top of page


Screen Shot 2019-11-07 at 6.04.33 PM.png

Book: Hacking Leadership

Author:  Joe Sanfelippo & Tony Sinanis

Purchase:  Print | eBook

Citation:  Sanfelippo, T. & Sinanis, T. (2017). Hacking leadership: 10 ways great leaders inspire learning that teachers, students, and parents love. Place of publication not identified: Times 10 Publications.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. The daily work of a school leader is no longer just being administrator or manager or even a boss; instead, a school leader needs to model transformative practices so that innovating becomes a norm. Sitting in an office checking emails and efficiently completing paperwork does not fulfill the needs of the modern school. Effective leaders put learning at the center of daily work. The time has come to emphasize authentic and personalized learning experiences, not just policies, mandates, and test scores. (pg. 13)

  2. Communication is the beating heart of school culture. The positive impact of an accessible school leaders who communicates well and relates well with others circulates throughout the entire system. Clear, consistent communication fosters transparency so all members of the school community share important information. If leaders communicate in a genuine way, the trust they earn contributes to an even more positive environment. Be aware, though, that constant communication and transparent practice have positive effects only if a school leader can personally validate that his or her decisions have been made to benefit the children. (pg. 35)​

  3. Culture and test scores don't need to be mutually exclusive, meaning we can definitely focus on school culture and know that in the long term positive culture will have an impact on test scores. We know that when children attend a school where they feel valued, confident, and happy, their learning will benefit. When students are actively engaged and have ownership of their learning, chances are they will perform well in all academic areas. Of course, this is only possible if the teachers are feeling similarly. To create a setting where students and teachers thrive and feel genuine joy, leaders must focus on school culture. (pg. 43)


Other Key Ideas:

Spending thirty minutes with the principal puts a human face on the culture and helps solidify your understanding of it. Does the principal communicate positive, healthy, and compassionate relationships with all members of the community or stay in the office and complain about staff? A principal's demeanor and attitude clearly indicate the culture and signal what could be happening throughout the school. (pg. 14)

When we asked educators to list the words they associate with school principals, their response included: boss, disciplinarian, supervisory, decision-maker, manager, evaluator, disconnected, and isolated. Although all these words are not necessarily negative, they don't paint the most positive picture of school leaders. None of these labels speak to the notion of being an instructional or visionary leader. They describe a more traditional principal, a manager who oversees the organization and handles the problems from a comfortable chair in the office. Perceptions of a principal's job have not evolved very much from those of the early 20th century, when the principal was expected to manage the school from the office while having very little to do with the children, the teachers, the learning, or the instruction. (pg. 17)

While acting as manager, disciplinarian, and evaluator are all real and important aspects of a principal's job, they are not the only tasks necessary to lead a school successfully. Unfortunately, many principals still focus primarily on those traditional aspects of their work. These old-school leaders deal with administrative tasks, rarely interacting with members of the community. Learning is not their priority, so they spend little time engaging with children and teachers or being present in classrooms. They choose not to invest in developing the "soft skills" necessary to nurture healthy relationships with all members of the community. They don't understand a leader's direct impact on school culture or recognize that every decision they make affects that culture's trajectory. (pg. 18)

Administrators who focus primarily on being the boss are not present enough to be truly effective. Today's students, teachers, and families require more from their principals. Communities need school leaders who understand the direct impact leadership has on school culture. They want leaders who prioritize learning and who lead with heart. Today's administrators must learn to invest in nurturing healthy, positive relationships that are rooted in trust and respect. Healthy relationships are at the core of any highly successful school or district. (pg. 18)

Foster trust by being collaborative. Decisions should rarely be made in isolation; instead, all members of the school community should have some voice, and it is your responsibility to listen to others - to be present- in order to broaden your perspective and make the best decisions possible. (pg. 19)

Your school district should create a social media account that will initiate a re-branding of your school, allowing you to create an identity by telling your story. Your school's positive social media presence will help to counteract negative impressions that your community might have about school. Even though the media typically bashes public education and the landscape of education is not always a pretty one, we can have a voice in the discourse. (pg. 21)

