Skip to main content
BlogLeadership Insights

Generations of Principals Lead Change Differently

By October 31, 2012June 13th, 20164 Comments

The Soviets launch Sputnik, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, OPEC enacts an oil embargo, the Challenger Shuttle explodes, or the World Trade Center falls—these events and others help to define generations. Because a generation has a shared memory of important events, it also shares similar assumptions about what matters based on their formative experiences (Raines, 1997; Kunreuther, 2008). Therefore, generations can influence people’s perspectives and behaviors.

School leaders may not be aware of their generation’s effect on the way they lead change. But awareness of these influences can help principals use reflective practice, consider their effectiveness as a leader, and adopt new behaviors. These changes can improve overall school organization and increase the efficacy of leaders as they become more aware of their influence. For instance, Gen-X principals tend to use decisive, yet inclusive decision-making processes, which may help in leading change more effectively than other generations.

I recently finished Leading Schools through a Generational Lens (Kuhn, 2012) that identifies these
generational differences in leadership. Connecting my data to the 21 leadership responsibilities from McREL’s Balanced Leadership Profile® research, I found five major trends:

  1. A significant gap exists between how principals and teachers perceive the same change. Principals tended to see the changes they led as 2nd order (i.e., a change that is significantly and fundamentally different) by a much larger margin than their teachers. This gap was significantly greater for Gen-X principals.
  2. The top and bottom five leadership responsibilities were similar across generations. Teachers rated the top five leadership responsibilities as Outreach, Ideals & Beliefs, Optimize, Focus, and Knowledge of Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment and the bottom five as Relationships, Order, Discipline, Involvement in Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment, and Input.
  3. Principals tend to self-rate their leadership capacity significantly higher than average compared to their teachers’ ratings, especially when they were thought to be leading 2nd order change. This occurred about three times more frequently in Generation Jones and Baby Boomer cohorts than the Gen-X
  4. When they felt their principals were leading 1st order change (i.e., a change in process, not in type), teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly lower than average in some responsibilities. Conversely, teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly higher than average in many responsibilities when they felt their principals were leading 2nd order change.
  5. Teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Generation Jones principals significantly higher than average when they felt their principals were leading 1st order change, but lower than average when they were leading 2nd order change.

If supervisors have a more holistic understanding of the leadership characteristics of principals, principal professional development improves. For instance, it appears that principals tend to rate themselves higher in many
leadership responsibilities than teachers do; therefore, exploring the nature of this discrepancy may lead to a deeper understanding of what teachers want and need from principals to be successful.

Every generation of leaders has strong and weak leadership characteristics. What differences have you seen in how generations of principals lead change?

Written by McREL Principal Consultant Matt Kuhn, Ph.D.


Kuhn, M. (2012). Leading Schools Through a Generational Lens: Perceptions of principals’ change
leadership disaggregated by principal generation. University of Denver.

Kunreuther, Frances (2008). Working across generations: Defining the future of nonprofit leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raines, C. (1997). Beyond Generation X: A practical guide for managers. Menlo Park: Crisp Publications.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Amy says:

    This blog is exactly what I was looking for. I recently was moved to a title one school in the city of Atlanta. This school has a new principal. He is making, in my eyes, a drastic change. This elementary school was missing a lot of key components that make kids want to come to school. It was missing fundraisers, parent involvement, after school activities, and all around incentives to get the students and their families involved. The principal has made the school feel more like home for all of the children and the parents have become very involved. On the flip side, student assessing has become a key component at this school. From summative to formative, testing has become overwhelming to most teachers and students. Teachers are creative these assessments weekly, on top of district assessing for all grade levels, including kindergarten. It feels like teachers are just teaching kids to pass a test. We all know how important testing is because it is a measure to see if students are learning what they have been taught, but when is enough, enough? I would love to here your responses.

  • Heather Gregory says:

    I am a Kindregarten teacher and have been teaching at the same school for the past six years. This is wher I began my career as a teacher. Since I have been at theis school I have had four different principals. Yes, four principals in six years. I teach at a Title I school and have experiences with behavior issues with students. The teacher turnover is not high but the principal turnover is. I am growing more and more frustrated as we continue to get principals brought in to “fix” our school.What are some ways to help myself and my fellow teacher deal with this constant change and lack of leadership?

  • Hello Amy, I could be wrong, but I am guessing that your principal is Gen-X (born between 1966-1981). In addition to the leadership responsibility of “Change Agent,” Gen-X principals also rated the highest in “Involvement in Curriculum, Instruction, and ASSESSMENT” and “Monitor and Evaluate” in my research. There are many reasons why your principal may be so concerned about using assessments to drive instruction such as district and state mandates. What I would want to know is how closely do the assessments match what you want students to understand and be able to do? Does the assessment contain levels of complexity such as Bloom’s Taxonomy? The answers to these questions would tell me if it is a good or bad thing to “teach to the test.”

  • Heather, principal turn-over is a big problem in many Title 1 schools. I don’t think this has much to do with generational differences in principals other than younger principals are under more stress to perform quickly than past generations. You situation also concerns me because it does not sound like principals are given enough time to make improvements stick (at least 3 years). It sounds like you need to cultivate a stable teacher leadership group that can help build some continuity in leadership. I also think someone needs to let the district leadership know how problematic this sort of turn-over is to a school.

Leave a Reply