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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

7 Ways to Improve the Way Leadership Teams Function

By Peter DeWitt — January 26, 2020 11 min read
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Many schools have leadership teams. Those teams may consist of a principal and a group of assistant principals, or perhaps the team consists of a principal, assistant principals, instructional coach, and a stakeholder group of teachers. Virtually every school has some sort of leadership team. Unfortunately, those teams do not always work to the full extent that they could.

For example, there are thousands of schools that have a leadership team that has a principal and group of assistant principals. Typically, the assistant principal is new to leadership and is there to learn from the building principal. Additionally, their job description is filled with duties that exist to help the principal do their job better.

One of the consistent themes for assistant principals is that of disciplinarian. Most, if not all, assistant principals have a primary duty of working with teachers on student discipline. However, what is often missing from the role of assistant principal is that of instructional leader, which is often left to the principal to handle...if they try to handle it at all.

Unfortunately, if we have the assumption that an assistant principal will some day take on their own principal position after they gain enough experience to “move up,” then we often find that the assistant principal is not prepared to be an instructional leader because they were never trained properly to do so.

This, of course, often brings up the comments and criticisms that principals do not have the time, nor should they have the time, to be instructional leaders. I am often confronted (albeit politely) by people who say that principals should not feel the pressure to be instructional leaders because they have so many management issues to deal with on a daily basis. I disagree with this sentiment on many levels, but the biggest reason for my disagreement is that of teacher observations and walk-throughs.

If principals and assistant principals do not know what to look for when they do walk-throughs, and never have conversations with teachers about what student engagement and quality learning looks like, then how will they ever be able to provide teacher observations that are worthwhile and not a complete waste of time for their teachers?

Instructional leadership on the part of principals and assistant principals doesn’t have to be 24/7. Instructional leadership can be the actions that a principal and assistant principal may take on a daily basis that involves discussions around learning, and those actions may take a few minutes to a few hours in a day. After all, if we are leading a school and not devoting a slice of our time to talk about student learning, then we need to rethink our leadership actions.

Collective Leader Efficacy
So, how do we inspire leadership teams to make the transition from functioning together in independent ways where they are working cooperatively but doing individual work, to working cooperatively in a way that gets them to do work that contributes to the greater good of the learning experience for students?

Part of the answer to that sometimes complicated question is through the use of collective leader efficacy. Many educators understand that collective teacher efficacy “refers to the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities” (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, p. 190). Collective leader efficacy is the confidence that a group of leaders have in each other and how that confidence leads to actionable steps, which will have a positive impact on student learning (DeWitt. 2020).

It is important for this confidence to take place at the leadership level for a variety of reasons, but there are two that are important. One is that leaders do not often have enough confidence in each other because one assistant principal may want to stick out from the pack in order to look better and inherit a building or at least get a great recommendation from their principal. Secondly, not enough leadership teams actually focus on student learning.

Leithwood and Jantzi have done a considerable amount of work in the area of collective leader efficacy. Both Leithwood and Jantzi have explored the antecedents necessary to build collective leader efficacy. In the following paragraphs, it is my hope to contribute to their existing research by adding enabling conditions to each of their antecedents. Additionally, Hattie has contributed to the thinking around collective efficacy by offering two additional antecedents. All in all there are seven antecedents offered by all three authors, and I have provided the enabling conditions under each antecedent.

1. Organizational Commitment

Leithwood et. al explain, “Organizational conditions have much larger effects on principals’ collective efficacy than on their individual efficacy. They help create district conditions viewed by school leaders as enhancing and supporting their work.”

The researchers’ findings show, “Organizational conditions, such as the district’s focus on student learning and the quality of instruction and district investment in instructional leadership, have substantially greater influence on principals’ collective efficacy than on their individual efficacy” (2007. p. 740).

Therefore, the enabling conditions needed for an organizational commitment are:

  • Teams of principals are invested in supporting implementation of high-leverage practices within their school.
  • Leadership team collectively understands the needs of their building.
  • Leadership team is committed to supporting staff and students in learning pursuits.
  • Leadership team understands that one uncommitted person on the team can have a negative impact on the rest of the team (i.e., assistant principal who doesn’t meet with group).
  • Leadership team collectively has the knowledge to create goals that will improve their school climate.

2. Locus of Control/Leaders Job Autonomy

Leithwood et. al found, “Those with firm beliefs of this sort, through persistence and ingenuity, figure out ways of exercising some control, even in environments with many challenges to change” (2007. p. 739).

The necessary enabling conditions are:

  • Leadership team develops a common language and a common understanding to have a positive impact on student learning (i.e., student engagement versus time on task).
  • Leadership team holds themselves accountable for improving the learning climate in a school.
  • Leadership team develops a climate where they provide opportunities for each other to take risks.
  • Leadership team understands that state accountability measures can have a negative impact on their ability to lead, but they need to focus on their locus of control.

