At the Core of Learner-Centered Schools: Leadership Soul

Voices from the Field   20 March 2024
By Carlos Moreno


We need to nurture our leadership soul. I propose a transformation of traditional leadership competencies by infusing the three missing dimensions of love, care, and vulnerability.

Carlos Moreno
Co-Executive Director, Big Picture Learning

Let me begin by affirming an axiom: leaders and leadership matter. And, I’ll continue with an observation: leaders in many parts of society are failing their communities in addressing the challenges our nation, communities, and schools face. These failings in schools include post-COVID absenteeism, the significant loss of high-quality learning opportunities for students, and the denigration of parents’ authority with respect to their children’s education. Because of these failings, we are less trusting of our leaders in their competence, capacity, and commitment. In my new book, Finding Your Leadership Soul (ASCD Books), I describe my own leadership journey.

In education, leadership is desperately needed to ensure every young person’s success, especially students who have been historically kept furthest from quality opportunities—because of their race or economic circumstances—to high-quality learning opportunities. Conventionally, the response has been to beef up training for leaders in support of developing a mission and strategy, building an effective organization, and connecting to the community. As critical as these skills are, they’re not enough to escape the gravitational pull of the existing system, structures, and culture in schools that fail so many young people. We are unlikely to obtain the success we need as leaders without changing something more fundamental in our relationships with those we serve, young people and adults alike. 

If leadership is to continue to matter, we need to transform our thinking about training and support of leaders. This will, in turn, support the transformation of the learning opportunities schools provide to young people. I believe that we need something disruptive yet supportive. We need to nurture our leadership soul. I propose a transformation of traditional leadership competencies by infusing the three missing dimensions of love, care, and vulnerability (LCV).

Leading with and through love is about deepening our learning relationships with our students, knowing them as individuals, appreciating their talents and interests, and accepting without qualifications who they are and their aspirations for themselves.

Leading with and through care is about providing customized learning opportunities and learning environments that affirm and respond to the uniqueness of each student. Care is support for each student in realizing their own definition of success. Care avoids the impulse to label and group students rather than recognize and celebrate their uniqueness. 

Leading with and through vulnerability is about opening ourselves to our students—listening well to them when they feel safe and ready to share about themselves—and being ready to do so ourselves.

Here are a few insights that have emerged from this work and the focus on love, care, and vulnerability:

  • Thinking, learning, and performing as a transformational leader requires deep and sustained attention to LCV. It is a difference that will make a difference by changing how even traditional leadership responsibilities are fulfilled.
  • LCV is not an add-on to traditional leadership dimensions. It’s not a new set of tools you add to your toolbox or something done on weekends or on Monday morning before the daily work bear hugs you. Rather, LCV is infused into our entire current leadership practice.
  • When LCV is infused throughout all dimensions of leadership, we will serve every young person by putting their learning at the center. LCV can serve as the driving force behind a truly learner-centered school.
  • LCV applies to all students, of course, but also to the relationships among all adult learners that enable a truly learner-centered school.
  • LCV can serve as the animus for preparing young people as leaders in their schools and communities.

If leaders and leadership are to matter, then leaders and those who support them will need to bring love, care, and vulnerability—their leadership soul—into their thinking, learning, and performing.

Carlos Moreno
Co-Executive Director, Big Picture Learning

I believe we are incomplete as leaders without infusing LCV into our practice. I encourage us all to think proactively about the actions we can take each day to bring leadership soul into our journeys and the work. Here are a few actions I have observed in leaders who are leading with soul:

  • They create time, space, and opportunity for building LCV relationships, knowing each student and each other well, and using that new way of knowing to respond to student and adult needs and aspirations.
  • They deliberately share more about themselves, and encourage teachers and staff to do the same.
  • They develop behaviors and actions that use LCV as the foundation of the relationships that they wish to develop, first with themselves and then with others, individually and collectively.
  • They listen deeply to students as individuals to discover their stories, aspirations, interests, and talents. They then use that knowledge to design learning opportunities and environments that are responsive.
  • They examine with staff how increased attention to LCV can serve as a major influence for the culture, systems, and structure of school.

Lastly, consider these questions for you and your organization’s leadership soul: How does your organizational culture embody LCV? How might you infuse LCV into all of your work? How will your attention to LCV improve the relationships you form with young people and others you lead? How will your leadership soul help to reimagine and reinvent the current systems, structures, and cultures that support your leadership stance? 

These three dimensions of leadership soul emerged in my youth and deepened in my work at the Met School in Providence, RI, (where I served as a teacher and then a principal) and later in my work at Big Picture Learning (BPL), where I currently serve as Co-Executive Director. The Met provided the ideal environment for discovering what LCV might look like in practice. 

My journey includes helping to start two major BPL programs designed to prepare leaders who are particularly focused on improving learning opportunities for marginalized young people. These programs are:

Deep Learning Equity Fellows: BPL works with leaders from throughout the United States in an 18-month fellowship that prepares them to address the challenges of providing equitable access to deep learning for those young people furthest from opportunity. BPL started its sixth cohort in 2023. 

Ashé Fellowship: BPL is partnering with the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation to facilitate the Ashé Fellowship, an 18-month leadership development program to engage and support four-member “squads” of early-to-mid-career leaders of color who have the drive and ability to deliver uncommon, transformational leadership in their communities where inequities and disparities for youth persist. BPL started its second cohort in 2023.

Through fellowships like these, BPL helps leaders to 1) create new boxes to think outside of and formulate new ways of thinking, learning, and acting; 2) build networks, coalitions, and connections between and among peers, mentors, and experts in those networks; and 3) communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with other community leaders with respect to equity and learner-centered learning. The fellowships help leaders act with boldness to reach beyond the status quo and to find and use their voices to communicate a stance and acquire the power to act responsibly and tenaciously. We help fellows improve their peripheral vision to see and make connections and to make sense of the many equity initiatives in their communities. 

To date, we have provided these fellowships to more than 100 leaders in schools and communities throughout the country. A robust alumni community is thriving.

Leadership is a never-ending quest and journey. If leaders and leadership are to matter, then leaders and those who support them will need to bring love, care, and vulnerability—their leadership soul—into their thinking, learning, and performing. 

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