Building Leadership Skills for Administrators Through ‘Manufactured’ Experience

Guest post by Ken Spero

There is a silent crisis undermining school reform. The data below paint a stark picture of the challenge facing the education space today. In any major organizational change effort, especially in a context as complex as the education system, leadership is a key ingredient to success.

Of course “leadership” can be defined in many different ways, and it is clear that different forms of leadership are required for different situations. However, the ability to communicate, coordinate, and make decisions is key under any circumstance. What makes the education leadership job so challenging is that those abilities are rife with “painful” trade-offs that make them difficult to do under the best of circumstances.

The role of leadership in education is particularly challenging. Nowhere do we have a group of stakeholders whose demands are more exclusive of each other and where each one can be more irrational than the next. Students, teachers, parents, unions, communities, districts, states, government, etc.—it is practically impossible to satisfy one without potentially upsetting at least one other. This makes the challenge not just about making good decisions, which is challenging enough, but also about being prepared for the negative consequences that are sure to follow from one or more of the stakeholders that view the issue differently.

Simulations for Judgment and Decision-making

ken spero blog image

A screenshot of an education leadership simulation program from

From a professional development perspective, we can provide leaders with frameworks, insight, strategies, and even support for this challenge, but making decisions in this challenging and evolving context is not something you can master because the minefield is constantly shifting, and the consequences manifest clearly in the data below.
Experience is really the only way that leaders can become better at making good decisions, and good experience is often the result of making mistakes, failing, and having the wherewithal to learn from it. How do we provide leaders with the opportunity to fail forward but in a way that is not so painful as to cause burnout and early exits?

This is where the role of simulation comes in. By capturing realistic and engaging scenarios that manifest the different inherent challenges and enable leaders to practice exercising judgment, experience the consequences of their decisions, and get feedback on what was going on, participants get the opportunity to gain experience without the pain of the ‘school of hard knocks.’

Here are some disturbing data points:

  • Low-achieving, high-poverty schools face twice the leadership turnover rates of other schools and generally fill positions with the least experienced leaders
  • Low-achieving, high-poverty schools experience 30 percent annual turnover
  • More than 60 percent of urban superintendents cannot recruit or retain qualified principals
  • More than 45 percent of superintendents turn over every three years
  • Reasons most often sighted for turnover relate to burnout caused by interpersonal challenges and conflicts

You can learn more about this topic when I present a session titled, “Leadership Simulations for Professional Development of Experienced and Aspiring School Leaders” at NASSP’s Ignite ’16 conference in February. Visit to learn more and register.

Ken Spero is CEO of Ed Leadership Sims, whose objective is to use computer-based simulation to build resilience, leadership skills, and decision-making capacity for K-12 administrators. Ken is also outside faculty, teaching Experience Design and Simulation Technology in the CLO Learning Leadership doctoral program offered by the Graduate School of Education and Wharton at UPenn.

1 Comment

  • Robert T. "Bo" Myers says:

    Experience and a thick skin are required to be a leader in any field. The “politics of dancing” with so many partners requires skills that come from risk taking and constant self-reflection.

    Study the the Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. The ability to understand that it is about keeping the mission in sight rather than focusing on your mistakes will help one be successful in educating the kids.

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