School leadership: theory and practice
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).
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.
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