Attending to one’s own learning

Leaders ensure that they challenge their own thinking and keep growing their knowledge. They actively search for new information and knowledge and ideas. They also actively attend to their own wellbeing.

Educational leadership capability framework, Education Council, 2018

The full title for this capability is: Attending to their own learning as leaders and their own wellbeing. 

This page summarises some thinking and research related to this capability. It is not a comprehensive or definitive background to the capability.

    “For some reason sustained leadership learning seems a step too far for many and yet, paradoxically, it is one of the most important things a leader can do.” (NCSL, 2005)

Leadership learning is “about me”

Leadership learning is personal, individual and recursive. It fact, “it seems professional expertise cannot be developed unless personal, psychological and social development take place” (Robertson, 2005, p5).

While there are patterns in how people develop leadership, each leader’s development pathway is unique (Poekert, 2016). Research recognises the importance of leaders learning about what it is they need at the time. For this to happen leaders need to be able to identify what skills they still need to develop, and reflect critically on their current practice.

Research also points to the important part affirmation and validation of an individual leader’s practice play in their development, alongside challenge and careful probing of gaps between their espoused theories and theories-in-use. This typically requires professional relationships with critical friends or a skilled coach.

Individuals make their own choices for how to meet their needs, but there is little research on how leaders construct their own professional leadership learning pathways. Certainly, leaders need to think about learning the knowledge and skills their systems expect of them, but they need to balance those considerations with what will enable them to bring about change in their unique circumstances (Dempster, 2012).

Learning leadership is a process

Robertson and Earl (2013, p14-15) summarised their findings from several years of delivering leadership development programmes for aspiring principals in four key messages:

  • Learning leadership is complex and requires a combination of coordination and planning, with flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Leadership learning is dynamic, evolutionary, and sometimes revolutionary.
  • Leadership learning is both personal and collective.
  • Leadership learning is driven by purpose – For what?”

Robertson (2015, p18) also identifies four approaches for powerful leadership learning:

  • Personalised, self-regulated, reflective and meta-cognitive learning
  • Connected and networked leaders sharing and creating knowledge together
  • Coaching leadership capacity in self and others
  • Inquiry-focused leadership and learning, informed by research and evidence.

Leadership learning relationships

West-Burnham and Ireson (2005) list four strategies that are needed for effective leadership learning relationships. The extent to which these strategies are used in any particular relationship will depend on the depth of the relationship, its purpose and context.

The four strategies are:

  • Challenge
  • Feedback
  • Reflection
  • Developing strategies.

Of these, he sees critical reflection as the most elusive. If educators have not been taught how to reflect critically on their practice, reading the theory of it won’t help. Critical reflection becomes a habit only through use and reflection on that use (Robertson, 2004).

While it is easier for an experienced coach or facilitator to effectively balance and mix the four strategies listed above, leaders can learn to do this together in peer learning relationships with a partner or in a group. These relationships are more effective when at least one participant has experience of reciprocal learning relationships and understands how they can change professional practice.

Coaching for educational leaders can have a bigger purpose than just individual growth. It can build a foundation for leaders to spread a coaching learning culture throughout the school.

Peer learning relationships

Peer coaching

Tracey Hooker (2013) in her review of the literature defined a peer coaching relationship as “a reciprocal relationship based on trust where partners support each other to find solutions.” She emphasises that peer coaches need to:

  • uphold respect and confidentiality for their partners
  • commit to the relationship
  • be prepared to overcome barriers, such as time or work commitments.

Another report (cited in Robertson, 2004) found that for peer groups collaborating on improving their individual leadership practice, three things are important:

  • commitment to colleagues’ growth
  • recognition that participation is expected
  • recognition that colleagues are resources for one’s own learning.

Peer learning

Peer learning groups, communities or networks are formed to collaborate around a common agenda. 

Leithwood (2016) found that principals in Ontario highly rated the principals' learning networks as a means of ongoing professional learning. He found leaders reported a range of cognitive and affective benefits.

