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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Effective School Leadership: Leverage the Big-Winner Practices

By Peter DeWitt — April 08, 2015 3 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Ray Smith and Julie Smith, former school leaders and the authors of Evaluating Instructional Leadership: Recognized Practices for Success (Corwin Press, 2015).

To help describe the concept of identifying and leveraging big winner leadership practices we will draw on a principle taken from the field of total quality management. Let’s apply the Pareto Principle--what’s known as the “80/20 rule"--to your leadership practices.

The “80/20 rule” argument goes something like this...

Roughly 80 percent of your leadership impact will come from 20 percent of your leadership practices. Another way of saying this is that a significant few leadership practices will account for most of your leadership impact. The biggest part of your leadership practices--say approximately 80 percent--will be so much less impactful that they will produce only 20 percent of your effect on learning and student achievement. So, the question is, have you identified those significant few leadership practices that will account for your greatest impact on learning and student achievement?

It’s peculiar how things just seem to pan out this way if we let nature take its course. We spread our leadership time and energies around, investing in a variety of activities that seem worthwhile. But our impact varies dramatically from one set of leadership practices to another. A few leadership practices, aimed at a limited number of goals, say 2-3, end up making the major contributions to your total leadership impact.

Just think how much you can improve your leadership impact by allocating your professional leadership time and resources more strategically. Spend your time, energy, and influence in the high-payoff, big winner leadership areas--instructional leadership practices (Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd, 2009), and you could easily double or triple your impact.

Think about it this way. Leadership impact comes from disproportionate investment. That is, it happens when you focus on big-winner leadership practices...when you’re unfair or stingy in the way you distribute your practices and professional resources.

You won’t get great results simply by staying busy or by being responsible. Or even by trying hard and turning out pretty solid work. It’s not effort or activity that counts, but the impact your leadership practices are having on learning and student achievement. You have to examine your productive hours, and identify what it is that seems to drive your leadership development the most. In particular, what you do, which practices do you engage in that contributes the most to learning and achievement?

These are the power leadership points, the big winner leadership practices. They deserve the lion’s share of your productive hours and energy, because they’ll bring you the most significant results. If you want maximum impact, don’t make the mistake of seeking “balance” in your workday or workweek routine. Rather, rely heavily on the big winner leadership practices to leverage your impact on learning and student achievement. What are these high-leverage leadership practices?

According to the research of Robinson, Hohepa, & Lloyd (2009), “The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their influence on student outcomes” (p. 40). Essentially the authors determined that these five instructional leadership practices had the greatest impact on student achievement:


  1. Establishing a shared vision/mission, goals, and expectations
  2. Strategic resourcing
  3. Ensuring teacher and staff effectiveness
  4. Leading and participating in teacher/leader learning and development, and
  5. Providing an orderly, safe, and supportive environment

What percent of your day or week are spent directly engaged in these five instructional leadership practices? If you don’t know, do a time audit. Maintain a log of time for one week. Examples of categories you might include are: emails, planning, voice mail responses, reports, professional reading, observing classes, counseling direct reports, parent meetings, staff meetings, community meetings, leadership team meetings, personal time, family time, travel, community service, etc. After collecting at least one full week of daily records, construct a pie chart that reflects your actual time allocation for each category. Compare this to these five leadership practices. Evaluate what changes you need to make to more effectively allocate your time to your big winner leadership practices.

Connect with Julie and Ray on Twitter

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.

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