Three Critical Moves: Successfully Developing School Leaders

Pull out a piece scratch paper. For 30 seconds, finish this prompt:  “If we want all school leaders to succeed, we….” It’s a tough question and there are many schools of thought out there about developing leaders. 

In my 15 years of leading schools and developing leaders, I have learned there are three critical moves for effective leadership development. 

  • Intentionality of development
  • Preparation for development
  • Agreement on the “what” and “how” 

Let me share more on each of the critical moves:


1. Intentionality: Even leaders need to have a safe space to practice their skills and add to their knowledge. Being intentional means we must maximize touch-points and create the space for the learning.

Too many times leaders share: “I can’t add another meeting to the calendar, there just isn’t time for leadership development in the day.” Yes, it is true the day is busy for school leaders, but addressing leadership development doesn’t always have to mean an additional meeting on the calender. Most of the time when working with leaders, we find time for leadership development in their current structures. One place leadership development rolls in nicely is in check-ins. Chances are, if you’re a principal supervisor, you already have a structured touchpoint to connect and this is a great opportunity to weave in leadership development as well. 

Below are some guiding points to live into intentionality for leadership development:

  •  Maximize touchpoints:
    • Analyze your current check-in structure (frequency, duration).
    • Reflect on what currently happens in the check in (agenda).
    • Determine what really needs be reviewed face-to-face. Chances are some items can be moved to electronic updates.
    • Backwards plan an agenda that includes time for leadership development. 
  • Create the space:
    • Find a space where your leader can authentically share, practice, and learn. The busy office where you get interrupted every five minutes probably isn’t ideal.
    • Explicitly name the transition into leadership development.

Below is an example of a 45 minute agenda I have previously used:

In an ideal state, touch-points are weekly and the agenda includes 25-35 minutes for leadership development. However, this cannot always be realized and bi-weekly rotations also work. Some leaders have divided leadership development into separate touch-points of the day/week – specifically the leader practice portion. A bit more on that below. 


2. Preparation: When you take time to plan, you set the stage to review, measure, and learn the “right work.”  In full transparency, figuring out “the what” is where most of the preparation time will take place.

Once you have created the agenda with explicit time for leadership development, you must address the second critical aspect: preparation. Preparation means more than creating an agenda and having forms ready for note-taking.  By preparation, I am referring to defining excellence and determining the coaching stance you will leverage during the learning. 

From my experience, most leadership development sessions lose learning time due to trying to define the practice and/or skill in the moment. Most leaders, myself included, are not experts in everything. That is why, I truly believe, in order to increase time on growing, it is always best to plan and script out the bar of excellence prior to the check in. Specifically, I recommend taking time to think through what actions make up the change and/or specific language that represents how the change should sound. 

Below are some guiding points to strengthen preparation for leadership development:

  • Define Excellence:
    • Prior to the check in, take time to unpack the specific actions that make up the leadership exemplar. 
    • Name the target actions in clear and succinct language.
    • Gather resources or models that can help bring the exemplar to life.
  • Coaching Stance: 
    • Reflect on how to frame the learning.
    • Define the best learning mode for your leader (e.g.  discourse, modeling, guided-practice, role play…).
    • Determine what coaching stance* you will leverage to land the learning. What questions will you ask? When will you lead? When will you facilitate?

*A resource I have found useful to inform coaching stances is Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development by Bloom, Castagna, Moir, Warren. Below is a copy of the Möbius strip illustrating the different layers to coaching stances.

3. Agreement: Developing a common understanding of the “what” and “how” increases focus and sharpens the eye on what to look for. I have seen deep learning happen when the leader is clear on “what” is being learned and “how” it should live in their practice.

The third critical aspect is ensuring there is a common understanding of the expectation. A word of caution is to be aware of “glamour words”. These are words that live in multiple space of the education world and potentially have different meaning for different people. (e.g. progress-monitor, deep-dive, develop…). Ensure that any common expectation is fully articulated and means the same thing to both you and the leader.

A common misstep in leadership development is forcing a leader to adopt and mirror exactly what someone else does. It is important to keep in mind that everyone has a leadership identity and we need to help leaders integrate new learning to how they approach the work. This will ensure leaders feel and remain authentic.

Below are some guiding points to strengthen agreement for leadership development:


  • Unpack knowledge: 
    • Listen for key terminology and align on what it means.
    • Explicitly link new learning to the big picture. Sharing “why” the learning matters, helps with buy-in.
  • Leadership Identity: 
    • Build time for a meta-reflection on the learning and impact. An interesting read on meta-reflection can be found here
    • Allow the leader share their interpretation of learning. This is a prime opportunity to listen for alignment, misconceptions, and true learning.

Putting it all together

“If we want all school leaders to succeed, we need to develop them intentionally – just as we propose for teachers”. –Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Leveraged Leadership, pg. 269

In Leveraged Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo underscores the importance of supporting leaders to become their very best by mirroring how we support teachers to become their best. Leadership development cannot be left to chance. 


Final Thought: Leadership development can be challenging and time-consuming in the work of a principal supervisor or coach. Early on, it also may be seen as a roadblock to more action-driven work that will seemingly lead to achieving outcomes. In fact, developing leaders will help achieve greater results in the long run. When we grow our leaders, we are saying: you matter, your work matters, and you have an important role in our journey.  


JC Contreras is a principal coach for Ensemble Learning and a 2016 national EdWeek Leader To Learn From for principal supervision. If you would like to continue the conversation about leadership development, you can connect with him directly at If you are curious how Ensemble Learning can support your school or organization find success for all students contact Elise Darwish, Ensemble Learning CEO, at


Related post

Elevate Classroom Engagement with a Think-Pair-Share Planner

The Think-Pair-Share Short Planning Doc is a tool designed to transform classroom interactions and deepen student understanding.

SHARE this