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  • Writer's picturearniebieber

Leaning into Leadership

Updated: Sep 29, 2023


Recently, I had the privilege of conducting a workshop entitled "Leaning into Leadership" for the International Schools Services' ISS EDUlearn™ series. During this session, we delved into what I consider the three overarching domains of leadership: Self, Others, and Systems. We explored how effective international school leaders navigate these domains and discussed practical strategies for success.

1. Self: Developing Personal Qualities, Values, and Skills

Self Leadership centers around the leader's personal qualities, values, and skills. Effective international school leaders understand the importance of self-awareness, self-reflection, and continuous personal growth. They recognize their strengths, weaknesses, and biases, and how these factors influence their leadership style and impact others. With a strong self awareness, leaders can effectively adjust their approach as needed.

2. Others: Building Relationships and Engaging Stakeholders

Others or Relational Leadership focuses on the relationships and interactions between leaders and various stakeholders in the international school community. Accomplished leaders build trust, encourage open communication, and establish positive relationships with students, teachers, parents, staff, and the wider community. They demonstrate empathy, active listening, and cultural responsiveness, valuing diverse perspectives and needs. By creating a supportive and inclusive environment, leaders foster an atmosphere that enhances teaching and learning.

3. Systems: Shaping Effective and Sustainable Practices

Systems Leadership encompasses the structures, processes, and policies that form the organizational architecture of an international school. Leaders must understand and influence these systems to promote effective and sustainable practices. This includes strategic planning, resource allocation, curriculum development, assessment and evaluation, professional development, and compliance with regulations and standards. By designing well-aligned systems that support the school's mission and vision, leaders provide a solid foundation for a truly responsive system for learners.


To further explore the leader's relationship with themselves and others, we delved into Daniel Goleman's six leadership styles. Each style has its strengths and is effective in different situations, often combining varying approaches, depending on the context:

  1. Commanding leaders provide clear instructions and expect compliance. This style is suitable for urgent situations or emergency circumstances that require immediate action.

  2. Visionary leaders inspire and motivate by providing a compelling vision of the future. They encourage others in the school community to strive towards this vision, fostering a sense of purpose and direction.

  3. Affiliative leaders prioritize building strong relationships and fostering a harmonious environment. They emphasize collaboration, teamwork, and creating a sense of belonging.

  4. Democratic leaders involve their team members in the decision-making process. They value input, encourage participation, and consider multiple perspectives before making decisions.

  5. Pacesetting leaders set high standards for themselves and their team. They lead by example, expecting excellence and self-direction from their team members.

  6. Coaching leaders focus on developing the strengths and skills of their team members. They provide guidance, feedback, and support to help individuals reach their full potential.


A framework well suited for guiding leaders to effectively engage with complex systems such as schools, is Peter Senge's Five Disciplines, based on his book The Fifth Discipline, is a seminal work that explores the concept of learning organizations. Senge argues that organizations including schools can thrive in a rapidly changing world by cultivating a culture of continuous learning and systems thinking. He introduces five disciplines - personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking - as essential practices for fostering organizational learning and transformative change.

  1. Personal Mastery: Encouraging continuous professional growth among all school constituents to foster a culture of lifelong learning.

  2. Mental Models: Challenging narrow beliefs and biases, promoting open dialogue and collaboration to create a shared mental model among staff.

  3. Shared Vision: Establishing a collective understanding and commitment to a common goal, and encouraging each individual to reflect on their personal vision in the context of the school’s mission and goals.

  4. Team Learning: Promoting effective teamwork and collaboration, leveraging the expertise and diverse perspectives of staff members to drive continuous improvement.

  5. Systems Thinking: Investigating and understanding the underlying causes and effects of issues, while considering the broader context and interconnections within the school.


After exploring the Self, Others, and Systems Leadership Domains, workshop participants delved into a real world international school case study, which presented them with a dilemma for them to consider and problem solve.

In brief the case study concerned a culturally diverse international school where a conflict emerged between a group of parents who feel that the curriculum does not adequately represent their cultural heritage and another group of parents who support the existing curriculum, arguing that it provides a well-rounded education that embraces diversity. The first group believes their children's cultural identity is being marginalized, while the second group emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balanced representation of different cultures to prepare students for a globalized world.

The dilemma faced by the principal involved balancing inclusivity and cultural representation in the curriculum. Prioritizing the concerns of one cultural group risks marginalizing others and compromising the school's commitment to diversity. Implementing changes may disrupt the learning experience for all students.

Workshop participants discussed the following questions:

  1. How would you approach the conflicting perspectives of the two groups of parents while maintaining a commitment to inclusivity and diversity?

  2. What steps could be taken to address the concerns raised by the parents without compromising the overall educational experience for all students?

  3. How might you involve other stakeholders in the decision-making process?


To conclude the workshop, we discussed practical steps aspiring leaders should consider as they prepare for a future in school leadership and administration:

  1. Gain experience: Seek opportunities to take on additional responsibilities within your school. This may include serving on committees, leading extracurricular activities, or taking on special projects. Look for chances to demonstrate leadership qualities, such as organizational skills, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities.

  2. Build relationships: Cultivate positive relationships with colleagues, administrators, and professionals in the field, seeking mentors who can offer guidance and support.

  3. Develop a leadership mindset: Embrace the qualities of a leader, such as integrity, accountability, and make a commitment to continuous improvement, even before assuming a formal leadership position.

  4. Stay up to date: Deepen your understanding of educational leadership theories, practices, and stay abreast of current trends and research in your field.

  5. Apply for "formal" leadership opportunities to take the next step on your professional journey.

  6. Be patient and persistent: Moving into a leadership role takes time and commitment. Refine your skills, seek feedback, and actively engage in professional growth opportunities.

The three key domains mentioned above: Self, Others, and Systems, are a framework in which to consider the role of the leader and the complex challenges they will face. Leaders must develop their personal qualities, values, and skills, build strong relationships, engage stakeholders, and shape effective and sustainable practices within their school. By employing effective strategies and approaches within these domains, such as Leadership Styles and Systems Thinking, as well as considering some of the above practical steps, aspiring leaders can prepare themselves for successful careers in international school leadership.


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