Open your calendar and block out time in the day to be visible, engaged, and present. Transformative leaders don't change the world by sending emails or scheduling meetings. Get out and engage with students, teachers, and anyone else you encounter. Ask teachers how to support their efforts. Spend time in classrooms asking children what they are learning and why it is important. Informal conversations that unfold during these times can be incredibly telling - you get a real perspective on how school looks and feels. You must get out of the office if you are going to make the shift from administrator to leader. (pg. 22)

What do visits to classrooms look like? Talk to kids and to teachers; engage in the lesson; sit quietly and watch from the back without necessarily taking notes; take pictures of what is happening and share them on social media. Whatever you do, be engaged and make your presence as non-threatening as possible. Understand that these daily visits to classrooms are opportunities to build relationships, to understand how learning unfolds in your school, to inform your practice so you can support the community effectively. (pg. 26)

Choosing to be visible in classrooms means leaving most of the administrative work, including checking emails, until after school. While we understand some people use email to communicate urgent matters, we spend our time in the classrooms and hallways because that is where our kids and teachers are and that is where we need to be as leaders. Our solution is to include our work email on our phones so that we can check it throughout the day and respond quickly to anything that requires immediate attention. We have also given our cell phone numbers to colleagues because their time is valuable and we want them to be able to reach us if something urgent happens. Colleagues and supervisors will eventually understand that being visible, present, and engaged is a necessary step in becoming a transformational instructional lead learner. (pg. 27)

Try not to take yourself too seriously. You've not reached a pinnacle that means you don't need to learn and grow anymore, so exhibit some humility and open a book. Sitting in your office all day and dictating to everyone around you will not set anyone up for success, nor will it endear the people to you. Be a school leaders who takes the work seriously and pours heart and soul into the school community, but at the same time keep your ego in check. (pg. 29)

School leaders who are present and engaged understand that politics pervades education, so you must take time to develop and nurture relationships. When you invest time in connecting with members all of constituent groups, you slowly amass social capital, and that social capital becomes your "Get Out of Jail" card when navigating a particularly political situation. (pg. 30)

One of the best ways to facilitate informal gatherings is to feed people, because being together around food helps people get comfortable. Whether it means keeping a bowl of candy in your office, getting bagels for breakfast, or ordering pizza for lunch, feed teachers often. (pg. 36) 

Schools can no longer function as a fortress that close out the surrounding community; instead, creating high levels of transparency through a constant flow of communication is critical. Families should have access to relevant and dynamic information. We must harness the power of digital tools to help accelerate and amplify our story beyond the walls of our schools. (pg. 37)

Provide families the opportunity to opt their children out if they are not comfortable having their pictures or stories used on social media. Send a letter home explaining that in addition to the traditional media platforms such as newspapers and television news, you are now integrating tools such as social media to accelerate and amplify the school story. If they don't want their children featured they must communicate that to you in writing. It's easier to handle families that may want to opt out as opposed to trying to get every staff member to sign off on a permission slip. (pg. 42)

Policies and mandates affect all schools, but school leaders determine how they manifest in the classroom and affect the educators. For example, some states may share standardized instructional modules. Since a lot of these materials aren't mandated, they don't necessarily have to work their way into the classroom. Unfortunately, many leaders take these suggestions as "gospel" and demand that their staff begin implementing the initiative immediately. As one can imagine, this can cause the morale in many schools to bottom out and school culture to spiral downward. Instead, strong leaders will pause to review a policy's expectations and engage various community members on how it can be meaningfully integrated in their school. (pg. 42)

Great leaders must follow through on their commitments. As the leader of the building, you are moving in a number of different directions. Many of the conversations you have will take place in classrooms or hallways. Be sure to have a way to document the items you discuss so forgetting to follow up is never an issue. There are few things that destroy trust more than lack of follow-through with your staff members. (pg. 51)

Address issues immediately when they come up. Rather than making a blanket comment to the whole staff about an issue that really only involves a few people, deal with those individuals separately. Telling the whole room of educators to change their processes will backfire: Everyone knows who you are talking about, and they want you to address those involved instead of blaming the whole staff. Whereas some leaders think this is a gentler way of dealing with problems because people are not singled out, the staff will resent being lumped in with the wrong-doers and perceive that you are too weak to address issues one-on-one so they actually get resolved. (pg. 52)

