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Leading a school presents unique opportunities and obstacles to the individuals who may aspire to become a principal. The balance between incentives and disincentives to seek building leadership is currently shifting as the pool of qualified candidates willing to assume positions in school leadership is growing smaller (Browne-Ferrigno, 2003; Carr & Million, 2010; Sava, 1998). At the same time, record numbers of school administrators are now reaching retirement age; so many school districts are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies (Howley, Andrianaivo, & Perry, 2005).

Strong leadership by the principal is a crucial ingredient in school improvement (Berry, 2009; Evans, 1996: Fink & Brayman, 2004: Fullan, 1997; Quinn, 2002). Thus, the increasing responsibility and accountability demands placed on principals add new challenges, as standards are raised by state and federal government to address critical issues faced by public schools (Cranston, 2007; Hill & Banta, 2008). The declining numbers of teachers seeking administration certification and the fact that many who are studying for the degree do not plan to seek an administrative position exacerbates the problem so that even when there may be sufficient numbers of candidates qualified for vacancies, candidates are not motivated to pursue school leadership (Cranston, 2007; Grubb & Flessa, 2006; Mezzacappa, 2008; Winter & Morgenthal, 2002).

Within this climate, persuading the best educators to become building administrators requires a clearer understanding of the reasons candidates are attracted or hesitant to take on leadership roles--leading to improved recruitment and retention. Motivational theory may provide insight regarding the interrelationship between those incentives and disincentives associated with the decision to seek an assistant principal/principal’s position. For example, Alderfer’s (1972) ERG Theory identifies three categories of needs ordered in a non-sequential hierarchical manner. Alderfer first categorizes existence needs, which includes a person’s physiological and physically related safety needs such as food, shelter, and safe working conditions. Relatedness needs include a person’s need to interact with others, receive public recognition, and feel secure around people. The third category is growth needs, consisting of a person’s self-esteem through personal achievement. Incentives and disincentives associated with the position of assistant principal or principal could readily fall into each of the three categories (Cooley & Shen, 1999; Cusick, 2003; Howley, Andrianaivo, & Perry, 2005). While this theory may help explain in a broad sense what motivates educators to become school leaders, understanding specific factors can assist those who train, hire, and coach potential administrators to make the critical task of building leaderships more inviting. These factors may not fall into the traditional hierarchy, as the expectations and roles of school principals have evolved over the last decades (Evans, 1996; Hinton & Kastner, 2000). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to determine specific motivators affecting the decision to seek or not seek a position as a school assistant principal or principal.


Published in Educational Leadership Review: Portland Conference Special Edition, pp. 5-16, October 2011. Used by permission. Original version can be found at