top of page

Part 4: Sustaining Leadership Energy for System and School Improvement in Complex Times

Updated: May 14, 2020

First published by Bronwyn Johnston and Rachael Clarke in the Journal of Leadership, March 2020, South East Region, Queensland, Australia.


The sustainability of leadership energy has received greater attention recently as educators grapple with the complexities of achieving substantial improvement and maintaining organizational momentum for continuous improvement. I wonder under what conditions can system and school leaders in SER sustain this critical leadership energy?

Hargreaves and Fink (2006) define sustainability in this way: “Sustainability does not simply mean whether something will last. It addresses how particular initiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the environment now or in the future” (p.30). Thus, intentional reform models, like the Leading Learning Collaborative in SER, must unfold in a way that all schools benefit. The spirit underlying such approaches attempts to create a we-we mindset. As a result of purposeful interaction within and across schools, school leaders become more aware of, and indeed more committed to, the success of other schools in addition to their own.

Fullan and Sharratt (2007) found that leadership teams in schools that were achieving despite being in challenging circumstances embraced four critical areas. Leadership teams:

  1. clearly understood the 14 Parameter Framework and most importantly lived the shared beliefs and understandings of Parameter #1 and the shared responsibility and accountability of Parameter #14;

  2. did continuous self-assessment, striving to align behavior and beliefs among the principal, teacher-leaders and staff as a whole;

  3. used data-driven instruction and the ubiquitous presence and use of data to promote and maintain effort. The case management approach was in place where individual students were tracked with corrective action taking place on an ongoing basis; and

  4. did not let other “distractors” divert their focus and energy. In fact, they drew or renewed their leadership energy by means of understanding their improvement.

These researchers also found that another condition for sustainability involved working on defining, shaping, and refining the shared vision of the school, in this case, using school data in relation to literacy improvement. The more that beliefs were shared, the greater the ongoing effort, and the efficiency of the effort. They concluded that systems as a whole were energized and momentum sustained by the collaborative learning of school teams and by the strong results achieved.

While individual leaders can and must work on sustaining their own energies, the conditions for sustaining large numbers of people can only be fostered if the organization as a whole is working in this direction. Moreover, focusing on sustainability must become more deliberate and precise in terms of identifying and developing prospective leaders who will continue the improvement work. This needs explicit attention—it must be worked on in a self- and -organizationally conscious manner.

An identical finding is contained in Kanter’s (2004) study of Confidence: How winning and losing streaks begin and end. “Confidence”, says Kanter, “influences the willingness to invest – to commit money, time, reputation, emotional energy, or other resources—or withhold or hedge investments” (p 7). Kanter’s solution is framed around developing three interconnected cornerstones –accountability, collaboration, and initiative. It is these conditions that generate sustaining investments of energy and commitment across a system.

Leaders employing positive pressure and support – no negatives or disparaging commentaries - assuming that capacity is at the root of success, focus on capacity-building strategies that promote transparency in sharing impactful practices and viewing results. In other words, one key to getting at sustainability is to bring ‘practice puzzles’ out in the open in order to understand them, to identify successes and inquire as to “why” together, in order to address their “next best learning moves” (Sharratt, 2019).

In sum, the key sustainable concepts for me pertain to whether the system leaders go about their work in ways that:

  1. help other leaders focus;

  2. motivate and energize them to make investments of confidence that are typically sensitive to the ebb and flow of energies;

  3. use success to beget more successes; and

  4. create a critical mass of confident leaders at all levels who work together on these very matters.

The implications for sustaining positive leadership presence are both individual and system responsibilities. When leaders operate in an interdependent manner, the conditions for creating regenerative leadership energy, continuous renewal of purpose, and ongoing sustainability have a greater chance of becoming embedded. System and school leaders in SER must find energy in ‘staying the course’ and ‘holding their nerve’ – together - until they get the student results they want.


Fullan and Sharratt (2006). Chapter 5: Sustaining and developing leaders in Sustaining leadership in complex times. B. Davies, Editor. London: Sage Publications.

Hargreaves, A. and Fink, D. (2004). The seven principles of sustainable leadership. Educational Leadership. April 61(7).

Kanter, R. M. (2004) Confidence: How winning and losing streaks begin and end. New York: Crown Publishers.

Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What matters MOST in Learning, Teaching and Leading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

152 views0 comments


bottom of page