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Is Modeling Enough?

Leaders must be explicit if they want teachers and others to get the messages they’re trying to communicate.

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The last two decades have done little to reduce the managerial responsibilities of the school principal and, in many ways, their duties have increased. Such dramatic and radical changes have required educational leaders at all levels to become conscious of guiding and directing large-scale changes. But, as Sergiovanni (2001) said, the role of the principal is so rooted in managerial tasks that leading transformational change hasn’t been within the purview of the job. In fact, he said, principals have tended to either ignore or been “ambivalent” (p. 26) about symbolic leadership. From what I’ve seen and read, a principal’s modeling of behaviors alone may not be enough to ignite and sustain change.


I remember once walking down a school hallway, picking up paper and placing it in the trash container a few steps away thinking, “Doesn’t anybody else see this?” I can’t recall others picking up on my practice. I’ve come to believe that people interpreted the nonverbal message of my modeling behavior as, “He’s the principal, and it’s his job to keep the place tidy.” The individuals who interpreted my behavior weren’t picking up on the message that I intended, which means that my modeling was insufficient to send the message I wanted to send. My error was twofold. I had failed to grasp Sergiovanni’s assertion that leaders must help constituents make sense of what they observe the leader model. Further, I had ignored the six elements that are part of successfully communicating any message — symbolic or otherwise. Leaders use modeling effectively when their actions attend to the:

• Intended target audience;
• Message;
• Channels of articulation;
• Interference;
• Feedback; and
• Context.

Modeling Explained

My action of picking up trash was symbolically hollow. People were more quick to assume that caretaking duties were part of my job. I gave them no cause to believe otherwise or to be self-reflective about their beliefs that keeping the school tidy was a shared responsibility for everyone. My first error was thinking that actions alone speak louder than words. The leader’s actions must be consistent with the observers’ state of consciousness regarding the actions (White & Marx, 2011). If students and teachers aren’t conscious about the tidiness of the school or aren’t inwardly seeking a positive role model to inspire them to act, the leader’s symbolic act is lost. Sergiovanni argued that the “key to symbolic leadership is focusing the attention of others on matters of importance to the school” (2001, p. 24). He went on to explain that leaders signal the beliefs and values that underlie the action by using more explicit communications. In this way, others begin the process of making sense of symbolic messages. Effective symbolic leaders who use modeling understand that the real message is not “do as I do.” Rather, it is “value what I value — believe what I believe.” To gain this level of understanding, leaders must engage others in conversations that ignite self-reflection and sense making. As a trash-picking principal, I would have been a more successful leader using modeling by holding on to the piece of paper and waiting until I spotted some litter near some students. Seeing opportunity, I would have simply called out, “Hey, Jason, there’s some paper by your foot, can you help keep the place tidy and pick it up please? How about going for a two pointer in that trash can?” Crumpling the paper in my hand, I make my attempt. Regardless of the outcome of the playful challenge, I’ve made more explicit my message conveyed through my modeling, and I’ve invited others to share in the value of maintaining a tidy environment.

I became more aware of the challenge principals face in effectively communicating their vision and intentions for teaching and learning as I studied their instructional leadership practices. The stories of four principals (represented with pseudonyms) help to illustrate that modeling, as a channel of communication, is no easy task.

Carol Ross, a mid-career elementary school principal, had an understanding of modeling similar to mine. She characterized being a “role model” as one who “maintained contact with staff and students.” She described her instructional leadership actions as being a facilitator of resources and a participant in staff activities. Providing teachers with resources may send a symbolic message that the principal cares, but, more likely, the principal’s action reinforces a teacher’s belief that she is doing her managerial job correctly. High school principal Barry Lewis exemplified a more sophisticated understanding. “An administrator needs to demonstrate through their actions that instructional practice is an important part of the school climate,” he said. As a teaching principal, he collaborates in grade-level meetings and leads teachers in his school in discussions of how curriculum mapping could enhance student engagement.

Learning that symbolic leaders serving as models require actions and conversations that convey the values and beliefs surrounding the desired changes helped clarify my first error. Failing to help constituents consciously make sense of what is being modeled limits the leader’s influential use of modeling as a strategy for conveying messages about the values they hold and the behaviors that exemplify them. While modeling without consciousness-raising is tremendously important in letting teachers see who the principal really is, the mode of communicating is passive and ambiguous. As such, modeling allows individuals to misinterpret the symbolic message or ignore the message as irrelevant. My second error was failing to recognize that effective modeling is an active and strategic form of communication. By re-examining modeling through the lenses of the elements that constitute all communications, I became conscious of how some principals were successful using modeling to guide and direct change.

Six Elements of Communication

The six elements of communication apply when symbolic leaders model behaviors to communicate messages about either the behaviors or the values and beliefs behind them. Communication successes and failures can be better understood by examining the people involved, the type of message used, the channels used, the interference that distracts or distorts the message, the feedback provided to the messenger, and the context within which the message occurs (Simonds & Cooper, 2011). My own example of picking up paper may have been admirably altruistic, but if no one noticed because the channel of modeling was too subtle or because the hallway too crowded (context and interference), then the message was lost. I believed I was being a symbolic leader and modeling the behavior I wanted to see in others. The feedback I got didn’t tell me my message was wrong or culturally inappropriate, but it did tell me that communicating important messages by modeling is more complex than simply taking an action repeatedly in hopes that others will pick up on it.

Carl Taylor, a middle school vice-principal, expressed his frustration about how he works hard to model that teachers should work together, develop shared goals, and participate in professional discussions to develop a robust learning community. Yet, he reported that, at his school, there is “little sustained dialogue around current research and best practice, and that staff meetings are clerical with little dialogue among staff.” Taylor indicated he has presented important issues for discussion at faculty meetings and brought consultants to speak to teachers on topics that concern them. However, his messages are running into interference from the school principal and others who are happy with the status quo. The people with whom Taylor is communicating, through his modeling and verbal messages, have a different “frame of reference” (Simonds & Cooper, 2011, p. 8) in that their values and beliefs about school development aren’t consistent with his. Symbolic leaders must recognize that groups have norms that create and maintain social order. Group members judge potential leaders as capable if the leader reflects and symbolizes the group’s norms. If incongruity exists, then it tends to interfere with communicating the intended message because the group does not share the same meaning. For Taylor, this may mean tenaciously sustaining the delivery of his messages until the current school leadership changes.

Principal David Hughes’ middle school serves a large central urban population. Hughes has purposely positioned himself as a symbolic model for teachers. Besides having teaching responsibilities that he believes help him better understand the challenges teachers face in the classroom, he contributes to the ongoing discussions about the school’s goal of creating a more coherent curricular experience for students. He has taken steps to create common planning periods for teachers and uses his classroom visits to inform his conversations with teachers about necessary changes in instructional practices that lead to enhanced student engagement. While his own teaching and classroom visits symbolically tell staff that he cares about teaching and learning, Hughes also has recurring conversations with staff that he believes helps them make sense of the shifts toward a more engaging, coherent curriculum. He also uses other modes of communications, such as memos and staff meetings, to express the values portrayed through his modeling.

Hughes admits that “a lot of challenges related to improving instruction and learning” remain, which suggest that communicating transformative changes is complex and ongoing. It is possible to hypothesize why Hughes is making headway if we look at his symbolic leadership through the communication elements lenses. His teaching may signal to his colleagues that he is credible, which enhances the value of other symbolic gestures. Teacher attitudes toward his verbal and nonverbal messages, a possible source of communications interference, may be more positive because they perceive him to be more credible. Hughes’ explicit work to engage teachers in the discussions about changes in the school gives him opportunities to gain feedback and reinforce the core values he’s trying to express through his actions. Recognizing that teachers can’t develop a sense of curricular coherency when they work in a context that supports isolation, Hughes developed a school schedule with common planning times, thus aligning the context more closely with the values and actions he modeled.

Leading Through Modeling

My study of principals’ instructional leadership practices suggests that modeling, as a strategy used by successful symbolic leaders, is more sophisticated and complex than first assumed. From this review, I have three tips for school leaders confronted with leading the changes that will touch and transform the values and beliefs of the teachers with whom they work: reflect, envision, articulate.


