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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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School leadership: theory and practice

Association of Independent Schools of Queensland

Curriculum Leadership Vol1 No23, 8 August 2003

An immense volume of leadership theory has been produced over the past twenty years but there is still no consensus around effective school leadership. Much of the literature fails to accurately reflect leadership practices in schools and has over-relied on the accounts of principals to define effective leadership in action (Harris, 2002; Razik and Swanson, 2001; Owens, 2001; Morrison, 2002).

The dominant model over the past decade or so has been the notion of 'transformational leadership'. This model has its origins in non- educational settings (Burns 1978) but the work of Leithwood et al (1999), Sergiovanni (1990; 2000) and others has translated transformational leadership theory to education.

Leithwood et al (1999) have identified six dimensions of transformational leadership: building school vision and goals; intellectual stimulation; individualised support; symbolising professional practices and values; demonstrating high performance expectations; and developing structures to foster participation in school decisions. In addition, Leithwood and Jantzi (2000) include four dimensions of transactional leadership in their model:

  • establishing effective staffing practices
  • providing instructional support
  • monitoring school activities and
  • providing community focus.
Central to most transformational leadership roles is the notion of charisma; the notion that has seen principals carefully articulating a vision for their schools that inspires followers to higher levels of commitment and performance (Bryman, 1992). However, transformational leadership theory has come under criticism on the grounds that it is only a partial theory of leadership in that it remains very one-person centred and does not fully take into account the context in which leadership is exercised, and other personal dimensions that may be important. Gurr (1997) for example, argues for the addition to the model of the following dimensions:

  • educational leaders as leaders of learners
  • moral leadership
  • accountability and
  • responsiveness to change
while Day and colleagues (2000) talk about post-transformational leadership which is values-led and includes:

  • values and visions - personal alignment with organisational alignment
  • integrity - consistency of integrity of actions
  • context - understanding internal/external environments, adaptive, balance between involving others and taking individual action
  • continuing professional development - power with and through others
  • reflection - developing the self (Gurr, 2001).
A recent theory which is receiving much attention and growing empirical support (Gronn, 2000; Spillaine et al. 2001) is the notion of 'distributive leadership'. In their recent review of successful school improvement efforts, Glickman et al. (2001:49) cite varied sources of leadership, including distributed leadership at the top of the list of what makes successful schools. Similarly, Silns and Mulford (2002) found that where leadership sources are distributed throughout the school community, student outcomes are more likely to improve. This is particularly so if teachers are empowered in areas of importance to them.

Distributive leadership contrasts to traditional notions of hierarchic leadership and systems in that it is a form of collective leadership in which teachers develop expertise by working collaboratively. This distributive view of leadership requires schools to subscribe to the view that leadership resides not solely in the individual at the top, but in every person at entry level who, in one way or another, acts as a leader (Goleman, 2002). Distributive leadership therefore allows all members of the school community the opportunity to provide leadership and make decisions within the framework of the school culture and mission.

Distributive leadership does not, of course, suggest that the school principal is not ultimately responsible for the overall performance of the organisation, however, the nature of this formal leadership role becomes 'primarily to hold the pieces of the organisation together in a productive relationship, ...[and] to create a common culture of expectations around the use of individual skills and abilities' (Harris, 2002). In this way schools can maximise the human capacity within their organisations.

Distributive leadership is, however, more than just 'delegated headship' where unwanted tasks are handed down to others, and is less concerned with individual capabilities and skills than with creating collective responsibility for leadership action and activity (Harris & Chapman, 2002).

In schools where distributive leadership has been successful, roles have not simply been imposed by management. Rather teachers have been involved in the process of deciding on what roles, if any, they wish to take on and they have received the support of school management throughout. The school culture has also been encouraging of change and leadership from teachers.

One of the barriers to successful distributive leadership is that it requires the principal and other school leaders to relinquish power and control to others. This is not just a challenge to authority and ego but also challenges the structure of school leadership which, generally, is premised on maintaining the bureaucratic and hierarchical structure.

The success or otherwise of distributive leadership is also dependent on the quality of relationships with other teachers and school management. Since teachers may not have a formal leadership 'title', their ability to influence colleagues may be reduced and they may, in fact, be resented by those teachers who do not take on leadership roles. In addition, management may feel threatened by particularly able teachers and, either consciously or unconsciously, undermine their influence.

Valentine (1999) suggests that distributive leadership may be viewed more as abdication of responsibility than diffusion of ownership. Leadership, he says, begins with a 'transformational' principal who establishes a belief system and related practices that disperse leadership and ownership for success across a wide segment of the school faculty. While it is important for principals to make statements about quality educational practice (instructional leadership) and establish effective and efficient policies and routines (managerial leadership), this alone is not enough. Similarly, creating structures and opportunities for distributing leadership responsibilities will not meet the tenets of transformational leadership.

What must happen is for the principal to transform school culture so that all teachers see the importance of accepting the challenge of ownership for student success. When teachers accept that what they do, both within the classroom and working collaboratively outside of the classroom, is critical to student success, then the conditions for distributive leadership are established (Valentine, 1999); and leadership becomes central to the work of all teachers.

This article was first published in AISQ Briefings, July 2003.


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Bryman, A. (1992), Charisma and Leadership in Organisations, Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Day, C. Harris, A et al (2000), Leading Schools in Times of Change, London: Open University Press
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Gronn, P. (2000), Distributed Properties: A New Architecture for Leadership, Educational Management and Administration, Vol. 28, No. 3
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Harris, A. (2002), Distributed Leadership in Schools: Lead or Misleading www.icponline.org/features_articles/f14_02.htm
Harris, A. and Chapman, C. (2002), Effective Leadership in Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances, Final Report, NCSL
Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D. & Steinbech, R. (1999), Changing Leadership for Changing Times, Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press
Leithwood, K. & Jantzi, D. (2000), The Effects of Transformational Leadership on Organisational Conditions and Student Engagement with School, Journal of Educational Administration, 38
Morrison, K. (2002), School Leadership and Complexity Theory, London: Routledge Falmer.
Owens, R. (2001). Organisational Behaviour in Education: Instructional leadership and school reform, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon
Razik, T. and Swanson, A. (2001), Fundamental Concepts of Educational Leadership, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc
Sergiovanni, T. (1990), Value Added Leadership: How to get Extraordinary Performance in Schools, San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Jovanich
Sergiovanni, T. (2000), The Lifeworld of Leadership: Creating Culture, Community and Personal Meaning in our Schools, San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Silns, H. and Mulford, B. (2002), Leadership and School Results, Second International Handbook of 4Educational Leadership and Administration (in press)
Spillane, J., Halverson, R. and Diamond, J. (2001) Towards a Theory of Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective, Northwestern University, Institute for Policy Research Working Article
Valentine, J. (1999), Framework for Continuous School Improvement: A Synthesis of Essential Concepts, www.icponline.org/feature_articles/ f9_02.htm


Subject Headings

School principals