Learning to Lead

Spring 2014

By George Swain and Marcy Mann

‚ÄčIn a time of great flux and dynamic change in schools, from where will our future school leaders come? The answer, of course, is from a variety of places. But by and large, most of these leaders are already in our schools. Some are highly engaging teachers who have a particular knack with parents, some are department chairs envisioning new programs to better meet the needs of students, some are division heads seeking lasting solutions to difficult problems, some are alumni directors reviewing data for effective and consistent generosity, and some are diversity directors with great skill in developing school culture.

The challenge is to identify that talent, then guide and nurture it. Schools may be able to do some of this work in isolation, but it makes sense for regional and state associations to take the lead here, working with a broad spectrum of schools to ensure we have the kind of leaders in the pipeline who can step in when needed. To that end, the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) has developed its Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI) and launched the first cohort in 2011. There are other leadership institutes and programs, of course. But we feel that the combined elements of this institute are particularly promising for the needs of our schools today — and thus offer a new, integrated model for developing talent nationwide.

Leadership Needs

Along with just about everything else we do in schools, the demands on school leadership have become more complex with the accelerated pace of change. It's not just a question of needing to replace heads of school as they retire. Yes, there are numerous baby boomer heads who are either retiring now or are close to it. But schools that want to thrive in the new educational landscape need to think not just in terms of replacing heads, but about establishing broadly shared leadership among talented educators. As organizational expert Jim Collins has argued, the strongest schools are not those with charismatic and superhuman leaders at the helm, but those where leadership can be found in all areas of the school's fabric — the right people in the right seats on our metaphoric bus.

It was this thinking that guided us as we developed the ELI. In particular, we identified four main areas of leadership growth worthy of focus:

  1. Have emerging leaders participate with seasoned pros through residential conferences and mentoring;
  2. Through the school accreditation process, teach emerging leaders how to analyze and improve organizational culture;
  3. Encourage peer support and collaboration through this cohort experience; and
  4. Guide emerging leaders in actively identifying and solving organizational problems through independent projects in their schools.
The ELI is based on several important assumptions about adult learning. Like John Dewey and other champions of experiential learning, we believe that people learn best by doing. So we set out to develop a program that is highly interactive and provides participants the opportunity to learn to lead by, among other things, actually leading an initiative in their own schools — to experience leadership in direct and meaningful ways — within a collaborative support network of peers in other schools.

Rather than provide didactic road maps ("Ten steps to good school leadership," etc.), we seek to pose provocative questions. While there are shared aspects of leadership worth learning and experts from whom we can glean ideas, in the highly individualized world of independent schools, a solution to a problem or the creation of a new program that works beautifully in one school is not necessarily appropriate or transferable to another. As such, understanding the dynamics of institutional culture is a key feature of effective leadership.

Similarly, we believe that diversity of experience and perspective enhances schools. When choosing participants for the ELI — a total of 16 in our first cohort and 20 in our second — we aimed for a diverse group of emerging leaders who could challenge and support each other. We looked for similar diversity in the selection of topics and facilitators who engaged with the group.

Finally, we believe that effective leaders not only know their schools well, they also know themselves well. So we focus on helping participants understand their strengths and weaknesses. In particular, through the institute experience, we want them to understand that leadership often involves the process of effectively navigating all the emotional dimensions of knotty school problems. Along with practical leadership skills, effective leaders need a high level of emotional intelligence. And nowhere is emotional intelligence needed more than in schools, where human dynamics can be particularly complex.

The ELI Experience

The leadership institute can trace its roots back to June 2010, when NYSAIS organized its first Think Tank — now an annual event — to assess professional development and the state of independent education from the vantage point of "30,000 feet." Assembled participants included NYSAIS staff and a wide range of school leaders with myriad experiences in professional learning and collaboration at various stages of their educational careers. At this meeting, the group decided to create the ELI, designed to span two years and broadly cultivate school leadership. It would not be designed as a training program for specific roles, but rather would allow a range of talented participants to cultivate their own leadership skills as they develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of schools as organizations. Our challenge was to weave elements of our well-established programs and services related to school leadership into a coherent two-year program that enables participants to develop their knowledge and skills, all the while continuing to work full time in their schools.

Specifically, key components of the program require participants to:
  • participate in two established residential conferences (one for assistant heads and division heads and one of each participant's choice);
  • attend three residential summer leadership retreats;
  • serve on a school accreditation visiting committee;
  • participate in a mentor relationship;
  • facilitate and attend monthly online seminars on a range of topics; and
  • design and complete an independent leadership project.

Leadership Conferences

Our participants are required to attend two statewide residential conferences. In the first year of the program, they attend our Assistant Heads/Division Heads Conference, a three-day overnight event held at bucolic Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. ELI participants join in discussions of issues currently on the minds of the assistant heads and division heads in attendance. They also hear from at least two speakers who address current, pressing educational topics. In the second year, participants attend another such NYSAIS conference, but this time in the area of focus that interests them most, such as business affairs, admissions management, institutional advancement, or educational technology. At these conferences, ELI participants meet leaders in their respective fields and hear presentations on topics of current interest in those fields. Both first- and second-year conferences include "unconferences," or "open space" sessions, allowing participants greater engagement and time for follow-up conversations with seasoned professionals and each other on topics that are puzzling, stimulating, or motivating to them. This customization of the experience is a core element of the ELI because we believe it will have a powerful and more enduring impact on the participants' growth as leaders.

