations made a real commitment to employee communication, not only at the department level but also at the administrative level. Every organization conducted employee forums or town hall meetings led by senior leaders, thus allowing employees to hear key messages, be informed on key issues, and focus on what they can do to improve.

Dr. Marcelo Cavazos, Superintendent of Arlington Independent School District in Texas, exemplifies commitment to fostering transparent and open communication with leaders, teachers and staff. During their monthly and quarterly meetings, Dr. Cavazos communicates key information to staff in an uncommon way. In each session, he presents key information and data, and connects strongly back to the district’s goals by continuously repeating, “Failing to improve is not an option.” But, Dr. Cavazos doesn’t just deliver his message; he also fosters interaction and feedback among his staff. he always ends his presentations by asking for questions. To ensure that his inquiry is sincere, he remains silent until people ask questions or make comments. He does not adjourn the meeting until all questions have been asked and answered.

When leaders have good communication skills, they also apply effective strategies to reward and recognize employees. High-performing organizations realize that people are more engaged and willing to go the extra mile when leaders frequently express their appreciation—in person, in thank-you notes or both.

Knowing the Right Thing to Do

The fifth influential success factor in the study of high-performing organizations was knowing when an action was the right thing to do. In these organizations, leaders didn’t take for granted that people automatically knew why a change was being made. They spent time explaining why decisions were made. They also frequently and deliberately connected employees back to purpose, worthwhile work and making a difference.

School districts often implement an employee engagement survey that can be benchmarked to other partner districts. The most important feature of the survey is that leaders use the results to provide teachers and staff with a work environment that supports them in reaching their highest potential. To reinforce this message, it is highly recommended that the superintendent explain why it is important for teachers and staff to complete the survey.

Here’s an example:

Dear ______,

Our school district is working each day to provide a great place for students to learn, a great place for teachers to teach, a great place for all employees to work, and a great place for parents to send their children for an excellent education. As a district, we are continuing to gather data that will allow us to set realistic goals for our district as part of our strategic plan for improvement. It is important that we get your input on how well your immediate supervisor provides a work environment that allows you to perform at the highest levels.

The survey will open on April 15 and close on April 26. The data from this survey will be reviewed by all stakeholders. It will also be used to create action plans at school, departmental and district levels. These action plans will focus on an area for improvement that will continue to move our school district to higher levels of excellence. Your input process is valuable, so please take a few minutes to complete the survey. Thank you for your commitment to students, employees and parents.

These superintendents live out the five factors of relentlessness, accountability, development, communication and connecting to purpose. Superintendents like the ones highlighted here have a great desire to move from good to great. They see value in continuous improvement, so they echo the value of the Evidence-Based Leadership Framework.


To lead a high-performing school system, leaders in education must:
  • Think differently.
    Be committed to continuous improvement.
  • Plan differently.
    Select a continuous improvement framework that works for the organization and intentionally plan development for all employees to learn how to use the tool.
  • Act differently.
    Gather feedback on their leadership and be transparent about the results and actions for improvement.

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