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Sustainability through Leadership Transitions

STRATEGY: Support an environment where the work of an initial dynamic leader can continue beyond the leader’s tenure.

To develop and support an environment where the work of an initial dynamic leader is continued beyond the leader’s tenure, attention must be paid to the challenges of sustainability and adaptation. Sustainability—the likelihood that the overall system can regenerate itself toward improvement—is a continuous process, not a single event. Only leaders who are equipped to handle a complex, rapidly changing environment can implement reforms that lead to sustained improvement in student achievement. Just as leadership is complex and dynamic, so is context. The nature of the link between leadership and context determines whether school improvement will be sustainable over the long term.


As Hanover Research wrote in October 2014, “Succession planning, or ‘proactive filling,’ is used to build a supply of leaders by anticipating future needs and preparing for vacancies ahead of time. Succession plans use foresight to develop objectives and evaluative criteria in order to measure the success of the program and to continue to place qualified candidates in appropriate roles.”

An organization cannot depend on the actions of one top leader for success. A succession of leaders is critical for sustained improvement, and this can only occur when there are effective leaders at multiple levels within the system. According to Hanover, “The diffusion of leadership throughout a district or school not only identifies good leaders and administrators, but it also allows employees to take ownership of their roles. By encouraging career growth and development, succession plans are able to promote effective, motivated leaders.”

Organizations must set their sights on continual improvement at all levels, including nurturing, cultivating, and appointing leaders who are moving in a sustained direction.

Lastly, there cannot be a large pool of quality school and district leaders unless there is a large pool of quality teachers, who form the ranks of the quality principal pipeline. School-based leaders should work to transform the working conditions of teachers. From the standpoint of sustainability, the principalship itself benefits from these improved conditions.

First Steps to Consider

  • If there is not one already, develop a succession plan. Ensure that a variety of personnel work together on that plan. To measure the plan’s effectiveness, ensure the tracking of relevant information.
  • Develop standards against which new and veteran leaders are measured. As the Hanover paper stated, “Without clear criteria to regulate assessment and qualification standards, districts threaten to return to reactionary hiring practices.”
  • Work to transform teachers’ working conditions. For example, adjust school schedules to extend teacher planning time or cover lunch duty so that teachers can have more preparation time.
  • Develop mentoring and coaching programs for teachers and other school and district personnel.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Principals are leaders in a culture of change, rather than simply instructional leaders. School improvement and school sustainability depend on school leaders who can foster the conditions necessary for sustained reform in a complex, rapidly changing society. A school community will likely face challenges if its leaders are unable or unwilling to address the needs of a changing society.

Common pitfalls

  • A lack of a succession plan and leadership-focused standards.
  • A lack of mentoring and coaching.
  • A culture that does not empower teachers to lead.
  • A lack of regular updates on this work, to promote transparency.
  • A lack of overlap from one leader to another, to promote alignment and coherence.

Guiding Questions

  • Is there a succession plan? Are there a set of standards against which leaders are measured?
  • Is the social and moral environment conducive to the continual development of students and teachers?
  • What opportunities does the school offer teachers to learn from others on the job?
  • What strategies are being implemented daily to foster current and future leaders?
  • What best practices are being implemented to ensure a supportive environment?
  • What strategies are implemented to monitor academic performance?