Modern Leadership & Modern Schooling… a complicated relationship

There is growing evidence that educational organisations can substantial benefit from the adoption of modern leadership practices which empower teachers and share leadership. However, while theorists emphasis the benefits of these democratic power structures, the pressures in modern schools, with league tables,  accountability, and the need to satisfy multiple shareholders, make the sharing of leadership potentially risky – creating a situation in which there is a disconnect between the theories, ideals and realities of modern school leadership.

The concept of educational leadership has been undergoing a paradigm shift since the end of the 20th Century, moving from hierarchical structures of leadership, wherein a traditional ‘heroic’ school leader provides leadership and vision for the school (Harris and Spillane, 2008), towards teams of empowered teachers amongst whom leadership becomes ‘an emergent property of a group or network’ (Woods et al 2004, p441).

Central to this new approach is the belief that the sum of a team’s efforts is greater than that of the individual, expertise is spread throughout a team, and leadership should be ‘stretched’ across the individuals in these teams (Spillane, 2006). Conclusions drawn from research by Bell (2002), Glatter (2005), Birch (2007) and Harris (2012) have all pointed to the benefits of educators in schools contributing to change, innovation and leadership.

This shift towards shared leadership has been welcomed by critics of hierarchical management structures. Bell (2002) criticizes the ‘monopolizations of power’ (p 418) by senior management teams (SMT) who, despite their disconnect from classroom realties, often neglect the opinions of experienced classroom teachers, and he calls for a more democratic approach to planning and leadership in schools.  Glatter (2005) also argues that SMT’s ‘central planning and command-and-control approaches are regarded as having serious limitations’(p 383) and concludes that there are inherent weaknesses in hierarchical management structures.

The transition towards shared leadership has occurred in many schools as a result of the increased complexity of modern educational institutions, which can no longer be efficiently managed by one individual (Murphy, 2002) and the ‘growing acknowledgement that old organizational structures will not meet these challenges.’

Furthermore, the experience, expertise and understanding of classroom realities, which teachers possess, places them in the optimal position to contribute to school development because they have ‘front-line knowledge of classroom issues and the culture of schools, and they understand the support they need to do their jobs well’ (Paulu and Winters, 1998, p. 7).

Modern leadership models, which share leadership across teams of educators, have gained increasing coverage in educational literature (Little, 2003) but there continues to be a lack of consensus regarding these concepts and the terminology, with a breadth of different terms applied by different educators, which include; team leadership (Barth, 1999), democratic leadership (Furman & Starratt, 2002), shared leadership (Lambert, 2002), collective leadership (Friedrich, 2011) and distributed leadership (Gronn, 2000, Spillane 2006).

Given the abundance of concepts and terminology, it is of little surprise that among the literature there is some duplication and disagreement. However, one trait which these theories all share is that leadership no longer emanates from one ‘heroic’ individual, it is instead shared among multiple individuals who work as a team for the benefit of the organization.

For the purpose of this s
tudy I will be referring to the leadership model known as distributed leadership, a concept which also suffers from a lack of consensus. To begin with I will clarify my interpretation of distributed leadership, starting with Stroey’s summary, ‘the fundamental premise of the concept of distributed leadership is that leadership should not be accreted into the hands of a sole individual but, on the contrary, they should be shared between a number of people in an organization or team’ (Storey 2004 in Mayrowetz 2008)

It could be argued that Storey’s definition be equally applied to other leadership models such as democratic leadership, and this is a valid point –  but what differentiates distributed leadership from other leadership models are three properties which were originally identified by  Nigel Bennett and Christine Wise (Bennett et al 2003).

1, an emergent property of a group or network interacting

2, an openness of the boundaries of leadership

3, the belief that expertise is distributed across the many not the few

shared leadership

Benefits of Distributed leadership

Research has revealed a number of benefits for educational organisations which adopt distributed leadership including; improved decision making, improved teacher motivation, sustainable leadership, and improved commitment to the institution’s vision, innovations and goals.

By including classroom teachers in the planning process, teachers’ insights, regarding the learning environments and the specific needs of the institution’s learners, can improve decision making. Research also suggests that as teachers are given more opportunity to participate in leadership, their commitment to organizational goals increases, as they realise their expertise and opinions are valued. As Barth explains, the ‘satisfaction that comes from improving their schools; a sense of instrumentality, investment, and membership in the school community; and new learning about schools, about the process of change, and about themselves” (Barth, 2001, p. 449). Finally, by empowering more individuals to contribute to school leadership, teachers experience professional growth through the opportunity to develop leadership abilities (Leithwood, 2006), which increases the overall capability of the institution.


Challenges of Distributed leadership

Despite the evidence that distributed leadership can be beneficial for school development, there are many dilemmas inherent in the implementation on this concept (Wright, 2008), which include: ambiguity, conflict, abuse of power, accountability and a lack of robust evidence supporting the argument that this approach actually enhances student achievement (Leithwood et al., 2007). It is these challenges that complicate the relationship between modern schools and modern leadership theory.

Margolis and Huggins (2012) argued that one of the primary factors hindering distributed leadership was ambiguity and the lack of clear roles for teacher leaders, identifying three negative ramifications which often result from ambiguity; misuse, underuse and inefficient use. Harris’ (2012), who champions the benefits of teacher-led change and innovation, also highlighted the importance of clear tangible goals in order to, ‘generate a coherent and clear set of limited goals with a clear moral purpose’ (p 399) and avoid conflict resulting from ambiguity.

Another potential complication with distributed leadership can be the abuse of power (Maxcy and Nruyen, 2006). As more teachers are involved in leadership and decision making, there is increased potential for individuals to abuse this power. In these situations the abuse of power can take many forms including, the shirking of responsibilities, unnecessary delegation, interacting with team members in a non-democratic fashion and taking on roles which fall outside areas of responsibilities – factors which can cause conflict and be detrimental to the running of school.

Another paradox of modern schooling is that while leadership theory has moved towards openness and democracy, accountability has remained fixed to a traditional hierarchical model. If decisions made by teaching teams negatively impact student learning, it will be the school’s senior management team who are held accountable. As Harris explains, ‘DL is a risky business and may result in the distribution of incompetence’ (Harris 2004) and these concerns often make school leaders reluctant to empower teachers.

According to proponents of distributed leadership, there have been numerous studies over the last two decades which indicate a “powerful relationship between distributed forms of leadership and positive organizational change” (Harris et al. as cited in Harris & Spillane, 2008). However, these claims have been contested by critics who argue that the evidence, at the levels of classroom practice and student learning, is sparse and the ’empirical body of literature has several major limitations’.

A Complicated Relationship..

The culmination of these potentially negative outcomes complicate the adoption of modern leadership models, and may result in schools negotiating compromises between theories and realities, as Leithwood (2007) suggests, “for greatest impact some leadership functions need to be performed by those in particular positions or with special expertise, not just anyone in the organization” (p. 57).


Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator

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