Reflections of a 21st Century Leader

Our thanks to NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly for a decade of transformational leadership

Our thanks to NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly for a decade of transformational leadership

Throughout its 95-year history, NAESP has called upon its leaders to hold true to its mission, while astutely assessing and acting on the specific challenges and opportunities of their times. By any measure, the past decade has been a momentous period: Demographic tipping points are fundamentally altering society and the workplace, the digital revolution continues to accelerate, and repercussions are still being felt from a historic economic recession. And public school leaders, committed to educating every student, are experiencing unprecedented pressures on multiple fronts that make their jobs more demanding than ever before.

It goes without saying that any successful nonprofit leader must be equipped with vision, integrity, and dedication. But as NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly has so ably demonstrated in her 10 years at the helm of NAESP, maintaining the relevance and viability of a professional association in today’s challenging environment requires that more be brought to the table. Asked to reflect on the subject, Connelly articulated a few guiding principles that she has strived to model and implement during her tenure:

Share leadership, collaborate with others, and create a culture of inclusion. As Connelly explains, it was the shift to a shared leadership model with NAESP’s Board, together with the grass-roots engagement of members and the active support of NAESP state leaders and affiliates that led to the creation of Vision 2021, which has become the seminal strategic framework for the Association. And as NAESP continues to expand its alliances and partnerships, she credits the commitment to seeking diverse opinions, and working through challenges and developing joint solutions, with increasing NAESP’s overall influence and impact.

Actively listen to your members. Solicit their ideas and develop innovative, accessible solutions. As one example, after field data alerted NAESP that principals’ careers were becoming dramatically briefer, the Association responded with increased focus on supporting new and aspiring principals. This included an array of strategies, from university partnerships to providing cutting-edge training, launching the National Panel of New Principals to gather and disseminate peer best practices, introducing NAESP Radio, and organizing Twitter chats and webinars that fit seamlessly into a principal’s day. Having an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and staying current on industry trends and issues through ongoing formal and self-study is essential for developing winning strategies in today’s business environment.

Be fearless, and stay positive. Never waver in standing up for what is right for elementary and middle-level principals and their students. Keep testing and learning, and never doubt that a solution can be found. It was determination, savvy, and collective action that carried NAESP through recessionary times. Despite a scarcity of resources, NAESP stayed strong in advocating for principals and students, which brought us to the table to help craft the new Every Student Succeeds Act. This intensive effort resulted in recognition and support for principals to act as instructional leaders, and will enable them to focus on the things that matter most in delivering a well-rounded, high-quality education for all children. Seeking and nurturing coalitions among mission-aligned organizations such as the Learning First Alliance and the Arts Education Partnership further strengthens NAESP’s entire advocacy agenda, garnering up to 10 million supporters for shared positions and policies that are favorable to our nation’s public schools, principals, and students.

Gail Connelly has clearly been the right person, in the right place, at the right time for NAESP. Having led the organization through a recession and turbulent times, today Connelly leaves an Association that is poised for sustainability and future success. Soon she will embark on a richly deserved new chapter with the knowledge that her friends and colleagues are forever grateful for all that she has done on behalf of America’s children, and the principals and educators who serve them.


I’d like to recognize the contributions of thousands of volunteer leaders and all those who have filled staff positions with NAESP over the years. All have served the organization staunchly through thick and thin, and many have made highly significant contributions that are reflected in the current well-being of the organization. I extend my heartfelt appreciation to each and every one and my very best wishes for the future.

—Gail Connelly

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