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School Leader Continuum

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“Everything rises and falls on leadership” (Maxwell, 1997).  It sounds like a cliché to say it, but it is true. Leaders cast vision and cut a path forward.  Leaders make courageous decisions and take risks.  Leaders inspire and motivate their followers.  Leaders provide an example of service and humility. Leaders hold others accountable to guarantee the job gets done. Whether moving a nation or a family, everything rises and falls on leadership.

 Like nations and families, schools require leaders, specifically principals, who possess the skills and expertise to create a place where both students and adults perform at high levels (Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin, 2012).  Schools need principals who set rigorous standards for behavior and achievement, create a safe and inviting learning environment, build the leadership and instructional capacity of their teachers and administrative teams, ensure students receive meaningful instruction, and maintain systems for continuous school improvement (SEDL, 2012).  In addition (and maybe more importantly), schools need principals who are ethical, empathetic, always learning, building relationships, innovating, and advocating for their schools.  Furthermore, principals MUST love kids.

As alluded to, schools are complex organizations to lead, which require a broad range of personal, social-emotional, and technical skills.  Principals and their leadership team members need a system of preparation and continuous development to lead their schools effectively.  In order to provide the necessary system of support, we, the members of the School Leader Collaborative (the Collaborative), created the School Leader Continuum (the Continuum) to help both principals and their leadership team members be intentional about their professional growth throughout their career.  The Continuum consists of a new School Leader Paradigm, which looks at school leadership in a refreshing way by taking into account more than just the tasks principals need to accomplish.  Furthermore, the Continuum offers four career phases, which provides school leaders a pathway for continuous growth and improvement.

The School Leader Paradigm


Much of what is written about expectations for principals is a desire for them to be “instructional leaders.”  This is a logical thought. However, the term “instructional leader” is ill-defined.  Too often, when people think “instructional leader,” a narrow vision of a principal sitting in a classroom observing teachers comes to mind.  No doubt, principals need to spend time with teachers as well as students in classrooms, but capitalizing on opportunities to positively impact adult and student performance demands much more.  Instead of thinking of principals as just “instructional leaders,” we regard principals as leaders of learning organizations (Northouse, 2010).


In order to provide a comprehensive view of principals as leaders of learning organizations, we developed the School Leader Paradigm (the Paradigm).  With a “learning leader” at its center, the Paradigm takes into account not only the work principals do daily, or “systems work” as often described in leadership standards, but also what is required of principals personally and socially (Kolzow, 2013).  Furthermore, leadership does not exist in a vacuum.  Therefore, the Paradigm addresses the various contexts with which principals interact, including their own individual contexts, their schools’ contexts, and the contexts of their communities.  Finally, a cycle of continuous improvement surrounds the entire Paradigm signifying the importance of continuous improvement for both principals and the organizations they lead.

The Learning Leader

Leadership guru Dr. John Maxwell shared, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way” (Maxwell, 2010).  In other words, principals must lead themselves well first in order to provide effective leadership for their schools.  By establishing themselves as a learning leader, principals model the behavior they expect from both the adults and students in their learning organizations.  Furthermore, principals gain credibility for their efforts by not requiring their followers to do something they are not willing to do themselves.

The Paradigm’s Intelligences detail various attributes of a learning leader, but two personal intelligence attributes deserve special attention.  First, humility is a critical ingredient needed for principals, or anyone for that matter, to get better at what they do.  Without a healthy dose of humility, principals risk being blindsided by their egos and missing opportunities for growth, or worse, ignoring character weaknesses.  As Jim Collins challenges in his book Good to Great, highly effective leaders, or “Level 5” leaders as Collins describes them, should be willing to take a regular look in the mirror to identify potential areas for improvement. (Collins, 2001).

In addition to humility, another attribute of a learning leader, which deserves distinct attention, is reflection.  Oxford Dictionaries defines reflection as “serious thought or consideration” (2016).  With this in mind, principals must routinely consider, among other things, their professional practice, the health of their relationships with others, and their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.  Whether early in the morning, late at night, or on the car ride to and from work, principals need at least a few moments of quiet, dedicated time to process, celebrate victories, work through challenges, and plan a better path forward for themselves and the organizations they lead.  Coupled with humility, reflection provides a firm foundation for principals to be learning leaders who credibly guide those in their schools.

The Intelligences

 If the School Leader Paradigm were a living organism, the Learning Leader would be the heart of the Paradigm with the Intelligences acting as the skeleton.  The Intelligences help give the Paradigm shape while surrounding the leader with competencies and attributes which allow the leader to function effectively.  The Intelligences are interconnected, do not act in isolation, and take into account the personal, social, and systems aspects of school leadership.

