Why all school leaders need to be digital leaders

What is the role of the school principal? In my role managing schools, it’s a question I often ask both the principals in the schools I run, and myself. In the independent and international space that I work in, I see the role as threefold: setting strategy, running the school business, and being the public face of the school.

However, one thing that tends not to come up is their role as ‘digital leader’. Most principals will see that as someone else’s job; probably a young deputy who is a bit of a whizz with computers. I would argue strongly that this should not be the case: that if we are going to transform our schools it has to start at the top.

There is an old Chinese saying: ‘a fish rots from the head’. Bad leaders infect an entire organisation. And if school leaders are neither able nor willing to adapt into a digital leadership style, how can we expect schools to make any sort of meaningful change? It is an urgent question that needs careful consideration.

One of the main problems is a lack of training. Teachers in general are slow to adapt their practice: I referred to this in a previous post. This is not because of a fundamental lack of willingness, but rather a deep nervousness that if they innovate too much they won’t get students through their 19th century paper exams.

School principals are the same. They may be able to find their way around an iPad, but understanding the role technology can play in schools is not something they find easy to get their heads around.

I think that is a mistake, as much as anything because it’s that public-facing role that is so vital to getting buy-in from everyone. The principal is the person those outside the school listen to, and so his or her voice has to be loudest when trumpeting change.

Parents are often the most skeptical about wholesale digital transformation. No one wants to think that their kids are being experimented on by moving to 1:1 digital device use. Many parents would agree that their kids spend too much time on devices anyway. Some even see school as a safe haven of dusty books in libraries and chalk scratching on a blackboard.

This is a fallacy, and has been for many years. Schools just aren’t like that any more, and it is up to us to make the change in such a way that gets everyone on side.

And I see the school principal as leading the way with this. They won’t be the ones getting their hands dirty with implementation (leave that to the keen deputy), but they should be front and centre, introducing change to stakeholders, evangelising, enthusing and encouraging.

Because without a digital head, the 21st Century fish will always be in danger of rotting.



  1. Ann Kathleen Crowley

    I couldn’t agree with you more about digital leaders must be at the top of the chain in schools. It is scary to embrace all the change but change will never cease. Most schools I have taught in over the course of the past ten years (internationally) have all had leaders who teased about knowing little technology. How are these leaders capable of assessing the technology teachers are using for instructional purposes in their classrooms? I appreciated this article.

  2. Pingback: 5 key characteristics of digital school leaders - re.Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *