Developmental Stages for Leaders and PLCs - Steve Barkley

Developmental Stages for Leaders and PLCs

In a paper that focuses on developing leaders, Nick Petrie, illustrates that our thinking is influenced by our developmental stages similar to Piaget’s identification of children’s developmental stages. He identifies a challenge.

Whereas children move rapidly through the stages, an adult’s pace of development slows dramatically, almost to the point of plateauing. In addition, while a child’s development appears to happen automatically, adults cannot simply sit back and wait; now they need to work to keep growing.

“To be effective, the leader’s thinking must be equal or superior to the complexity of the environment.”  (Nick Petrie)

Petrie shares a model that combines the thinking of Harvard’s Kegan and Lahey with the Center for Creative Leadership’s McGuire and Rhodes. (Petrie, Vertical Leadership Development–Part 1 Developing Leaders for a Complex World, page 5)
The first stage is labeled as a developmental confirmer.

  • Team player
  • Faithful follower
  • Reliant on authority
  • Seeks directions
  • Aligns with others

As I read those descriptors, I could envision teachers with these attributes being tapped by administrators for middle-level leader roles as team leaders or heads of departments. These leaders have the skills to carry out plans and programs. They are dependable.

I see the same characteristics being descriptive of many PLCs. These PLCs look to the administrator or the instructional coach to set the agendas and tasks for their work. When an idea emerges for some change in practice, the question “Can we do that?” emerges rather quickly.

The second stage is labeled as independent-achiever.

  • Independent thinker
  • Self-directed
  • Drives an agenda
  • Takes a stand for what they believe
  • Guided by internal compass

The characteristics of the independent-achiever appear to me as the developmental outcomes a school leader would look to have middle-level leaders develop. As I think back to my early experiences in leadership at school, I imagine that my school leader offered me the opportunity to lead a grade level team as he observed that I possessed the developmental confirmer characteristics. Petrie states, “…. in a simple and orderly world, the dependent conformed mind-set might be more than adequate.”

As my principal brought the team leaders together to create a schoolwide leadership team, I think a need for the independent-achiever criteria emerged. As the team leader for the K-2 teachers, I was responsible to represent their thinking and concerns to the schoolwide team. I was also being asked to think more broadly about the needs of all students, staff, and community.

Petrie describes the demands on leaders in a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous “….everything is interconnected and no one can predict what big changes are coming next. Leaders who are equal to the task are those who can deal with constant ambiguity, notice the key patterns amongst the noise, and look at the world through multiple stakeholder perspectives.

The third developmental level is labeled interdependent collaborator.

  • Independent thinker
  • Sees systems, patterns, and connections
  • Longer term thinker
  • Holds multi-frame perspectives
  • Holds contradictions

Magnifying Glass with the word Future on white background.

In this video, Ray McNulty, speaking about AASA’s 2025 Network, describes the need to move from school leaders being forward focused (How do we get a little better than last year?) to futured focused ( Where do we need to go and how can we get there?) I believe that future focus requires advancing leadership development across the school organization.

Are we planning for and supporting the continuous development of leaders?

Consider movement in these areas. Where is your personal progress? How are you encouraging all staff to be developing as leaders?

As I explored Petrie’s developmental stages I found it set a framework that I could use in my coaching of teachers, middle level leaders, and principals. Listening to the person I am coaching I can identify indications of the thinking framework they are working from and consider opportunities that can allow experimentation with behaviors that encourage extending development.

I am also considering that the developmental progression aligns with the development of PLCs. In the early stages, teachers are seeking directions working from an agenda often established by others. Hopefully, they begin collaborating to accomplish assigned tasks. As the PLC develops, teachers are driving the agenda, setting goals, and holding themselves accountable for outcomes. (Independent achiever) Protocols may assist a PLC at the developmental confirmer stage and then not be necessary as the PLC becomes more independent. When PLCs function at the independent collaborator stage they are promoting improvement and change across the school.

Let me know your thoughts about a leadership development continuum.

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One Response to “ Developmental Stages for Leaders and PLCs ”

  1. Dr Tracy Ocasio Says:


    This is awesome. I enjoyed reading about this analogous thinking applied to developing leaders. I was in a meeting this week that talked about coaching and as I read it realized that being cognizant of this development is essential for effective coaching.

    Always a provocative presentation of information that is relevant to our work!


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