Summer Retreats

In addition to attending these two statewide conferences, participants attend three summer leadership retreats. We sponsor leadership panels at two out of three of these retreats. One panel, offered the first summer of the program, consists of middle-level independent school administrators. The other panel, in the second summer retreat, consists of heads of school. Each panel is moderated to include topics such as career path, challenges, surprises, and work/life balance. Summer retreats also include book discussions, role-playing, and problem-solving activities that come from real-life leadership dilemmas. At additional in-person sessions over the two-year program, cohort members hear from other seasoned professionals, including a head of school on board/head relations and a former head of school on theories of adult development.

Serving on an Accrediting Committee

Again and again, we hear that serving on an accreditation visiting committee provides educators with some of the best professional learning of their careers. NYSAIS maintains a particularly strong and participatory accreditation system for its member schools, so we decided to weave service on an accreditation visiting team into the ELI program.

At some point during these two years, each participant serves on one accreditation team at a peer school. They are fully vested members of the committees, placed in relationship to the skills and expertise they bring to the work, but they also follow a leadership curriculum, which involves pre-planning, reflective writing, and post-visit discussions to sharpen their focus on areas of institutional change and organizational leadership within the school to which they are assigned.

We have found that the accreditation experience provides an outstanding organizational "lab" through which emerging leaders may examine the dynamics of change leadership up close. Observing a school's culture, learning its history, and studying its organizational structure and academic program firsthand resonate powerfully for those who seek to lead schools in their own careers.

This is confirmed by the participants themselves, who reflect on their own learning and speak about what they perceive as the long-term value and impact of such a visit. Many members of the first cohort identified the accreditation visit as the area of the program through which they learned the most in a concentrated period of time. As one ELI participant explained, through the "whirlwind of those three days, I learned more about the inner workings of a school than I've ever known about my own school." It was "incredibly valuable to understand the working of an institution from the inside out... everything was laid bare in front of us," another claimed. A third emerging leader reported that, "it's often said that people learn best by doing, and that maxim proved true during my accreditation experience."


We know that we derive much of our expertise by learning from colleagues who not only came before and trained us, but from those with whom we work now both locally and across the state and country. At the ELI, therefore, we have arranged several opportunities for our participants to learn from those already doing leadership work in school and who can share their own experience. In particular, participants are also paired with a mentor who is selected from an eager pool of school heads, division directors, and assistant heads. Participants are given the opportunity to have conversations with these mentors and shadow them at their schools. At the same time, mentors provide guidance on leadership opportunities offered to participants at their home schools. Finally, each mentor serves as a project liaison throughout the participant's yearlong independent leadership project.

Ongoing Engagement

One cannot overestimate the power of the group dynamic achieved by the two-year cohort experience. Participants are admitted to the program after a careful and rigorous admissions process to (1) determine the leadership interest and qualifications and (2) meet a diversity of demographics. To date, the high level of collaboration among participants and the engaging, ongoing connection during and between formal events bears out the value of selecting for diversity. Through our monthly online sessions, three summer residential retreats and both residential conferences in common, several group meetings at schools, and exchanges on Twitter and in an online "community space," participants found time to open up to each other — to share their hopes and dreams, their fears and anxieties, as they tried out new skills and attempted unfamiliar challenges as school leaders. The near-unanimous consensus that face-to-face sessions are preferable to virtual ones attests to the peer camaraderie and support gained from the group's experience. Yet the virtual components — in addition to helping them improve their technical skills — far surpassed our expectations as the "blended" quality of the relationships reinforced one another. These emerging leaders now have a network of supportive colleagues that will serve each of them in the years to come, regardless of the career choices they make.

An Independent Leadership Project

As much as emerging leaders need theoretical, collaborative, and observational views of organizational change, there is no replacement for the learning that comes from hands-on problem solving. As such, during the second year of the ELI program, we ask participants to identify a problem or opportunity for change in their own school around which they can design an independent leadership project. As educators know, there is no lack of opportunity in our schools for creative thinking and determined focus to solve difficult problems or create dynamic programming. We believe that schools are well served to harness and channel the creative energy of the emerging leaders in their midst to bring new ideas to the table and to ensure that our schools' programs best meet the needs of our students. Some of the projects that members of the first cohort embraced include developing an assistant teacher program, rethinking lower school scheduling, creating a platform for student activism, and designing partnerships between one's school and local organizations, among others.1 One participant reflected during his final semester in the program that "in terms of professional development, I think that the more we can share information and get out there to see what other schools are doing, the better we will be as educators. This experience stretched and challenged me in ways that I had not been challenged."

The Collective Effort

At NYSAIS, we feel blessed to have had the opportunity to develop this rich program for emerging leaders, weaving new and existing programs into a coherent curriculum to strengthen the leadership capacity of emerging leaders in our schools. While other state and regional associations may not have a similar constellation of factors in place to replicate this project, some may and we encourage them to do so. On a more local level, though, we hope that individual schools and emerging leaders themselves can identify opportunities for authentic, low-cost and high-impact training to strengthen the next generation of leaders. Independent schools are, by and large, free from the bureaucratic and credentialing demands in the public school sector. We should seize the opportunity and potential this provides to create vehicles for the authentic leadership learning that is needed in our schools today and in the future.

While none of us has a crystal ball with which to determine the exact demands schools will face in the coming years, it is likely that the leaders who thrive will be those who are adaptable, able to work collaboratively, solve problems creatively, use emerging technologies, and work well in diverse organizations. For these reasons, we designed the Emerging Leaders Institute. We encourage others to do the same.


1. A full description of these individual leadership projects can be found on the NYSAIS website, www.nysais.org.
George Swain

George Swain is the associate director for evaluation and accreditation at NYSAIS.

Marcy Mann

Marcy Mann is the associate head at Professional Children's School (New York).