Symbolic leadership has at its heart values and beliefs (Kouzes & Posner, 2005; Sergiovanni, 2001). But a leader’s actions must appear to be consistent with the beliefs they espouse (Argyris & Schön, 1996; Schein, 2004). Thus, begin by honestly reflecting on what actions you model now and the content and clarity of the messages you’re trying to project. What values do those actions explicitly and implicitly model? A principal seen happily monitoring hallways doesn’t convey the same message or values about high learner expectations as a principal who regularly visits classrooms and observes instruction. A principal shoveling snow-covered sidewalks in front of the school believes that he is modeling behavior that teachers will interpret as caring for students. This may be admirable, but, as one teacher pointed out, it fails to communicate a message that the principal cares about instruction and learning.


The power of symbolic leadership is its ability to advance transformative changes in organizations. Principals who use modeling as a strategic leadership approach do so in conjunction with their vision for the changes they want to achieve. David Hughes envisioned a transformative change in how teachers develop and deliver the implemented curriculum. He held and espoused a belief that all students have a right to experience the most robust and complete curriculum that a school can offer. Hughes modeled how that could be achieved through his own teaching and by valuing teamwork by entrenching shared planning time as a new cultural norm. Further, his clarity of purpose created some constancy in his verbal and nonverbal messages, thus reinforcing the change process.


Successful principals seeking to improve teaching and learning help others make sense of what the leader models. These leaders articulate the values and beliefs message directly and indirectly. Verbal messages are used to reinforce the values being modeled through the principal’s use of deliberate “conversations” with colleagues (Sergiovanni, 2001, p. 34). Principals facilitate these conversations both formally and informally, using multiple channels while maintaining an eye on the envisioned change. Good communication also requires the messenger to target the message to the people for whom it’s intended. At times, a principal may feel that teachers are oblivious to the message she or he is attempting to convey. Following up from this feedback, the principal resorts to using a “blanket message” at a staff meeting to try to draw it to everyone’s attention. Like spraying rock salt from a shotgun, this subtle approach covers a lot but may be more irritating than effective. Those who thought they got the message are wondering if they really did get it the first time. Those who failed to pick up on the visual cues, now ask, “Is she talking to me?”

By enhancing people’s understanding through conversations about the values and belief expressed in your actions, the principal can manage the conflict and discomfort that is a part of change. Helping others articulate their values and beliefs through dialogue creates shared understanding. Modeling is one-way communication. To be most effective, successful principals must combine it with other messages that reflect the elements of good communication.

A Final Word: Nonbelievers

Recall Carl Taylor’s efforts to model positive collaborative learning processes and his frustration arising from those whose attitudes and beliefs were out of sync with his. We must remember that even the most well-regarded symbolic leaders who are skilled at modeling the best behaviors, values, and beliefs couldn’t convert everyone. The very fact that we are not all of one faith yet can recognize the modeling exhibited by the symbolic leaders at the heart of each faith is evidence of this. Symbolic leadership and leading through modeling has a long history of practice. Sergiovanni found inspiration for his understanding of the approach arising from his deeply rich back-ground in Christianity. Others have recognized parallel leadership styles in other cultures. Gardner points out, “humans are believing animals” (1986, p. 9). We use our beliefs to guide our behaviors, comfort our fears, and give us meaning. Not every teacher will believe that working in collaboration rather than in isolation will result in a better education for students any more than everyone believes that Sundays are a day of rest. The question in these instances is whether people can work respectfully with each other so as to do no harm to those they serve.


  • Argyris C.,Schön D.A.(1996). Organizational learning II. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley.
  • Gardner J.W.(1986). Heart of the matter: Leader-constituent interaction. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.
  • Kouzes J.M.,Posner B.Z.(2005). Encouraging the heart: A leader’s guide to rewarding and recognizing others. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Schein E.H.(2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sergiovanni T.(2001). Leadership: What’s in it for schools? New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Simonds C.J.,Cooper P. J.(2011). Communication for the classroom teacher (9th ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Education.
  • White J.,Marx D.(2011). Beyond behavioral modeling: Three ways role models guide leadership development.

Vol. 31, Issue 28

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