9 things growth-focused Learning Leaders commit to

by | Feb 18, 2022

What sets a Learning Leader apart?

In Five Ways of Being: What Learning Leaders think, do and say every day, Jane Danvers, Heather De Blasio and I suggest it is a commitment to gaining the self-knowledge and skills required to support colleagues to develop in their own right that distinguish Learning Leaders from their peers.

An essential requirement

Drawing on the extensive research that went into this book and our continuing professional practice, we propose that any successful leader must support and guide their colleagues to acquire the self-knowledge and skills they need for learning.

In fact, we believe this is an absolute requirement for educators and students to learn successfully as part of the broader mission of becoming an organisation that’s truly focused on learning. Central to this is the idea that the growth of us as leaders – and that of others – is core to our leadership identity.

To achieve this growth, there are nine elements (italicised) that we think are worth your attention.

Embracing growth

From our research and personal experiences, we find it is critical for Learning Leaders to withhold judgement and embrace growth as they seek to understand what it means to be growth-focused in their approach to both themselves and others. Our capacity to do this helps us articulate our leadership in a growth-focused way.

You’re learning too

In a recent coaching session, a principal explained how she was becoming more conscious of framing her narratives with staff through the lens of being a learner herself.

By emphasising to her staff that she is learning too and doesn’t have all the answers, she sends the message that not only is it OK to be unsure, but also that being a learner in that school is mandatory for everyone (including leaders). This principal also discussed the need to communicate with her staff about her learning experiences when appropriate to challenge the perception that leaders know it all.

Don’t overdo it

Leadership stories need to promote confidence in staff so they feel that the best approaches and decisions are being made and that these are being undertaken collaboratively wherever possible. This means there must be some caution applied when taking in this approach.

Articulating our leadership in a growth-focused way means being vulnerable with our staff and sending those messages to ensure a culture of learning for adults is fostered, but we also want to ensure this mode of communication isn’t overused or we risk people starting to wonder whether we know enough to lead effectively.

Goals are the glue

Aligning role statements and position descriptions with a focus on growth is also critical.

Schools, as part of their performance and development culture, set goals to support the mission and vision of their organisation. Teachers and leaders have goals too – and these are the glue in binding strategic plans to the action they demand. Each of these goals must explicitly assist us in striving for the development of our leaders.

Richard Elmore’s (2002) notion of reciprocal accountability resonates here:

‘For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.’ (p. 5)

Challenges? Bring it on

Embracing challenges as a catalyst for growth is also important for Learning Leaders to aspire to. This becomes critically important when we, as leaders, expect continuous growth from all our staff.

Learning Leaders accept that mistakes are part of the human endeavour of leadership. But they also have unwavering expectations that these mistakes will always act as opportunities to learn about themselves, those they work with and the organisations they serve.

Putting development first

Learning Leaders are deliberate in their design of a culture that puts the development of others first. This means they commit to making meetings about leadership learning – not just student learning.

Agenda items for leadership development at all levels must include opportunities for colleagues to discuss with each other their experiences of leading learning in their school.

Name and notice

Lastly, we recommend encouraging leaders to name and notice the leadership moves effective leaders make. This should be done in tandem with aligning the school’s staff-review processes with opportunities for discussion about how leaders plan to grow themselves and others. These two elements are critical for any learning-centred organisation.

As my co-authors and I note in Five Ways of Being, these nine elements ensure Learning Leaders are not only ‘leaders of the learning of their students and the learning of those they lead but also leaders of their own learning through the commitment to becoming students of their own leadership’ (p. 120).

Want to hear more from the authors of Five Ways of Being? View the interview here.


Elmore, R. F. (2002). Bridging the gap between standards and achievement: The imperative for professional development in education. Albert Shanker Institute.

Danvers, J., DeBlasio, H., & Grift, G. (2020). Five Ways of Being: What Learning Leaders think, do, and say every day. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Gavin Grift 

With experience as a teacher, assistant principal and educational coach, Gavin Grift’s passion, commitment and style have made him an in-demand presenter of keynotes, seminars and in-school support days. As a speaker, Gavin connects with national and international audiences on topics ranging from Cognitive Coaching and quality teacher practice to professional learning communities (PLCs) and learning-centred leadership.