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Six top traits of a digital leader

What does it take to drive achievement across a school or district? St. Vrain Valley School District superintendent Don Haddad shares his secrets to leadership success.

3 min read


students, laptop


This post is sponsored by ISTE.

Like many superintendents, Don Haddad is committed to advancing student achievement and success.

The superintendent of St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado, leads a district that has taken bold steps, like equipping schools with Chromebooks, iPad minis, document cameras, sound systems, projectors and more. The campus is fully wireless, and students have 24/7 access to district-issued devices as well as the learning management system so they can learn anytime and anywhere. 

The National Association of School Superintendents named Haddad Superintendent of the Year in 2013, and his district is racking up awards, such as a $16.6 million Race to the Top grant and the top score in its quest for a $3.6 million Invest in Innovation federal grant. St. Vrain Valley is also competing for Steve Jobs’ XQ Super School Project to add to its resources.

What does it take to achieve that kind of success? Here are six traits Haddad says leaders need to reach that level:

  1. Change is necessary. Often leaders are reluctant to engage in large-scale change because they perceive that the risks are too great.  But digital age leaders must embrace the challenge of change.
  2. Knowledge, vision and reflection aren’t optional. Haddad and his colleagues are leading in a different world than the one they grew up in. “We can’t continue doing what we’re doing and equip children for a world that no longer exists,” he says. Yet some leaders have a difficult time moving beyond their own paradigm.
  3. Understand the difference between calculated risk and reckless risk. Even if the odds of success are far from certain, you can significantly increase your chances by being thoughtful, calculated, data-driven, collaborative and by paying attention to details. Don’t be paralyzed by uncertainty.
  4. Master great communication. Your job is to inspire and support students, teachers, parents, the business community, elected officials, the Department of Education and others. Communication is an ongoing process that never ends.
  5. Commit to students. You’ll encounter bumps in the road but don’t abandon the cause when difficulties arise. This is where detailed planning, collaboration and communication will enable you to move forward in a positive and productive manner. Haddad finds inspiration in the lyrics to Bob Seger’s “No Man’s Land”: “Headin’ in or headin’ out, standing on the shore, pause a moment to reflect, which trip costs you more.” “You either stay put or you move forward. There are risks with both,” he says. “But if you stay put, you are on the path to becoming obsolete.”
  6. Teamwork is crucial. Leadership is not an isolated or independent process — it’s a team effort. The emphasis has to be on “we,” which in Haddad’s case includes the important voices of his students.

Dr. Don Haddad will give the keynote address at Lead & Transform: An ISTE 2016 Town Hall on Leadership for Empowering Students. Register for ISTE 2016 to hear Haddad and other visionary leaders speak about transforming education.