One idea to build culture is to send cards to family members. Being a teacher can be extremely draining to those around you. How often do we say thank you to those who help our staff members get through tough times with students, colleagues, and yes, even administrators? Taking the time to write and mail a quick note to the spouse, children, or parents of your staff members shows you value your staff and their support systems. The reaction to spouses and families is astounding - we can't even begin to tell you how many times we have been stopped by families of our staff members so they can thank us. (pg. 53)

Your staff does not want to hear you speak at great length on opening day. The knowledge that in less than a week their classrooms will be filled with bodies means that their minds are focused elsewhere. Keep the message motivating and short. The social capital you will build with them is far better than anything you have to say on the first day. You can always disseminate information by setting up a shared folder that has all of the information needed to start the year, or create a ten-minute video that introduces any information that needs to be passed along to staff members. (pg. 54)

In one school district, the central office administrative cabinet raffles off a number of personal days for their staff members during the week before winter break. Staff members are allowed to take a personal day while the central office personnel cover the class or designated area for the day. It costs the district nothing and boosts everyone's morale. (pg. 57)

Great leaders are transparent about their growth. Show your commitment to your personal growth by asking your staff to offer you feedback so you can grow. Making this process transparent helps you develop trust with your group. Have your staff complete a quick survey and then find and share your high points and areas for improvement - along with steps you will take to improve those areas. Share the data and the plan so that all staff members have access. This takes a great deal of vulnerability, but the payoff is worth it. You staff will respect the fact that you are working on specific pieces of your leadership ability. (pg. 59)

Educators who are highly transparent tend to engage students, parents, and colleagues because they are often powerful storytellers. The narratives they share tend to resonate with people because what they share is consistent and visible to all. Transparency can develop relational trust. Kids, families, and colleagues will trust you if they know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and that it is best for kids. Educators who develop trusting relationships with their communities build a significant amount of social capital. When we amass social capital we have the foundation for enacting change, trying new things, and telling our school stories. Having trusting relationships allows educators a degree of risk-taking that would not be possible otherwise. (pg. 64)

Telling a school's story shapes its culture, giving individuals a common identity as members of the school community. When a leader chooses to become the chief storyteller, to celebrate the school's successes, focus shifts away from the school being a disciplinary institution or training facility to rejoice in its status as a learning community. (pg. 72)

The US Department of Education reports that nearly 17% of teachers leave the classroom in their first five years. Enrollment in teacher preparation is down. Fewer teachers are leaving college prepared. The reasons for these trends are complicated, but negative cultural attitudes toward educators certainly contribute to the dynamic. No education system will prosper without renewing itself with excellent educators. Recruiting the best teachers and retaining them so they can become mentors is one of the best things leaders can do for students across the country. (pg. 95)

When going about the teacher interview process, complete background checks on all candidates after the paper screening is completed. Then, set up screener interviews with three times the number of candidates you want as finalists. Our screener interviews are twenty minutes long - we don't normally ask more than three questions. Usually, the best candidates use these questions as a springboard to initiate meaningful conversation. (pg. 98)

Don't play "gotcha" during the interview process. This is not a time to decide whether or not the person can think quick on their feet in front of ten people. We have the questions available for the candidates when they arrive. We want their best work. Giving them every opportunity to succeed is important. (pg. 99)

Follow through on your intention to check on new staff members throughout the year. Schedule it. Find time. Make time. There's a good chance that they'll be part of the school for twenty years or more, so you'll want them to have a strong start. The first years are a time of exponential growth and uncertainty for new teachers; for them to work at optimal levels they need to feel valued. If you've chosen a good candidate, this teacher will be instrumental in your culture of innovation and exceptional learning. You help shape the culture by investing in people. (pg. 101)

Although faculty meetings are part of any school culture, the time has come to get rid of them if they generally only exist to share information. Most people dread meetings, especially after an already full day of work. If the information can be communicated via email or newsletter, there is no need to discuss it at a meeting. People's time is precious. Don't waste it by having them meet to listen to something they could quickly read on their own. (pg. 125)

Regardless of context or setting, every educator periodically falls victim to the deficit mindset. Sometimes the tendency to focus on the negative or treat employees as problems to be fixed feels overwhelming. Concentrating on what's wrong stifles any ability to move forward productively. (pg. 142)

bottom of page