Professional Learning

Principal Leadership Paradigms


School Leader Paradigm Publication

Order Your Print Copy Today

The School Leader Paradigm: Becoming While Doing is a product of AWSP, the Illinois Principal Association, and other associations in the nationwide School Leader Collaborative. The publication is now available to order. The book describes our national problem of practice, our theory of action, the paradigm itself, the cycle of inquiry, and more. You'll also find three helpful appendices.

The book incorporates the National Association of Secondary School Principals' new publication, Building Ranks: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders.


The Art of Leadership: Becoming While Doing

Leadership is an art. It’s a delicate balance between becoming while doing. 

As we enter into the wonderful and incredibly significant role of the principalship, we do so with bright eyes and unwavering commitment to the kids and our respective school communities. We all land in these important positions through various paths, backgrounds and preparation programs. At some point in the spring, you are handed a set of keys, given a firm handshake, and told to go lead. You drive over to your school, walk up to the front doors, and begin your leadership journey. Are you ready? Time will tell.

Behind the role of quality classroom instruction, principals are the number two influencers on student achievement in a school. Principals wear many hats and get pulled in a million directions from the moment they step out of their car every morning. Principals leave a forever impact on students and adults, and that impact leaves a legacy on an entire school community. Leaving a positive legacy rests solely on the principal’s ability to lead.

Principal Action Paradigm

That leadership journey typically starts with what we call the Principal Action Paradigm; tactfully and intentionally leading Culture, Systems, and Learning. A new principal begins by tackling the school’s climate and culture (not synonymous). This crucial culture work is never-ending, but is where principals in their first few years should typically invest the majority of their energy. As they masterfully create a common vision, purpose and culture, they also begin pushing on some of the systems that have been in place – in some cases – for decades. These systems are either supporting or eroding the new preferred culture. Finally, masterful principal leadership creates a positive school culture, systems that support the culture, and learning (for kids and adults) that shows the belief. The art of leadership is the ability to bring these three circles together in the spirit of what is best for kids.

The Statewide Problem of Practice

But here’s the statewide problem of practice related to this paradigm. Research on principal longevity indicates principals don’t often remain in the same building after five years due to many factors. While we certainly understand life and change happens, we don’t like the unintended consequences of turnover. The power of an effective principal is immeasurable. If you combine the research on principal turnover with the art of leadership in the Principal Action Paradigm, Systems and Learning can go untouched through constant churn. Ultimately, kids suffer the consequences.

The question begs, for those leaders who beat the odds and remain in the same building for longer than five years, what makes them so effective? How are they able to masterfully and artfully lead their buildings? We argue their leadership goes way beyond what they “do” as leaders and relies more on how they “become” leaders during the journey. This is where the School Leader Paradigm comes into play.

The Paradigm

Leadership is an art. A delicate balance between becoming while doing. While the Principal Action Paradigm focuses on the “doing” side of leadership (it’s about the actions leaders take, indicated righ there in the name), the School Leader Paradigm centers on “becoming.” It starts with the principal at the center as the lead learner and reflections the attributes of the person. Is the principal willing to self-reflect on who they are as a person and the impact that has on their ability to lead others? The paradigm addresses the intelligences of the leader (personal, social and systems) with specific attention to leadership attributes such as empathy, patience, creativity, etc. The School Leader Paradigm then moves leaders into reflecting on their ability to navigate the various contexts in which they lead (individual, school and community). All of this learning, self-assessment, and personal reflection is continuous in a constant cycle of inquiry. It’s all about a leader’s ability to reflect on their own growth and learning as a leader and the impact of that growth on the school as a whole.

If you had to guess whether the success of a principal hinges more on what they do (actions) or how they do it (leadership style and attributes), what would you say? What prevents a principal, or any school leader for that matter, from being highly effective in leading Culture, Systems and Learning? We say that nine out of 10 times, a principal’s impact and legacy is more dependent on who they are and how they lead than what they do. Looking at the AWSP Leadership Framework, even though all eight criteria carry the same weight, “Creating a Culture” tends to be pivot point for sustainable leadership. Is your ability to lead culture more dependent on who you are as a person or what you do? It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it that determines if others will follow.

The School Leader Collaborative

AWSP is a proud partner of the School Leader Collaborative, a consortium of state principal associations (IL, IN, MO, WA and WI) who came together to develop the School Leader Paradigm, share resources, and collectively study the continuum of effective school leadership. We focus on making sure all principal professional learning addresses the art of school leadership, becoming while doing. We are also reaching out to principal preparation programs in an effort to raise the level of awareness and emphasis on helping future leaders learn to put themselves in a reflective and ongoing learning stance. The learning in a building starts with the lead learner, the principal.

What Next?

So, where do you go from here? Step back and analyze the interplay of these two paradigms in relation to your journey as a leader. Someone gave you the keys for a reason. Where are you in creating a culture, redefining systems, and leading learning in your building? How are you monitoring your own “becoming” while “doing?” How do your character traits and attributes hinder or help your ability to make your school the best school for all kids?


For More Information 

Scott Seaman | Executive Director | (800) 562-6100

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