Skip to main content

Do you have a leadership development plan? If not, don’t feel bad—I’ve asked that question of probably a thousand Christian school leaders, and of that number, only two responded in the affirmative. Most had never heard of the concept of a leadership development plan (LDP). Yet as we close the book on 2020 and begin a new one for 2021, an LDP can help to inform and shape our leadership book’s “Table of Contents” for the coming year. This may be especially true given the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought into our professional and personal lives—taking time for our own development as leaders has likely never been as important as it is now, as we attempt to lead well through constant change and challenge.

I first came upon the concept of a leadership development plan when writing a literature synthesis on effective professional development (PD) for Christian school leaders and teachers (Swaner 2016). In conducting research for that review, I came upon Kearney’s (2010) definition below (note that while principals are the focus of this quote, LDPs can be used by heads of school, director-level leaders, school board members, and any others who serve in a leadership role at a school):

A leadership development plan is an organizer for professional learning that ties directly to a principal’s goals as mutually determined by the principal and his or her supervisor. Taking into consideration the principal’s past evaluation results and recommendations, current school targets, and resources available for professional development, the principal and supervisor establish these professional development goals, select activities, identify what will be considered evidence of accomplishment, arrange scheduling and funding, and establish check-in points for feedback and adjustments. These agreements are captured in the leadership development plan and become components of the principal’s annual performance review. (24)

As noted by Kearney, although most school leaders are evaluated on an annual basis, the evaluation process is not the same thing as an LDP. An evaluation is retrospective, meaning that it looks backward on a leader’s performance over the year. An LDP is proactive, meaning it sets the agenda for the leader’s future learning over the coming year. And actually, when a leader has an LDP in place, the annual evaluation becomes that much more meaningful, as the leader can trace intentional steps taken toward growth and improved performance.

Benefits of a Leadership Development Plan

Anyone who serves in a leadership capacity at a Christian school can benefit from an LDP for the following reasons:

1. Personal growth and accountability.

The impetus for creating an LDP can be found at the intersection of two adages: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and, “What gets measured gets done.” The life of a school leader is frenetic, leaving little time for reflection on one’s personal and professional growth. Often leaders are so busy attending to the needs of others—whether faculty, students, staff, or parents—that they forget to think of themselves as professionals who are in need of intentional development and support. LDPs remedy this situation by requiring leaders to think proactively about their growth needs and create a concrete plan to meet those needs. Moreover, the LDP provides an accountability measure for both the leader and the leader’s supervisor(s) and can be used to support regular conversations about the leader’s development over the year.

2. Prioritizing leaders’ development.

Typically, much of the PD focus at a school is on teachers. An easy way to gauge this is to take a look at the school budget and calculate the amount spent (on average) per year per teacher, as compared with the amount spent per leader. As importantly, we can examine the amount of time teachers spend in PD tailored to their needs per year, as compared with the amount of time school leaders spend in PD targeting their growth. It’s likely that at most schools, the amount of resources going to the individual teacher’s development far outpaces that allocated to the individual leader.

This is not to suggest that there should be parity between resources allocated for faculty growth and for leaders, but instead to point out that there is room for additional financial and time investment in the latter—which ultimately can have a cascading benefit for all school faculty and staff. As leaders grow in their capacity to lead, they can do a better job of developing all other school constituents. When we help a leader to grow, we help that leader support the growth of everyone at the school.

To this end, an LDP provides an organizing tool for allocating targeted resources (in the form of both finances and time) that leaders need to develop their skills and abilities. Whether attending conferences (virtual or live), joining professional networks, completing needed academic coursework, enrolling in  online seminars, or engaging with a leadership coach, the LDP lays out the resources that can help support a leader to work toward professional growth and performance improvement targets. Negotiating their LDPs with the board or a supervisor can help leaders advocate for the finances and release time to attend to their professional growth.

3. Leading by modeling.

Most Christian schools require their faculty to complete some kind of professional growth plan (PGP) which is assessed during an annual evaluation toward the end of the academic year. When it comes to whether leaders in schools should also have an LDP, the question is simple: how can we require something of our faculty that we are not willing to do ourselves? Successful leadership involves leading by example, and taking one’s professional growth seriously is no different. Modeling that growth through an LDP helps leaders demonstrate to faculty that professional learning is a priority at the school. If the school seeks to be a community of learners, then all community members—whether students, faculty, staff, or leaders—need to be demonstratively committed to learning and improving.

Developing the LDP

Along these lines, a good place to start in developing an LDP is to examine what is being required of faculty. Does the school have an effective PGP template in place for teachers? If so, the template can be reviewed to see if and how it can be revised to serve a school leader. Of course the tasks and supports in an LDP will be different than in a PGP, but the overall format used may be similar. Using a similar format helps to establish congruence between what is required of teachers and what is required of leaders. Additionally, leaders from different schools can connect to share ideas and LDP templates, and networks of schools can make focused planning for individual leaders’ development an emphasis.

Regardless of format, and per Kearney’s (2010, 24) description, components of the LDP should include:

  1. Mutually-determined goals, based on leaders’ past evaluations and current school needs;
  2. Activities selected to support those goals;
  3. schedule and funding allocation for those activities;
  4. Agreed-upon evidence of accomplishment of goals; and
  5. A schedule for monitoring the LDP, with opportunities for check-ins to track progress, provide feedback, and make adjustments.

Fostering a Culture of Improvement and Growth

In each of the conferences and virtual events where I have mentioned leadership development plans, I challenged those present to return to their schools and immediately set up a meeting with their board or supervisor to begin working on one. One of the best outcomes of developing an LDP can be the conversation between leaders and their board or supervisor. Such conversations can help develop shared values and language around school improvement, as well as develop trust and encourage an environment of growth for all school constituents. Having all school members commit to growth plans sends a powerful, culture-shaping message that “we’re all on this journey together”—which after 2020, is a very encouraging message for 2021.


Kearney, K. 2010. Effective principals for California schools: Building a coherent leadership development system. San Francisco: WestEd.

Swaner, L. E. 2016. Professional development for Christian school educators and leaders: Frameworks and best practices. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.

[Editor’s Note: This post was adapted by the author from her earlier post at the ACSI Blog].

Author Lynn Swaner

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

More posts by Lynn Swaner

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply

Women Leaders for Christian Education