What new roles do leaders play?


What does leadership look like in a student-centered, personalized, competency-based school? Chances are, if you are reading this, you are a leader, either in a school building, a district, or elsewhere. The questions you are probably asking yourself as you read and learn are these: what is my role, and what do I need to do differently? Those are excellent questions.


  • Collaborate to set vision. Then, keep vision alive. Leaders in this work constantly reflect that their community vision was their north star. Work with your broader community to create a vision that motivates and focuses, and then be sure that it does not just live on the page. Talk about it. Live it.
  • Model mindsets in your words and behavior. Shifting to modern education entails shifts in mindsets and beliefs. Leaders play HUGE roles in this process, not just by talking about beliefs but by also modeling them on daily basis. Think about your actions, especially those that are visible to your community. Are they reflecting the beliefs you want people to hold?
  • Share leadership. Modern education distributes leadership. Think about the leadership structures in your school or district. Are there opportunities for people other than you to take on meaningful leadership roles? Do you collaborate frequently  as a leadership team? Do you have clarity about how decisions are made? Creating room for others to lead is one of the most important things you can do as a leader.
  • Invest in people. Shifting to modern education means asking people to change their practice. This is true for teachers, students, families, and leaders. If you ask people to change, you need to provide a compelling reason for the change (hopefully your vision does that) and then provide them with the time, space, and tools to learn. For teachers, this usually means taking something off their plate, setting time for them learn and knowing that it won’t happen overnight, and providing them with the supports they need to grow.
  • Manage the process. Change is tricky. It’s not linear. Plans shift as you learn what works and what does not. Most people have to get worse before they get better; everyone is at the furthest edge of what they know how to do, almost all the time. As a leader, your job is to manage the direction, process, and pace of change. Managing the direction means keeping focus, and keeping oriented toward your vision. Managing the process means creating the systems and structures that will support change to unfold. Managing the pace means “reading” where people are, knowing when to push ahead, and knowing when to slow down. Managing change can also mean managing the external environment around your school or district: engaging with communities, navigating policy, and building a coalition to make the work sustainable
  • Lead for improvement. Things won’t all go right. That’s ok. The key is to learn as you go, adapt and adjust as you learn, and maintain a focus on excellence while allowing room for failure. Leaders will put improvement processes in place and build a culture of learning and growth at all levels.


Questions to consider?

  1. What are your core competencies and areas of confidence as a leader? How will those serve you?
  2. What will be your challenges or stretch areas as a leader?
  3. Who can you work with that will complement your strengths and challenges? What will it look like to build a team around you?
  4. What will continuous learning look like for you? How can you invest in your own growth and development?



The following books have been recommended by superintendents and principals that have led their districts and schools through the transition to personalized, competency-based schools:
  • Good Leaders ask Great Questions by John Maxwell
  • Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Heifitz and Martin Linsky
  • Total Leaders by Charles Schwahn and William Spady
  • Building a New Structure for School Leadership by Richard F. Elmore

Other resources include:

One of my favorites is Leaders Rule by Bill Zima, superintendent of RSU2, as it helps to understand how roles change as students become active learners.