The Critical Role of the Principal

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The more we examine the digital evolution of schooling the more we are convinced the principal is critical to the successful digital evolution of the school.

An apt school principal is as important as the CEO of a digital master in business.

Westerman and his colleagues observed of the digital masters

Our research shows that successful digital transformation starts at the top of the company (Westerman,, 2014, p100).

The same holds of schools. The principal has to lead.

Indeed we’d go out on a limb and contend that without a principal willing and able to lead a digital school the school has little chance of significant digital evolution. No other staff, no deputy head, e-learning coordinator nor a committee can cover for a principal unable or unwilling to lead a digital school. They might be able to keep the school from regressing but experience after experience demonstrates even the best of deputies or leadership teams can’t advance the school’s evolution while ever the head is lacking. Digital evolution requires everyone to be empowered to creatively improve how all can work and interact. Only the Principal can fully empower everyone in the school.

While the research has long affirmed the vital lead role of the school principal the paper based school compared to its digital counterpart is a relatively simple organisation. The further the school evolves digitally, integrates its operations, socially networks, empowers its community, marries the in and out of school teaching and learning and moves to higher order teaching the greater will be the demands on the role of principal.

Pleasingly – and in marked contrast to the traditional highly hierarchically structured school – the principal is now afforded very considerable support by the empowered staff and school community. The change is very similar to what happens to teachers in digitally evolved schools. For them the pupils take more of the load of progressing the learning activity, enabling the teacher to focus more on helping pupils raise the level of their outcomes. Similarly, the principal in a digitally evolved school can rely appreciably more on the support and independent decision making of the professionals and a school community that better understands the workings of the school.

While as indicated there are a plethora of variables schools have successfully to address in their digital evolution all are dependent on the school having in the principal able daily to shape and grow the desired, increasingly complex, digitally based school ecosystem.

Ideally every school requires at least one, but preferably several assistant principals can undertake the lead role when the head is out of the school.

Few today will question the critical importance of the CEOs of the digital masters in industry or indeed the monies paid to secure the services of the best.

However as yet few seemingly appreciate

  • how important the ‘right’ principal is to the successful digital evolution of the school
  • the shortage of those leaders
  • the dearth of apt training for potential school leaders
  • why schools might have pay to secure those principals who can continually deliver the desired evolution.

Every – and we stress every – school wanting to evolve digitally ideally requires such a principal.

Most will likely need to be grown locally – hopefully with external support – although increasingly there will likely be younger staff who possess both the drive and digital acumen needed.

The ten-week leadership programs run by the authors are designed to assist both grow the digital leadership insights and skills (

Tellingly all the principals leading the pathfinder schools grew their skill and mindset on the job. Indeed in rapidly evolving schools moving into unchartered waters, on the job, just in time professional development is essential. Gone are the programs of the world of constancy, continuity and the luxury of learning by looking through the rear vision mirror. That said, much can now be learned not only from the pathfinder principals but also the digital leadership of business.

The difficult question that many a school and school community will have to ask – is our current principal willing and able to lead a digital school? Can she/he be assisted to grow in the job? Are they of a mind to empower the staff and the wider school community or are they basically an autocrat unwilling to distribute control?

Related is – what does one do with a principal unwilling or unable to lead such a school? Can they be convinced to grow or do they need to be replaced?

The key is to appreciate the critical importance of the principal in the digital evolution of the school and to address the challenge in context.

  • Westerman, G, Bonnett, D and McAfee, A (2014) Leading Digital. Turning Technology into Business Transformation, Boston, Harvard Business Review Press