10 Roles of Effective Project-Based Learning Leaders

By Tom Vander Ark, Bonnie Lathram and Emily Liebtag
We live in a project-based world. Consider these examples of leaders in business and education that organize their work into projects:

  • A senior project manager leads an engineering team to design a new airfoil for an airplane, managing a large staff based in multiple countries to coordinate design, creation and go to market strategy.
  • A marketing manager leads a large team to design campaigns to promote new virtual reality apps and games (that goes viral).
  • A high school principal leads a working group of committed teachers and community-based partners to redesign the school’s credit-based transcript to become a competency-based transcript.

In the new publication, Leadership for Learning: What is Leadership’s Role in Supporting Students?, the authors write that “leadership is the art of enabling a learning community to move from current to future state by continuously and dramatically improving its capacity to enable better outcomes for all students through influence on the organization itself, its stakeholders and the systems within which it operates.”
Leaders need to manage and lead a myriad of different projects and people. In our Project-Based World campaign, we are asking: What skills, dispositions and mindsets do leaders need to be effective leaders in a project-based world?
We believe leaders should experience the same types of learning experiences they wish to create for teachers and students. As we wrote in Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning:

Leadership Competencies

It’s worth looking at a few other frameworks for leadership competencies and development ideas. In Leadership for Learning, the authors include five key dimensions of leadership. They are:

  • Shared Vision
  • Values
  • Culture
  • Capacity Building
  • Accountability and Trust

Within the five dimensions, the authors include Knowledge and Skills, Supporting Dispositions and Contextual Understanding of each.
Lyle Kirtman and Michael Fullan included seven competencies for whole system change in their book, Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change. They are:

  • Challenges the status quo;
  • Builds trust through clear communication and expectations;
  • Creates a commonly owned plan for success;
  • Focuses on team over self;
  • Has a high sense of urgency for change and sustainable results in improving student achievement;
  • Has a commitment to continuous improvement for self and organization; and
  • Builds external networks and partnerships.

In Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning, we write about the 10 roles that leaders play in leading towards deeper learning. As we discussed in Preparing Students for a Project-Based World and Preparing Teachers for a Project-Based World, a school commitment to high-quality project-based learning (PBL) can support the equitable preparation of students for college, career and citizenship.
In schools that value engagement and inquiry, we tend to see 10 roles that leaders play. Although this blog pertains to leaders in the education sector, we think the roles below pertain to leaders in many different fields and types of organizations.

10 Roles of Effective PBL Leaders

1. Conversation Leader. The leader brings in community, students, business partnerships and invites them to co-construct the work. They create a positive social media presence and make it easy for people to contribute to the work. They embrace the paradox of creating powerful learning experiences. They listen well and know their community. They construct agreements that balance improvement and innovation.

  • Outcome: Series of community agreements

2. Vision Builder. Leaders share pictures of powerful learning. They name current realities and challenge the status quo. They lead conversation about how the world is changing and what graduates should know and be able to do. They make the case for challenging project-based work. They build shared commitments for difficult work in phases and a reallocation of resources. As we heard at Bulldog Tech, a project-based learning school in San Jose, leaders should be firmly commitment to vision and mission and flexible on how teachers (and students) get there.

  • Outcome: Shared vision

3. Advocate for All Students. Leaders commit to deeper learning for all students, regardless of background or skill. Bob Lenz, executive director of Buck Institute for Education (BIE), writes, “With quality Project Based Learning, we do not have to choose one group of students over another to focus our efforts. Quality Project Based Learning provides equity for students furthest from opportunity while enhancing the opportunities of those who already have it. We call that a win/win.”

  • Outcome: Shared values and a commitment to equity

4. Design Thinker. Leaders focus on learning–both educators and students. They model a growth mindset and learn from mistakes. They stay aware of new developments and emerging trends. They think about systems that support educators and students. They identify, according to CIE, as lead learner and “chief curiosity officer.” They use a structured approach to identifying, testing, and refining new strategies.

  • Outcome: Learning organization

5. Distributive Leader. Leading for deeper learning means sharing and distributing leadership roles and responsibilities across the system. It means moving beyond positional authority as “the leader” to creating a “system of leadership” that acknowledges leadership at the classroom, grade and school level. They demonstrate and values empathy.

  • Outcome: Organization of leaders

6. Community Catalyst. Leaders align the work of partners around a common goal and metrics for increased collective impact. Success is created through shared transparency, shared responsibility, collaboration and interdependence. This leader has a solid grasp of the public systems, orgs, groups and engages learning partners.

  • Outcome: Partnerships that support the work

7. Smart Innovator. The leader expects he or she will have to take risks and maybe even break rules. Jeff Petty, director of Puget Sound Consortium for Secondary Innovation, a Big Picture Learning initiative, said, “The prevailing structure of rules is obviously not working well enough,” Jeff said. “School leaders making real equity breakthroughs have figured out how to innovate and push the systems they are in without getting fired. Emerging leaders need to be exposed to those very different approaches to school design (the innovaTIONS) as well as mentors who are skillful rulebreakers (the innovaTING), so they can develop this mindset. Instead of finding out what the rules are, the leaders we need are guided by a strong vision of what is best for kids.”

  • Outcome: Successful innovations taken to scale

8. Change Manager. Leaders build systems that improve educator effectiveness. The leader breaks the change agenda into manageable projects. They assign projects to emerging leaders in the system as a developmental opportunity in a distributed system of leadership. The leader acknowledges when something is successful (working) and when something is not. They celebrate successes and failure. They produce a system exhibits openness, trust, responsiveness, fairness, inclusion

  • Outcome: Coherent change agenda, distributed leadership opportunities, effective educators and systems that support them

9. Policy Advocate. Advocate for the context and conditions that will support educator and students success including broader aims (embracing deeper learning outcomes), authentic assessment and demonstrations of learning, weighted funding that reflects actual challenges, and investment in quality preparation and capacity building for teachers.

  • Outcome: Policies and resources that support educator and students success

10. Innovation Mindset. The leader supports structures and systems to scale ideas. The leader abandons practices when they no longer make sense and commits to those practices that work for the students and staff.

  • Outcome: Strong staff and retention; growth opportunities for teacher leaders

Leadership Renewal

In addition to the 10 roles, leaders reflect regularly. Here are some questions leaders ask themselves regularly through reflection:

  • How can I view all of my work through the lens of projects?
  • How can I take normal tasks and typical work and make them more public and even illicit feedback publicly?
  • How can I showcase and model doing new things in my role as a leader?
  • How can I model and follow a project process in a way that is public?
  • Do I plan out my projects and take time to reflect?
  • How can I show to all in the organization, including students and families, that I embrace innovation? (See 23 Questions to Cultivate Deeper Learning Mindsets for more ideas on PD questions for reflection).
  • Outcome: Nuance that avoids unintended consequences; schools & organizations that reflect are nimble and responsive

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page.

pbl world.png

Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Talent Developer is an important role, one that warrants it's own category (included in change mngt above). Could also note the importance of Provisioning Infrastructures for Learning (buildings, transport, access devices, learning platform, systems)

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