A central problem for school leadership in the United States is to create settings in which success for students motivates teachers. Meeting this objective is becoming more difficult as teachers, except the most brilliant, struggle to cope with the diversity of students in a changing socio-economic climate and a context in which there is a ‘policy vacuum’, an unclear articulation of policy issues and choices, and inconsistency in policy initiatives. This is where school leaders must step in. Improvement in classrooms rarely occurs without strong leadership from building and district leaders. The fact that many school leaders in the USA were trained to exhibit authoritative rather than democratic leadership has often led to ‘democratic minimalism’, where the emphasis is on statutory fairness and majority rule, but not on full involvement of affected parties, such as teachers, students, and parents. The issues in contemporary leadership in areas of disadvantage are illustrated through the experience of one Minnesota elementary school principal, and the wider implications for school leaders are discussed.