Leaders who participate in networks for leadership learning have and continue to develop important mindsets and practices. These include:

  • growing a system leadership mindset
  • being alert to and countering the "dark sides" of collaboration
  • being able to build new knowledge with others. 

(Fullan, 2017; Leithwood, 2016)

Peer learning networks often share the task of leading the network, with formal and emerging leaders changing over time (Leithwood, 2016). When working as a network is a new skill for many participants, it is useful to have an experienced person lead it initially and to build professional learning into work processes. 

Iain McGilchrist – Network learning communities


Learning conversation protocols

Protocols are valuable tools for enhancing professional learning in peer learning relationships. Protocols are aimed at giving room for analysis, debate and challenge.

You can find two examples of protocols at:

Collaborative leadership learning

Learning conversations protocol – Ontario Ministry of Education

Taking conversations to the next level

Video courtesy of the Bastow Institute, Australia, on Youtube

Your wellbeing affects everyone

Learning relationships with peers and others can help you to learn and to maintain your wellbeing. Your wellbeing affects not only your performance, but also the wellbeing and performance of everyone in your school.

Most leaders have some useful strategies for managing stress, such as short renewal breaks, closing the office door for a time, having walking meetings. But if these are not enough, you need to change what you're doing.

    "This means changing work habits: (re)evaluating work practices, keeping the important ones, but letting go of the unimportant." (Riley, n.d.)

In particular, it means looking at how your activity aligns with your purpose as a leader. If you're not getting to do the things that are important to your purpose, you need to determine why not — and work out how you can focus more of your activity on that purpose.

Reflective questions

  • What is the "For what?" of your current learning need? Can you arrange the types(s) of learning that will best help you to achieve that purpose?
  • Who do you have to support you to learn? Is this support providing the basis for you to be open and public about your learning? Is it connecting you to other perspectives, new ideas and knowledge? 
  • What strategies do you have for keeping well? Are you applying them consistently? What habits do you need to work on changing? How will you do that?

Related pages

Ako – in Kiwi leadership for principals

Managing your time – a guide

Professional learning and development planning – a guide

Tū Rangatira: Māori-medium educational leadership

This capability features strongly in the whenu (key role of leadership):

  • He kaiako – the teacher and learner.

It is also evident in the whenu:

  • He kanohi matara – the visionary.

Tū rangatira (English)

Tū rangatira (te reo Māori)


Dempster, N. Flückiger, B. Lovett, S. (2012). Principals reflecting on their leadership learning with an heuristic: A pilot study. AARE conference papers. Accessed on ERIC.

Hooker, T. (2013). Peer coaching: A review of the literature. Waikato Journal of Education, 18:2, 129-140. 

Poekert, P. Alexandrou, A. Shannon, D. (2016). How teachers become leaders: an internationally validated theoretical model of teacher leadership development. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 21:4, 307-329. 

Leithwood, K. Azah, V.N. (2016). Characteristics of effective leadership networks. Journal of Educational Administration, 54:4, 409-433.

Riley, P. (n.d.) Workload, tipping points and sustainable work-life balance: The OH&S challenges for educators. Education Matters. 

Robertson, J. (2004). Coaching leaders

Robertson, J. (2008). The three Rs for coaching learning relationships

Robertson, J. Earl, L. (2014). Leadership Learning: Aspiring principals developing the dispositions that count. New Zealand Educational Administration and Leadership Society. Accessed on Griffith Research Online.

Robertson, J. (2015). Think-piece on leadership education in New Zealand. Leadership for communities of learning: Five think pieces, 15-21 (PDF). Teaching Council.

Rincón-Gallardo, S. Fullan, M. (2017). Essential features of effective networks in education. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1:1, 5-22.

West-Burnham, J. Ireson, J. (2005). Leadership development and personal effectiveness. National College of School Leadership. Accessed on Digital Education Resource Archive. 

Image credit: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Jan Robertson has extensive research and practical experience in the development of educational leaders in New Zealand. Much of the information in this summary comes from her work. People who want to read more can use the links on this page or read her book:

Coaching leadership (2013) –  NZCER 

Tell a colleague | Back to top