How to Nurture Leadership with a Community of Practice

a community of practice team works toward growthAre you aspiring to be a great team leader? What does that involve? I love this quote by Orrin Woodward, “Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.”

In any goal-oriented community, we learn and grow by observing and practicing in a safe space with other learners.  I’ve found that the establishment of Communities of Practice for leaders to share, develop and learn about leadership is a way to aid in the growth of burgeoning leaders exponentially. Not only does the primary leader becoming more effective in their own work, but all members of the community also become powerful thought partners for each other.

I first learned about Communities of Practice (CoP) from renowned social learning thought leader Etienne Wenger-Trayner. The idea resonated with me because, even though the term is new, it’s a well-founded practice that’s been used for generations. Since then, I’ve been involved in studying the CoP development process and training teams to benefit from it.

Recently, I was the team leader on a three-year Site Leader Community of Practice (SLCOP) study that was tested in seven school districts across California. Before the Community of Practice was established, the site leaders (school principals) were isolated from their peers, and as a result, there was little opportunity to network amongst each other.

The SLCOP was dedicated to bringing these principals together to share their triumphs and challenges. The Community of Practice also set the stage for the kind of reciprocal learning that supported the principals to become as smart as the aggregated whole rather than their individual site level cycle of fits, starts and, by comparison, slower growth.

One of the fascinating things we learned about CoPs is the way that groups predictably move through a developmental arc specific to authentic communities of practice.

This “Arc of Development” was revealed as…

  • Over time, ongoing, enforced habits created a group culture that continually supported relationship building and group coherence.  
  • Once relational trust was established, the group members were able to shift from having transactional discussions to transformational discussions. From communication that is simply interactive to communication that was redefining.
  • This provided the foundation for principals to deepen their sense of agency, both at their own site as well as across the district.
  • A strategic thought process was adopted that helped them see the relationship between their actions, teacher practice, and student achievement.
  • Participating principals now had a voice inside the district.
  • This resulted in a reciprocal learning dynamic when districts were willing to invest in the development of leadership agency.  

When we surveyed principals about their experience of the learning space created by SLCOPs, the statement that always received the highest score was, “I supported and was supported by my colleagues”. This is consistent with social learning theory that emphasizes the importance of the reciprocal nature of the learning process.

The main, as well as most important, phenomenon we observed as SLCOPs developed was the accountability site leaders felt toward each other and their capacity to understand the context and needs of each other’s school sites.  This attitude showed a significant shift from the traditional competitiveness experienced among high school principals, beyond even trading best practices and networking, to a place where true collaboration, shared understanding and coherence is achieved!

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve as a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose.


Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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