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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
From the AWSP Executive Director
What’s your Domain Strength?
P-Harmony: Matching Leaders to Contexts
Dr. Scott Seaman
Executive Director, AWSP
When we sign on to a leadership position, we assume the role’s responsibilities. People look to us for leadership, guidance, vision, problem-solving, culture, etc. We work tirelessly to serve and meet the needs of all those within our purview. Serving as a school leader is not for fame or fortune, but rather the opportunity to make a difference at the systems level, improve kids’ lives, and leave a forever impact.
Working as a principal or assistant principal is the best job in the world. To be able to shift the culture of a school and create student-centered systems that are truly best for kids is the reward of the work and responsibility. However, along with the leadership responsibility comes constant feedback, criticism, and a bullseye on your back. While school leadership is the best job, it is also one of the most challenging jobs in education. And in today’s world, it can be over in the blink of an eye.
What makes some leaders more successful than others? Why can some stand the test of time, and others have their time cut short? How do some navigate incredibly sticky situations and come out unscathed while others don’t? Why do some leaders accelerate systems changes and learning improvements faster than others? And ultimately, if we know relationships are the key to school culture, how do some foster and sustain relationships more effectively than others?
We’ve been actively studying and researching these questions for years at AWSP. What are the keys to effective leadership? If only the answer to that question was easy, but it is not. School leadership is complex, demanding, and messy. There is no secret formula, but there is a lens that provides clarity in examining the leader and the organization they are leading. That lens is the School Leader Paradigm.
Not all leaders are the same. Not all schools are the same, nor are the needs of the schools. The School Leader Paradigm describes three domains of leadership (Culture, Systems & Learning) on the “Doing” side of the Paradigm.
Criticizing a leader is easy. They sit alone at the top as the lead learner of a learning organization — an easy target. If something is wrong, then it must be the leader’s fault. But is it? Yes, leadership matters, but leadership alone is only part of the equation. A learning organization, like a school, is an incredibly complex system with many moving parts, pieces, and other individuals. The leader’s challenge is creating a positive culture within the school while constantly making system adjustments that improve the outcomes for each and every student. No problem. Right?
If only it were that easy. Not all leaders are the same. Not all schools are the same, nor are the needs of the schools. The School Leader Paradigm describes three domains of leadership (Culture, Systems & Learning) on the “Doing” side of the Paradigm. An effective leader knows how to lead in each of the domains, but I would argue that each one of us has a primary strength of leadership. For lack of a better description, I’d say we each have a primary domain. Some are more natural Culture leaders, while others are more comfortable with Systems leadership. Still, others might feel most at home in the Learning Domain.
Having a “primary” domain doesn’t mean that you can’t lead in the others. It also doesn’t mean that you are an ineffective leader. It simply means that you naturally and inherently lead from your strength. That’s great. We should focus on strengths-based leadership. However, leaders fall into trouble when they do not intentionally reflect and make leadership adjustments to accommodate their less dominant domains. Just by way of example, what could go wrong in a school with a Systems Domain leader? What is missing under the leadership of a Culture Domain Leader?
School needs, or what the Paradigm describes as the “School Context,” are the opposite side of the equation. If a school is in disarray and chaos, that school needs a more System’s Domain focused leader. If PLCs are an exercise for independent planning and early release, then that school needs a Learning Domain dominant leader. If everyone has settled for mediocrity and minimal expectations, then a Culture Domain leader is needed. Don’t get me wrong, each of those examples requires leadership in all three domains, but the priority strength is the best match for the context of the school.
We should call this “P-harmony,” the match between a principal’s individual context and the school’s needs. Unfortunately, our system doesn’t spend enough time matching leaders to context. We focus on posting a position, screening candidates (if there are any), interviewing with our canned and required HR questions, hiring, handing a set of keys, and then crossing our fingers the leader survives. This brings me back to my opening statement. When leadership falls apart, is it a result of who that leader is? What did they do or didn’t do? Or is it because their domain strength didn’t match the school?
The answer is a complicated “yes” to all three. Who the leader is definitely matters. And how they lead matters. But, we owe it to our leaders to put as much support around them to accommodate both their strengths and less dominant domains. Let’s have real talk using the paradigm to set leaders up for success before we even hand them the keys. Let’s lean into the paradigm early and often as trials and tribulations of leadership bubble to the surface throughout the school year. Let’s be proactive in supporting and keeping our best leaders instead of reactive by contributing to the ongoing crisis and horrific impact of leadership churn.
Our students deserve highly effective, consistent, and sustainable leadership. Leadership matters, but so does matching our leadership strengths to context. How is your P-harmony?
Dr. Scott Seaman joined AWSP in the fall of 2013 after serving as the principal at Tumwater High School. In July 2018, he assumed duties as Executive Director.