Sunday / July 21

Creating Conditions to Grow Great School Leaders

We know that a tree is only as strong as its roots. It is the strength of the root system that tethers a tree to the earth and gives it the strength to weather fierce winds. We would argue the same goes for leadership development. Let’s face it, the challenges and pressures placed upon school leaders have increased in complexity. In fact, in many regions, it is becoming harder to attract candidates into school leadership.

In our previous Corwin Connect Blog Post ( we outlined the four roots to school leadership. While all are interconnected, we wanted to take a deeper dive into the environment in which leadership development takes place and look at Creating a Culture for Implementation.

Just as a tree needs fertile soil, nutrients, moisture, sunlight, and temperature conditions, the environment in which we develop leaders must contain certain conditions to maximize growth. To create an environment for leadership development we will provide an overview of six essential actions:

  1. Discover the feel of the environment;
  2. Engage in active listening;
  3. Determine the skill, will, and thrill of your people;
  4. Discern the affective state;
  5. Leverage social persuasion;
  6. Tailor your feedback.


  1. Discover the feel of the environment

A school’s culture comprises the values, beliefs, practices (norms) of the learning community. It sets the stage for students and staff alike in terms of the environmental conditions. Have you ever noticed that when you walk into a school you get a certain feeling? You get a sense of what is important (or not so important) by what is presented in the hallways: student work, banners, trophy cases etc.

We ask you to consider this: do the facets of the environment of your school– visible, invisible, and implied, enable or disable professional leadership growth? To get to the heart of this, we suggest an approach to understand the five senses of the leadership culture in the school. This process will assist in getting data that speaks to the visual, tonal, and tactile conditions in the school.  (See Figure 3.1)

  1. Engage in active listening

After noticing the general feel of the environment, it is important to do an honest reality check of the conditions in play. We encourage system leaders and principals to genuinely listen the voices of their aspiring leaders. Ask them what they feel would be value added in terms of their growth and development. We cannot presume to know and “top down” this for them. We offer a glimpse into behaviors and statements leaders use that can promote or hinder active listening. See Figure 3.2.

  1. Determine the skill, will, and thrill of your people

The leadership in our schools is only as strong as the respective leadership team.

Each team brings a unique set of skills and disposition to the role. By actively listening to what aspiring leaders feel is important to address their needs for growth, we can anticipate the impact of our decisions when we know the “who” behind the person prior to engaging in the “what” of leadership. Ideally, we seek to know three key aspects of the aspiring leader: their prior knowledge and experience, their disposition (attitude) towards leadership, and what are the motivating factors that are helping (or hindering) them to move forward.

  1. Discern affective state

If we are to assist aspiring leaders to better mobilize their motivation and cognitive resources to meet the situational needs of school leadership, we need to gauge their level of self-efficacy. We know that people with “high efficacy expect to gain favorable outcomes through good performance, whereas those who expect poor performances of themselves conjure up negative outcomes (Bandura, 2009, p.180). Think about the emotions, feelings, attitudes you held when you first became a school leader. Were you nervous? Terrified? Excited?  Pumped? As leadership developers, knowing how your aspiring leaders are feeling about next steps can help you coach them to the next step. All it takes is a little social persuasion!

  1. Social persuasion

We know that flight, fight, or freeze are common human reactions to new or challenging situations. Clarity of processes – what next steps look and feel like – can bolster confidence and entice aspiring leaders to try something they otherwise might not have. As mentors it is important to scaffold our conversations to draw out how the protégé is feeling (affective state) about a given task and determine what the best next experience will be. We must also bracket our own personal biases of how we learned how to be a leader. Calming the anxious, cautioning the overzealous, and counseling those who may need a different experience or to go back a step or two are part of the types of conversations necessary to offering appropriate scaffolding of the “what of leadership.” This is largely achieved via providing customized feedback.

6.Tailor feedback

We cultivate leadership effectively when we as the mentor or coach know the type of feedback an individual responds to best regarding a specific task. Leadership trainees who are persuaded about the efficacy of their skills accept more responsibility, expend greater effort, and take higher levels of accountability for their actions (positive or negative). Open, honest, and benevolent feedback is integral to the transparency of process and progress.  An optimal leadership development environment acknowledges that what we call “care-frontations” are better than confrontations. Corrective or critical feedback done proactively can aim the efforts expended more accurately to the intended learning target. It breeds trust and respect with mentor and learner.

Final thoughts

A culture for implementation is one that seeks to establish a strong sense of rootedness that comes from knowing who our aspiring leaders are and what experiences they bring with them on their pathway to leadership.

When principals and central leaders create an environment that is attuned to the voice of aspiring leaders, predicated in consideration of the skill, will, and thrill of leadership, as well as the building of leader self-efficacy, the result will be one that sees more hands going up to indicate: “I want to take that next step to school leadership.” We hope that the six essential actions we have touched on here will assist you in creating a “Leader Ready” feel for your leadership environment.


Bandura, A. (2009). Cultivate self-efficacy for personal and organizational effectiveness. In E.A. Locke (Ed.), Handbook of principles of organizational behaviour (2nd ed., pp.179-200). New York, NY: Wiley.

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

Hattie, J. & Donoghue, G. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. Npj Science of learning, 1, 16013. Doi:10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13.

Written by

Vince Bustamante, M.Ed. is an author, instructional coach, curriculum content developer and implementation specialist who resides in Calgary, Canada. He is the co-author of two bestselling books with Corwin Press: Great Teaching by Design and The Assessment Playbook for Distance and Blended Learning. Most recently, Vince has co-authored Leader Ready: Four Pathways to Prepare Aspiring School Leaders. Vince is passionate about implementation, assessment and creating classroom environments that foster deep learning experiences where teachers understand and evaluate their impact. He specializes in working with district leaders, teachers, school leadership teams and schools as they seek to implement high impact strategies and systems for school improvement. Having worked with schools and school districts across North America and Internationally he brings a wide variety of experience and perspectives when looking at school improvement, pedagogical and leadership development, and implementation of high impact strategies across school environments.
He can be found at and on Twitter: @Vincebusta.

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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