The ultimate test of leadership development

Dennis Sparks

The ultimate test of leadership development is whether it permanently affects what leaders habitually think, say, and do.

Because the primary purpose of school leadership is to improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students in every classroom, what leaders believe about teaching and learning and how it can be continuously improved matters.

The depth of leaders’ understanding of important ideas and practices matters.

What leaders think, say, and do consistently over time matters.

Therefore, it is essential that leaders who desire different results first change what they habitually think, say, and do.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of leadership development experiences are insufficiently robust to produce change that is that deep and long lasting.

The initial learning is often too weak–it frequently is no more intellectually engaging than listening to one or more speakers. Even of greater concern, on those rare occasions when skill development is the goal (which, unfortunately it seldom is), opportunities to practice new skills with feedback until they become routine are meager to nonexistent.

I am confident that the improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students will not come through charter or online schools, standardized testing, and new systems of teacher evaluation.

It will only occur through leadership development that:

1. Is intellectually robust. That means leaders would spend at least as much time in engaging in cognitively-demanding activities such as dialogue, the close reading of research and other professional literature, writing, and planning as in receiving the intellectual work of others.

2. Acknowledges the power of leaders’ beliefs and conceptual frames to influence their practice. That means that leaders as learners would regularly engage in dialogue to help them better understand their assumptions and those of others about teaching, learning, and leadership. 

3. Develops skills. That requires high-quality training in which leaders observe what the skills look like in practice, have many opportunities to practice them in safe settings, and receive feedback on their use.

3. Is sustained over the many months usually required to develop new habits of mind and practice.

Question: What leadership development experiences have you had that meet all or most of the criteria above?

2 Responses to “The ultimate test of leadership development”


  1. 1 Mike Phillips January 14, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I was teaching at a school when the current VP of the school unexpectily retired (reached an age when he didn’t need to work any longer, not death) at Spring Break. I was asked to fill the VP role as Acting VP for the remaining 3.5 months of school. This experience allowed job embedded learning which I have carried forward into my career as an Administrator. It helped me to practice skills in a real setting getting meaningful geedback that helped me improve my “practice” as an Administrator.

    Since then I have advocated for an Administrator intern position in our school district as part of our leadership/administrator training program.

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks January 14, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Learning by solving real problems with feedback and generous opportunities for reflection is an incredibly powerful process. Thanks for reminding us of that, Mike.


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