3. Workload (Leithwood and Jantzi)

Over the years since Leithwood and Jantzi (2008) completed their initial study on collective leader efficacy, it is important to understand that the workload of school leaders has increased. Leaders are now charged with helping students who experience trauma, being instructional leaders for teachers, and increased mandates and accountability, as well as the regular management duties that principals and building leaders are tasked with every day.

It is important for leadership teams to develop an understanding of those duties and then weed through which ones overlap, as well as those duties that take up a great deal of their time, and begin to focus more on those duties which allow them to have a positive impact on student learning. The development of a program logic model is often helpful in this situation.

Those enabling conditions are:

  • Leadership team follows a program logic model to understand the difference between activities that do not positively impact the school community and those activities that have a positive impact.
  • Leadership team shares workload to provide equity of impact among the team.
  • Leadership team collects evidence to understand impact.

4. Orientation to Job (Leithwood and Jantzi)

Over the last six years of studying teams, and having previous experience as a teacher for eleven years and a principal for eight years, I believe one of the issues that school teams often face is that they do not know their specific roles when they get into groups. Typically, leadership teams look to the building leader to speak first, and then quickly realize when they are allowed and encouraged to talk and when they are expected to remain silent.

In order for job orientation to take place, the following enabling conditions must be established:

  • Leadership teams that understand their specific job roles and responsibilities are more likely to have a positive and clear role in their school climate.
  • Leadership team develops a system to learn the different roles in leadership to have a more well-rounded understanding of building leadership.
  • Leadership team clearly articulates their purpose in school climate.
  • Leadership team develops an atmosphere where they can challenge each other’s thinking on academic and social-emotional learning.

5. The Skills to Work in Collectives (Hattie)

Hattie has researched the necessary antecedents to build collective efficacy among students. However, the antecedents necessary to build collective student efficacy has implications for how to build collective leader efficacy. Hattie has shown that one of the antecedents necessary to build collective efficacy is through understanding the skills needed to work in collectives. Anyone who has worked in a group understands that it takes a specific skill set to work with other adults, especially if one of those adults is your supervisor.

The following are the enabling conditions I developed for Hattie’s antecedents for building collective student efficacy.

  • Participants of the team understand that collectives are supposed to inspire dialogue that leads to action.
  • Participants of the team understand the concept of input legitimacy, which means that they have a voice in the process, but it doesn’t mean they will always get what they want. They may get a piece of what they want.
  • Participants understand that they walk into the collective with individual ideas, but impactful collectives inspire participants to walk out with better ideas than they had when they walked in.
  • Participants practice active-listening skills and use protocols when necessary in order to make sure everyone in the group has a voice.

6. The Confidence to Work in Collectives (Hattie)

As mentioned before, Hattie has done a great deal of thinking around building collective student efficacy. Just like with the skills to work in collectives, there is one more of Hattie’s antecedents for students that is equally as important for leaders, and that is the confidence to work in collectives. Additionally, many educators got into the teaching profession because they loved students, content, or a combination of both. Most educators did not get into teaching to work with other adults.

The following are the enabling conditions I created to build the confidence of those in the collective:

  • Participants understand that they have a responsibility to build the capacity of others in the group. As mentioned before, what we know about self-efficacy is that it is context specific, meaning that not everyone who comes to the group has confidence to be there. Therefore, the collective group should engage in activities and actions which will build the confidence of each member.
  • Leaders understand that they need to create an atmosphere where participants will build their own sense of confidence to speak up in front of colleagues or their supervisor.
  • Participants understand that with every leadership position comes a level of status, and there is a hierarchy within the group. However, they do not let that hierarchy hamper their ability to speak even if it is polite resistance to their supervisor.

7. Central-Office Staff (Leithwood and Jantzi)

The last antecedent is one that can either support the collective efforts of a group or hamper the collective efforts of the group. Too often, central office creates policies and practices that hamper the ability to build collective leader efficacy. They do this by creating too many meetings where participants do not feel as though they have a voice, or they overwhelm participants with accountability measures and practices that hamper the creativity of members of the group.

The following are enabling conditions to prevent obstacles from happening:

  • Central office supports leadership team by providing them with the resources they need to focus on student learning.
  • Leadership teams that receive feedback from central office “helps elevate leaders’ standards and aspirations and helps them see the relationship between the district’s goals and larger social and moral purposes (2008. p. 506).”
  • Central-office administrators model how to properly run a meeting where everyone feels they have a voice.

If schools want to engage in building collective leader efficacy, those antecedents researched by Leithwood and Jantzi, as well as those ideas inspired by Hattie, are necessary components to consider, and the enabling conditions I offer as ways to meet those antecedents are necessary as well.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram, or through his YouTube station.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.


Leithwood, Kenneth & Doris Jantzi. Linking Leadership to Student Learning: The Contributions of Leader Efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4 (October 2008) 496-528

Leithwood, Strauss & Anderson(2007). District Contributions to School Leaders Sense Of Efficacy: A Qualitative Analysis. Journal Of School Leadership.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (2004). Fostering student learning: The relationship of collective teacher efficacy and student achievement. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 3(3), 189-209.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.