Wednesday / July 24

Improving Leadership by Improving Yourself 

Listen to Randy Weiner and James Bailey discuss how to lead SEL by modeling it on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast with Peter DeWitt:

Recent research on the principalship (Grissonm et al., 2021) shows the experience level of principals since 2016 has decreased from an average of 10 years to 7 years, and that the number of principals with three years or less of experience has risen from 19% to 31% in this same time frame.  

We know that school leaders and principals matter tremendously, but not in the direct way people often imagine. The evidence is clear that principals have a positive and significant indirect effect on student achievement and that improving principal leadership can, in fact, improve student learning (Grissom et al., 2021).  

However, with the decreases in levels of experiences, heightened equity concerns, and increasing stress and burnout of principles due to the Covid-19 crisis, how we support principals to keep influencing school success has emerged as an essential question. How do we raise the capacity of thousands of principals in the US for these new realities?  

The Foundation of Improving Leadership 

To build school leaders’ capacity across the US, we first have to realize that the influence of principals is not a direct effect but an indirect effect mediated through numerous pathways that influence teachers. Leithwood et al. (2017) describe four such paths in their framework: the rational (how teaching and learning is organized), organizational (how the school is organized and is managed), family (how the school interacts with families), and emotional paths (how the affective states of staff are influenced). 

Our new book, The Daily SEL Leader: A Guided Journalfocuses directly on the foundation of excellent school leadership: influencing the emotional path. Although a principal can and does influence all of these paths, in The Daily SEL Leader, we expand the knowledge and skills school leaders need to develop concerning the call for more attention to social-emotional learning at the adult and student level.  

In his research, Leithwood et al. (2017) suggest that the emotional path has a high degree of influence on teacher affective states, school culture, and well-being of staff—all critical elements in a well-functioning school—especially during today’s pandemic. The positive affective states of teachers also have a significant relationship to student achievement.  

In short, the principal’s focus on the emotional path can lead to flourishing teachers, which leads to flourishing students. While this equation finds support in the research literature, how principals develop the fundamental skills to influence the emotional path has received limited attention even though we know their importance. Enter The Daily SEL Leader as a focus on the social-emotional foundation of leadership to guide their school’s emotional path. 

The SEL Competencies for the Emotional Path 

With the advent of SEL’s importance in all schools, we began to ask the question about the role of principals in making this focus a reality. In our work across numerous schools and states, however, we soon realized that leaders who understood themselves and the role of leading adult SEL had a much clearer vision for implementing SEL. In contrast, many other leaders were looking for an off-the-shelf answer to student SEL without understanding their role or how vital the emotional path was for their teachers. 

With that frame in mind, we choose to write a different type of book. The Daily SEL Leader takes the well-known CASEL framework competencies and explores what these mean for today’s school leaders. Rather than only laying out the background and research of these competencies and hoping for transfer, we ask principals to engage in a journey to understand themselves first so they can next understand and lead others.  

In the book, we focus on developing a deliberate practice plan to help principals move sometimes abstract concepts into their daily practice. With a deliberate practice plan and intentions to implement the skill, we believe that principals can begin to add to their foundation as leaders and better guide their schools’ emotional path. In essence, we ask principals to go on a journey of growth with themselves supported by the book and others in their school and build their capacity to lead the emotional path. 


While we know a book will not build a principal’s social-emotional capacity by itself, we hope that this book will be a small spark for principals to think more about leading the emotional path through their personal growth.  

As we concluded our research and writing, we found that the foundation of a successful school leader comes from using SEL skills in their daily work. This seems obvious, but how much time do we as leaders spend in honing these skills we know have a high degree of influence on teachers and their students? The emotional path is a robust yet underutilized path for influencing teacher and student performance. The emotional path is effectively the felt culture of a school and the manifestation of SEL. 

We believe that by using The Daily SEL Leader, school leaders can continue to develop their SEL skills by internalizing what each competency means for leading schools. 

  • See self-awareness as an accurate portrayal of yourself 
  • See self-management as the control of your inner life 
  • See social-awareness as attunement to others 
  • See relationship skills as the continual building of trust 
  • See responsible decision making as sharing values and power with others 
  • Overall, see SEL as your key to better leadership 

We hope this book is a first step in expanding how all school leaders can lead their staff down the emotional path toward more student success.  


Grissom, Jason A., Anna J. Egalite, and Constance A. Lindsay. 2021. How principals affect students and schools: A systematic synthesis of two decades of research.  The Wallace Foundation. 

Leithwood,K., Sun, J., & Pollock, K. (eds.) (2017). How school leaders lead to student success; The four paths framework. Springer  

Written by

James Bailey is an experienced K-12 leader, having served as an elementary and high school principal, an assistant superintendent, superintendent, and turn-around leader in both the public and charter school spaces in Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas. He has also worked as a school improvement consultant and leadership coach opening his firm called the Leading Learners Institute in 2016 ( Bailey started LLI to help make research more meaningful and actionable for educators through a specific focus on 1) leadership coaching 2) capacity building through design-based research and improvement science principles 3) social-emotional development of adults and students, and 4) future-oriented strategic planning [see].

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