We use the term “intelligence” for the Paradigm in order to describe the ways principals need to be smart about their leadership.  In addition, the term “intelligence” aligns with much of the research used to guide the design of the Paradigm, like Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence.  Furthermore, intelligence implies how learning and growth need to take place for principals to become better leaders.  None of the leadership competencies and attributes identified to define the intelligences are an “either you have it or you don’t” trait.  Improvement is possible even if it requires intentional, incremental growth, as is often the case when breaking habitual behavior (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2001).

While the entire School Leader Paradigm can be found here, the definitions of the Intelligences and their competencies are provided below.

  • Personal Intelligence – The capacity to reason about personality and to use personality and personal information to enhance one’s thoughts, plans, and life experiences. (Mayer, 2014). The Personal Intelligence competencies include:
    • Wellness – Balances quality or state of being healthy in body and mind as a result of deliberate effort;
    • Growth Mindset – Embraces challenges; persists despite obstacles; sees effort as a path to mastery; learns from criticism; is inspired by others’ success;
    • Self-Management – Monitors and takes responsibility for one’s own behavior and well-being, personally and professionally; and
    • Innovation – Introduces new methods, novel ideas, processes or products that are put into operation.
  • Social Intelligence – A set of interpersonal competencies that inspire others to be effective (Goleman, 2007).  Social Intelligence competencies include:
    • Service – Assures that other people’s highest priority needs are being served;
    • Community Building – Instills a sense of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together;
    • Capacity Building – Employs leadership knowledge and skills necessary to enable the school to make better use of its intellectual and social capital, in order to adopt high-leverage strategies of teaching and learning; and
    • Influence – Can cause changes without directly forcing them to happen; practices skills of networking, constructive persuasion and negotiation, consultation, and coalition-building.
  • Systems Intelligence – An individual understanding of the inter-workings and leadership of complex systems within an organization.  (Hämäläinen and Saarinen, 2007). Systems Intelligence competencies include:
    • Mission, Vision, and Strategic Planning – Defines the mission as the intent of the school; fosters a vision of what the school will look like at its peak performance; strategically determines the procedural path to intentionally achieve the vision;
    • Operations and Management – Utilizes a variety of methods, tools, and principles oriented toward enabling efficient and effective operation and management;
    • Teaching and Learning – Develops and supports intellectually rigorous and coherent systems of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to promote each students’ academic success and well-being; and
    • Cultural Responsiveness – Promotes cooperation, collaboration, and connectedness among a community of learners while responding to diversity, need, and capacity.

When considering the Paradigm’s Intelligences, a reasonable question may come to mind.  Why these instead of leadership standards?  It is an important question.  The Intelligences are not written to replace leadership standards but to compliment them.  Working side-by-side with standards like the 2015 Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL), the Intelligences and PSEL provide a comprehensive appraisal of what school leaders, principals in particular, should know and be able to do.  While significant alignment exists between the Intelligences and PSEL, the Intelligences provide for a more comprehensive accounting of the personal and social aspects of school leadership while PSEL focuses primarily on systems work.  In addition, each is created to serve different purposes.  The Intelligences offer formative benchmarks for principals to continually reflect on their practice.  However, PSEL provides guidance to policy makers, principal preparation providers, and districts when setting state leadership standards, creating preparation program expectations, and developing evaluation instruments.  Ultimately, we as a Collaborative believe those principals who demonstrate effective leadership practice as described by the Intelligences will show positive outcomes as required by PSEL.


Leadership does not exist in a vacuum.  In order to be successful, principals must effectively work within a complex web of differing personalities, motivations, political connections, individual circumstances, beliefs and opinions (Costa and Kallick, 2008; Sergiovanni, 2007).  Further, principals have more than one contextual web to navigate at a time.  School leaders need to be mindful of their own individual context, their schools’ context, and their surrounding communities’ context by continuously assessing how one effects the other and their ability to lead (Dweck, 2006).

When considering school leadership and context, there is much to ponder.  However, principals should be particularly mindful of context when deciding whether to apply for and accept a leadership position.  Additionally, school leaders should occasionally reflect on whether they are best suited to remain in their current position.  Every individual possesses a unique set of talents, expertise, and experiences (Kafele, 2015).  When deciding whether to apply for and accept a leadership position, prospective principals should consider if their talents, expertise, and experiences are a good fit for the needs of the school and surrounding community.  Further, no principal is meant to lead a school forever.  Responsible leaders, who care for the organization and people they lead, should pause from time to time to assess the context of their schools, communities, and what is happening inside of them to determine if they are still well-suited to move the organization forward.  Principals who make the effort to determine if they are a good fit both prior to and during their leadership tenure will save themselves and learning organizations significant heartache.

