Saturday / June 22

Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring School Leaders

We are in a crisis. High quality teachers and leaders are leaving the profession in droves, resulting in a lack of aspiring leaders who are seeking to assume the role of school principal. So, what can we do? An increase in pay and compensation for school leaders is one thing, but the question we should be asking is this: how might we better prepare aspiring school leaders for the role of principal? The truth that exists is this: we have been so hyper focused on developing existing leaders that often we neglect to consider what our future leaders need to be ready for leadership.

A fertile learning environment yields optimal conditions for leadership to take root and flourish! This is especially true for the development of our aspiring leaders.

Preparing aspiring leaders for a potential principalship is not an easy task and there are multiple perspectives on how we may approach developing capacity in future leaders. In Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring School Leaders we propose a model that develops what we feel are the four most important aspects of school leadership which call the roots of school leader preparation.

Raising the Bar on Leadership Standards

We hear a lot about the importance of quality standards for teachers and leaders. Most, but not all school authorities, have a set of standards that inform and shape the skills and competencies expected to do the job well. In examining such standards around the globe, we realized that there are common (universal) themes. We created a set of universal leadership standards to provide a basis of understanding for what all aspiring leaders must know, understand, and be able to achieve with a high level of competence. When you think about it, that is exactly what standards are supposed to do: provide a common language which serves as the basis of “the what” of our professional development.

We also know that a focus on practice standards provides trainees with the competencies to be developed and informs their daily tasks. Our process for making more intentional use invites a deeper appreciation, understanding, and application of leadership standards.  Through the careful consideration and intentional linkage of what competencies to focus on within their professional growth plan, raising the bar on your practice standards equips aspiring leaders with the skills and confidence needed to get on the pathway to principalship.

Creating a Culture for Implementation 

A fertile learning environment yields optimal conditions for leadership to take root and flourish! This is especially true for the development of our aspiring leaders. The conditions of their environment (or community) will have a direct impact on their ability to not only learn but realize their leadership capacity. An understanding of the culture for implementation at your site or school is needed to attract and grow leaders in your jurisdiction.

Truly knowing your environment: the people, the climate and the community is imperative to design leadership learning experiences that are personalized to each aspiring leader’s unique pathway to principalship. Creating a culture for implementation requires leaders to:

  1. Learn more about the feel of the school environment;
  2. Engage in active listening with aspiring leaders;
  3. Determine the skill, will and thrill of your existing staff regarding potential for leadership;
  4. Discern affective state and leverage social persuasion; and
  5. Tailor feedback to meet the uniqueness of your aspiring leader.

Through a journey within these areas, you will be more attune to all facets of your environment: visible, invisible, and implied, to recognize how variables in your current context either enable or might be disabling professional growth.

Providing Guided-Learning Experiences

When it comes to leadership preparation programs, we often hear there is too much theory and not enough practical application of essential skills. We set out to disrupt this. Guided learning experiences provide real-time opportunities for hands-on leadership learning. Through a three-layered approach of moving the aspiring leader from a basic understanding of a given skill or competency (per practice standards) our model promotes the gradual release of responsibility moving the learner from basic concepts to more complex applications of the concept, ultimately moving to mastery. Central to this model is the need to develop professional trust in the mentor / protégé pairing. Where there are high levels of trust in the training process, mastery learning is more likely to be achieved. We believe that guided practice allows time for repetition and learning from mistakes. Guided learning articulates the steps needed to increase leader self-efficacy and the skill, will, and thrill of school leadership.

Attaining Mastery Experiences

Mastery experiences are generative. They help develop efficacious “master” leaders. As leaders we must both clear the way for these experiences to occur, and we must be able to determine when a trainee has achieved mastery. We explore four responsibilities that ensure we do both these things.

  1. Providing mastery experiences (increasing Skill, Will, and Thrill)
  2. Giving and receiving feedback;
  3. Knowing when mastery is achieved (expert noticing);
  4. Celebrating the mastery experiences (realizing greater capacity)

A recurring theme in leadership development is the need to genuinely listen to and hear what aspiring leaders have to say in terms of the types of experiences they feel are needed to prepare them for further leadership roles. Aspiring leaders want relevant and rigorous experiences that align with the skills and competencies needed to become a principal. When we strive for rigor in the learning experiences we design, we are talking about those sweet spots of complexity and challenge. Knowing when to prompt, push, or pull the protégé out of their comfort zone is central to being an effective mentor. If things are too easy, overconfidence or disengagement with the significance of the learning can manifest. Too hard and the learner can be quickly discouraged or disinclined to press into the learning at hand. We owe it to our aspiring leaders to deliver on this.

The pressure on principals is increasing and testing the strength of those in that role. The job is more complex than it once was, and a greater number of principals report poor work-life balance. With more time spent focusing on the practical roots of leadership preparation that we share, we know from our lived experience we can attract more  teachers and aspiring leaders. We need them to want to take on these challenging roles, not because they have to, but rather because through being well equipped, feeling more self-efficacious and better prepared, they feel “leader ready” and want to!


Cusack. T., & Bustamante. V. (2023). Leader ready: Four pathways to prepare aspiring leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Written by

Vince Bustamante currently serves as the Social Studies Curricular Consultant for Edmonton Catholic Schools. In this role he is responsible for resource development, providing teacher support, overseeing curriculum implementation as well as delivering professional learning sessions. He is trained as a Secondary Social Studies teacher with vast experience in middle and high schools, and has a passion for creating a social studies classroom that seeks to empower students to maximize their learning. Let’s get students excited about social studies!

Timothy P. Cusack , Ed.D. is an educator with thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, department head, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent of learning services (curriculum, assessment, professional development) and currently serves as deputy superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools (Leadership Support Services). In his current role, he directly supports the daily work of school leadership teams and aspiring leaders across almost 100 schools.

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