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Follow the Leader: School Principals in Training

"Leadership stories" is an approach used in the educational administration program at Colorado State University. Current school administrators serve as mentors, offering their​experiences -- their "leadership stories" -- to the next generation of school principals.

Think back to your first days as a school administrator.
Think back to the feelings you had of inadequacy or clumsiness.
Think back to the care you took with every decision -- large and small -- you made.

Such feelings shouldn't have been surprising. You were on new turf. And, chances are, the degree program you graduated from focused on the knowledge and the research that would serve you when you were offered that first administrative job.

But school administrators face complex problems that aren't solved by mastering of a handful of principles taught in a college classroom, says Arnold B. Danzig, a professor in the School of Education at Colorado State University. Expertise at handling such problems requires knowledge, practice, and experience.

"One of the common complaints about university coursework is that it fails to capture the complexities of the workplace," Danzig says. "Universities need to bridge the gap between theory and practice by drawing from the experiences of practicing professionals in the field."

To that end, Danzig has introduced to his graduate students an idea called leadership stories. "Leadership stories (or 'narrative research') is a powerful tool for connecting the privileged discourse of universities with the smart hands of experience -- of connecting theory to practice," adds Danzig.



Students in Danzig's Leadership Development class at CSU select and interview a school leader, often someone with whom they are currently working. The leader agrees to meet at least twice during the course of the semester.

The first session is an interview in which the student focuses on learning about the leader's background, their reasons for entering the profession, and the qualities that he or she feels are their strongest leadership qualities.

The second session focuses on a specific on-the-job problem -- a "real" school issue -- in which the leader played a leadership role.

The problem situation to be studied, according to the assignment, would be discrete rather than on-going and it would involve others inside and outside the school. Problems studied by Danzig's students have run the gamut and hve included these: school vandalism, a student fight, a student who threatens suicide, negotiating a teacher contract, a junior high school student who brings a weapon to school, personnel issues, a hostile and violent parent, a drunk student, and a hostage situation.

A student's understanding of the leader's background, motivation, and qualities gained in the first session is always helpful -- and often essential -- to understanding how the administrator handled the problem discussed in the later meeting.

All "leadership stories" are reviewed by the participating leaders for accuracy and to ensure that the story tellers were comfortable with the way they were presented in the story. Students are asked to conclude with reflections about their own leadership development.



"Leadership stories help students to see the big picture of leadership," says Danzig. "They get to see beyond 'the tip of the iceberg' as they learn how an administrator's background and values impact on the day-to-day decision-making process. They learn about some of the gray areas in which administrators operate."

"Their studies of one leader's story lead to new understandings of how expertise is gained in the real world," Danzig adds. "Students arrive at new understandings about themselves as they use their own knowledge and experiences to reflect on that story."

Students also learn from other students in the class who share their explorations of a "leadership story."

"Students learn as they listen," Danzig explains. "Vocabulary and concepts learned in the classroom are reinforced as a practicing leader relates details of a story that might involve issues of discipline, special needs, due process, safety, decision making, and more."

There's an added benefit.

"Stories provide an opportunity for practicing administrators to share their own experience with novices," Danzig adds. "It's important for students to have a mentor and many leaders enjoy the opportunity to share personal and professional experiences, especially with someone who is less experienced."

"And leaders enjoy hearing what their story means to another person."



Students draw many conclusions about leadership from the study of leadership stories. Some of the conclusions that Danzig's students have come to recently are:

  • Every leader has a set of core values. Those values differ from leader to leader, but usually include descriptors such as caring, empathy, and humanism. Some leaders' values boil down to a simple statement such as "There's a golden rule that I live byIf you're respectful of and honest with folksyou get that back." Others' values center around a vision for the school.
  • Most leaders express commitment and passion for the work they do, for having an opportunity to "reach out to teachers, parents and students in ways that have direct and meaningful impact on their lives."
  • People become leaders because they make choices (usually difficult choices at the time) to do something positive in their lives.
  • Leaders empower others by leading without power. Negotiation skills are essential to strong leaders. They must work with students, parents, school staff, and political leaders at all levels.
  • Leaders are often non-conformists who frequently question the status quo. They pride themselves on being spontaneous, intuitive, and risk-taking.
  • Leaders are surprised at their own success. None of them identified themselves as being a child prodigy or even as being successful in their early school years.
  • Leaders need mentors. The leadership stories repeatedly illustrate the value of being mentored.



"Narrative can play a very important part in the education of future school leaders," says Danzig. "Stories add a fullness to understanding what it is people do in their daily professional lives."

"Professionals need to understand not only the technical aspects of the job but moral basis of their work," Danzig adds. "Stories provide a more complete view of the meaning of professional practice."



Arnold B. Danzig, Ph.D., is the Program Chair of the Ph.D. Program in Educational Administration at Colorado State University (Fort Collins). Danzig has written numerous articles in the areas of leadership development and policy research. Among the articles that offer additional information about Danzig's research in leadership stories are:

  • "Can Leadership Be Taught? Writing and Reflecting on Stories of Practice" by Arnold Danzig, Educational Leadership and Administration, volume 9, Fall 1997.
  • "Leadership Stories: Implications for Reflective Practice and Standards-Driven Education," Research Brief, published by Colorado State University (May 1997). For a copy, write to Dr. Danzig, School of Education, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, or call (970)491-7624.
  • "Building Leadership Capacity By Writing and Reflecting on Stories of Practice," a paper presented by Arnold Danzig and Charles Porter at the annual conference of the National Conference of Professors of Educational Administration (Vail, Colorado; August 11-16, 1997).
  • "Leadership Stories: What Novices Learn By Crafting the Stories of Experienced School Administrators" by Arnold B. Danzig, Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1997.
  • "Building Competence by Writing and Reflecting on Stories of Practice" by Arnold Danzig and Kathleen C. Harris, Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1996.


  • Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by H. Gardner; Basic Books, New York, NY (1995).
  • The Reflective Turn: Case Studies In and On Educational Practice by D. Schon (Ed.); Teachers College Press, New York, NY (1991).
  • The Call of Stories by Robert Coles; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston (1989).

Article by Gary Hopkins
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Updated 06/17/2015