Plan → Implement → Reflect

To complete the Paradigm, we wrapped it in a cycle of continuous improvement.  This cycle reinforces the notion that both leaders and the learning organizations they serve should always be improving (Fullan, 2005).  For the sake of simplicity and symmetry with the rest of the Paradigm, the cycle is broken into three parts: 1) planning, 2) implementation, and 3) reflection.  Planning incorporates the collection and review of data, analysis of performance evaluations, the development of actionable and measurable goals and objectives, and identification of the resources and supports necessary to meet the goals and objectives identified.  Implementation implies nothing more than school leaders working with their learning organizations to make the goals and objectives a reality.  Finally, school leaders and their learning organizations should reflect on their efforts in order to determine if they were successful in meeting their goals and objectives (Hayes, 2014).  Additionally, they should identify what they learned from the process to inform their next improvement cycle.

The Four Phases of School Leader Development

With expectations for school leaders articulated by the School Leader Paradigm, the Four Phases of School Leader Development provide logic for how school leaders should move across the continuum.  Titled using action-oriented language (i.e. launching, building), the four phases denote how school leaders must maintain a state of continuous growth and development.

  • Aspiring School Leadership – Pre-service principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders who are considering entering the profession of school leadership, are studying school leadership in a principal preparation program, or have completed a principal preparation program but have yet to take on a formal school leadership position.  These individuals, through personal and formal learning experiences, lay the foundation needed to take on a school leadership position.  While technical knowledge is important, these future leaders give particular attention to the personal and social intelligences.
  • Launching School Leadership – First and second year school leaders focused on developing relationships, building culture, setting expectations, and creating conditions for teaching and learning.
  • Building School Leadership – School leaders in their third through fifth years who work to sustain culture, expectations, and conditions for teaching and learning.  Their efforts include institutionalizing systems, which support their school’s mission, vision, and strategic plan.
  • Mastering School Leadership – School leaders in their sixth year and beyond who stretch themselves with new understanding of school leadership’s power to shape and transform a student-centered learning environment.

Though principals and other building leaders may find themselves performing more or less effectively with some leadership competencies and attributes throughout their careers, the phases offer a pathway for school leaders to intentionally improve.  


As described, we, the School Leader Collaborative (the Collaborative), developed the School Leader Continuum (the Continuum) to help both principals and their leadership team members be intentional about their professional growth throughout their careers. Brought into focus by the School Leader Paradigm and the Four Phases of School Leader Development, the Continuum provides principals and other building leaders a comprehensive view and clear path for their improvement. Additionally, association members of the Collaborative along with other professional development providers can leverage the Continuum to create learning opportunities that are relevant and meaningful. Ultimately, we are confident the Continuum will greatly enhance school leadership resulting in higher performing learning organizations and better student outcomes.

About the School Leader Collaborative

The School Leader Collaborative (the Collaborative) consists of a consortium of state principal associations dedicated to supporting and sustaining the professional growth of school principals and their leadership teams.  Specifically, the Collaborative enhances the collective capacity of its partner associations by building a network of shared resources, innovative best practices, and research, which supports school leaders throughout their careers.  Current Collaborative associations are:

Illinois Principals Association

Indiana Association of School Principals

Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals

Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals

Association of Washington School Principals

Association of Wisconsin School Administrators


(A detailed list of references used in developing the School Leader Paradigm can be found here.)

Branch, G. F., Hanushek, E. A., and Rivkin, S. G. (2012). Estimating the Effect of Leaders on Public Sector Productivity: The Case of School Principal. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Retrieved from 

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't. New  York: Harper Collins.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B., eds. (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind:  16 Essential Characteristics for Success. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Fullan, M. (2005).  Leadership and Sustainability:  System Thinkers in Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Goleman, D. (2007). Social Intelligence. New York: Random House.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2001, December). Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Hämäläinen, R. & Saarinen, E. (2007). Essays on Systems Intelligence.  Espoo:  Aalto Unversity, School of Science and Technology, Systems Analysis Laboratory, 9-26.

Hayes, J. (2014). The Theory and Practice of Change Management, 4th Edition. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave MacMillan.

Kolzow, David R. (2013), Leading from Within:  Building Organizational Capacity.  Retrieved from

Maxwell, John C. (1997).  The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Maxwell, John C. (2010). Laws of Leadership.  Retrieved from

Mayer, J. D. (2014). Personal Intelligence:  The Power of personality and How It Shapes Our Lives, New York, NY:  Macmillan.

Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice, 5th Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Northouse, P. G. (2011). Introduction to leadership: Concepts and practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Oxford Dictionaries (2016, August 15).  Definition of Reflection.  Retrieved from

SEDL. (2012). The Principal’s Role in the Instructional Process: Implications for At-Risk Students. Retrieved from

Sergiovanni, T. (2007). Rethinking Leadership, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.




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