Look for Authenticity and Talents in the Principal Selection Process

AASA New Superintendents E-Journal October 2009

James BirdBy James J. Bird, assistant professor in the department of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Her departure was abrupt. A job promotion for her husband meant the family was being transferred to another state. While congratulating her on this news, the superintendent wondered how long it would take to fill her job as high school principal. Fewer and fewer teachers were interested in becoming administrators and her school was one of the most visible in the district. The superintendent took a deep breath and tried to exhale slowly.  

Today’s principalship is replete with complex roles and responsibilities and success requires an extraordinary individual. The daily, even hourly, pressures of the position are at once exhilarating and debilitating, motivating and defeating, energy creating and depleting. When faced with a principalship vacancy, how can a new superintendent increase the chances of filling the position with a great selection? The stakes are high and the new hire’s success may be a prelude to how the superintendent’s fortune is going to play out in the district. 

Two concepts new superintendents should consider when selecting a building principal come from the private sector business literature, but have clear and direct applicability to educational leadership. The first concept is the authenticity of the principal candidate; the second concept is the set of talents the applicant presents during the selection process. Understanding these two concepts and grafting them into the selection process should yield a better choice than traditional methods.  


The early scholars studied whether leaders should focus on tasks or relationships, and whether effective leaders use one particular leadership style. We now know that the school principal has to both get the job done and maintain the support of his or her staff. We also know that the conditions today’s principals face are so diverse and complex that they need to apply bits and pieces of several leadership styles to different situations in a very fluid and dynamic fashion.  

A particular type of leadership style that has emerged in the business administration literature focuses on authenticity (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004; Begley, 2001; Endrissat, Muller, & Kaudela-Baum, 2007; Gardner & Schermerhorn, 2004; Ilies, Morgeson, & Nahrgang, 2005; Michie & Gooty, 2005). These studies suggest that the authenticity of the leader has a positive impact on followers, which in turn has a positive impact on organizational outcomes. Business leaders agree that authentic leadership is advantageous for organizations (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007; Goffee & Jones, 2005). Authenticity, then, is an important concept for educators to explore. 

Authentic leadership involves four components. First, authentic leaders know and are comfortable with themselves. They have self-efficacy, profess their values, and match their actions to their rhetoric.  

Second, in the essential arena of human interactions, they have relational transparency. They express their feelings and ideals and are receptive to the diverse viewpoints of others. They seek discourse and are energized by such social interactions.  

Third, authentic leaders use balanced processing wherein they suspend judgment until all data is collected from those affected by the decision. They approach problems without preconceived solutions. They use predetermined processes to make better decisions. 

Finally, they conduct themselves with moral integrity. Their goals and means of attaining them are just and public. They consistently and unfailingly hold themselves up to high standards and expect the same of others. They unflinchingly advocate for what is important to the success of the school, its staff and students. 

Here is an important tenet: Authenticity is attributed to the leader by those they lead. It is not a self-proclaimed attribute. It is earned day-by-day over time. I like to use the phrase, “one-on-one, one by one.” 

But where is the data about how this translates into leader-follower behavior in schools? This is what we have found so far: 

In three successive studies in county school districts of a metropolitan area of a Southeastern state, involving 113 principals and 1,321 teachers, principal authenticity was significantly positively related to teacher levels of trust and engagement. We also found differences in how principals self-rate their own authenticity when compared to how their teachers perceive their principals’ authenticity. 

Interestingly, when the principals under-estimated their own authenticity relative to how their teachers view them, their faculties had significantly more trust and higher engagement levels than in those schools where principals over-estimated their own authenticity. 

While we are getting directional findings that relate authenticity to student achievement, our results to date lack statistical significance (Bird, Chuang, Watson, & Murray, 2009). Most stakeholders would relish teaching staffs who trusted their principals and who had high levels of engagement with their workplace. 

Walumbwa and others (2008) have developed a 16-question survey for authenticity. It has two forms: one is for a self-rating; the other is for subordinate feedback. The former brings with it all the weaknesses of self-reports and the latter seems to generate more stable data. Each could be administered during the application process or during reference checks. 


Traditionally, superintendents screened administrative candidates on some variation of the technical–conceptual–human–relations skills trilogy. Then, they considered the candidates’ accomplishments and relativity to the present vacancy. Sometimes superintendents used schemas from commercial sources to help in their selection processes. 

Research in the private sector (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999), suggests that the concept of talent should be added to the deliberation process. Talents are re-occurring patterns of behavior that emerge in an individual’s response to situations. Defined this way, talents, unlike skills, cannot be learned but rather are intrinsic to the individual’s nature. 

While talents can be specific to different job classifications, Buckingham and Coffman (1999) codify three broad types. 

First, there are striving talents. These are the fundamental drivers that propel individuals through their day’s work. Successful principals seem to have a need for achievement, a need to compete, and a fire in their belly. 

Second, thinking talents prescribe how would-be principals approach problems and how they deliberate. Are they focused? Are they self-disciplined? Will they take responsibility for their actions and the results of their endeavors? 

Finally, relating talents foretell how the candidates will interact with subordinates and colleagues. Are they empathetic? Do they have the inclination to take charge? Are they interested in developing the skills and leadership of their individual teachers? A full list of talents appears in Buckingham and Coffman’s book, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (1999). 

Applying this section to the real-world setting of the selection process is easy. For example, during the interview process, I ask candidates directly about their striving talent. I could get the same information through a writing prompt. To determine their thinking talent, I listen to how the candidate answers questions. Concurrently, I watch how they interact with everyone during the entire interview process. 

The Critical Decision

When faced with a principalship vacancy, savvy superintendents seize the opportunity to select a person who will have a major impact on the school district’s operations. The extent to which the superintendent conducts a successful principal selection process may auger well for the superintendent’s own professional success. 

With rising expectations for job performance and shrinking applicant pools these decisions are more crucial than ever before. The additional consideration of applicant authenticity and set of talents will complement the superintendent’s selection of the next principal. Over time, principal selection prowess, or lack there of, will determine superintendent success. 


Avolio, B., & Gardner, W. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338.

Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Walumbwa, F., Luthans, F., & May, D. (2004). Unlocking the mask: A look at the process by which authentic leaders impact follower attitudes and behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 801-823. 

Begley, P. (2001). In pursuit of authentic leadership practices. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4, 353-365. 

Bird, J.J., Wang, C., Watson, J., & Murray, L. (2009, February). Principal vacancy? Hire authenticity. Paper presented at the American Association of School Administrator’s Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA. 

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Endrissat, N., Muller, W., & Kaudela-Baum, S. (2007). En route to an empirically-based understanding of authentic leadership. European Management Journal,25(3), 207-220. 

Gardner, W., & Schermerhorn, J., Jr. (2004). Unleashing individual potential: Performance gains through positive organizational behavior and authentic leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 33, 270-281. 

George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85, 129-138. 

Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2005). Managing authenticity: The paradox of great leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83, 87-94.

Ilies, R., Morgeson, F., & Nahrgang, J. (2005). Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: Understanding leader-follower outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 373-394. 

Michie, S., & Gooty, J. (2005). Values, emotions, and authenticity: Will the real leader please stand up? The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 441-457. 

Walumbwa, F., Avolio, B., Gardner, W., Wernsing, T., & Peterson, S. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89-126.