Education Opinion

Leadership Revisited

By Scott D. Thomson — October 16, 1991 8 min read

Leadership, like exercise, poses a dilemma. Excessive or wrongheaded leadership creates organizational shin splints, but weak leadership results in ‘“bottom heavy” flabbiness. Can the contradiction be resolved?

Observers today reflect a range of views about the leadership role in schools. Some advocate a “will of the people” approach, highly participatory and vigorously decentralized. Others see leadership as more centralized, initiative-driven, and responsible for vision-building, follow through, and outcomes. Still others buy into some middle ground.

Given the absence of an overarching theory of leadership, divergent views are expected. Yet some congruence should be sought because readiness for assuming leadership must be the keystone of preparation programs for educational administrators. If academicians disagree about the leadership role and are vague about the knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary to the successful practice of leadership, then other institutions, including professional associations that are resolving this issue to the satisfaction of their clients, will force the issue.

A coherent theory of leadership is not required to understand important dimensions of the role. As the University of Tennessee’s James March points out, it is possible to accomplish useful work without hyper-rationalizing every initiative at improvement. Learn to live with ambiguity, he urges, give credit to insight and intuition, take action and accept risks.

This advice may be particularly wise given that a relentless pursuit of overarching theory has contributed to some of the dead ends currently facing the field. The place to begin is with the identification of certain skills and attributes of leaders that ordinarily apply in organizational settings, such as effective communication or problem analysis and resolution. While leadership certainly is more than technique, leadership in schools requires technique as well as perspective.

What seems undebatable is the contribution effective leaders can make to organizational culture and outcomes. With signing bonuses now paid to highly recruited C.E.O.'s in the private sector, leadership dearly is viewed as crucial by corporate boards of directors, who expect these leaders to make a difference. Leaders also make a difference for public institutions, including schools, as research documents.

Current tensions need to be resolved between advocates of “top down” and “bottom up” perspectives on educational leadership. While both camps use common terms, such as “collaborative leadership” or “decentralized management,” views of the locus and exercise of leadership vary. Should decisionmaking power rest primarily with a broad group of participants, or more narrowly in certain specified roles? How flat or hierarchical should be the structure? How deliberative and how efficient? How spontaneous or planned?

This debate is not new nor unique to schools. What is needed in the field of educational leadership, though, is that we cease fuzzing over these differences and accept that diverse perspectives contribute to the development and practice of leadership. Schools cannot be fully effective with either bottom-heavy or top-heavy leadership. A fitting together is necessary to eliminate awkwardness and reduce posturing.

Perhaps we need a new term, “binary leadership,” to define a unifying concept applicable to practice. Binary systems involve two objects that revolve around one another under their mutual gravitation or attraction. They are two complementary elements that together make a complete system.

The evidence on leadership, coming both from data and from knowledge of the craft, supports this notion. Enduring findings on complex organizations confirm the importance of leadership at the top to communicate a clear vision, sponsor a sense of organizational culture, provide definitions of purpose, adjudicate conflict, and assure outcomes. At the same time, an equally impressive block of evidence from social psychology and organizational development documents the value of broad, participatory decisionmaking. Whether it is called “power sharing,” collaborative leadership, participatory democracy, or whatever, the benefits for the organization and its personnel are real. They include idea generation, enablement, ownership, motivation, and personal fulfillment.

Any incisive discussion about leadership must include the benefits of both leadership roles, the appointed and the emergent, the broad and the specific, the general and the situational. Alert organizations use the strengths of both approaches, and view them as mutually beneficial and non-competitive. They practice integrated, binary leadership. Good leaders identify problems with advice broadly gained from the organization, pose questions that are generated from the four corners of the enterprise, overcome barriers with insight gained from various departments, suggest choices often defined by staff discussion, and follow through by procedures developed with the staff and to which staff members are committed. These processes require of the assigned leaders some knowledge, some skill, certain attributes, a touch of “art,” and ethics. They involve technique as well as intellectual and social competence. They reflect position as well as situation.

Why do we organize schools and what do we expect the person heading a school to do? In the enthusiasm for restructuring and redefining relationships, this elemental question can be lost. Yet, schools are for learning, and unless the learning environment is enhanced for students, for what purpose do we restructure? Everything we know about social behavior suggests that decentralized schools should be energized, high-performance institutions. But a generation of reforms teaches that transformations are not automatic. Too often changes become ends in themselves, as evidenced by such past movements as programmed instruction or “flexible scheduling” or grouping by I.Q. or minimal graduation requirements or “mini-courses.”

Leadership without clear purpose lacks authenticity. School leaders today should focus on envisioning, designing, and maintaining a learning community beneficial to all students. This requires, according to the Pittsburgh superintendent of schools, Richard Wallace, “a coherent view of educational processes and outcomes.” Principals, especially, are expected to understand instruction, be engaged in improving the instructional environment, and be responsible for outcomes. As such, according to John Gardner, they fulfill a central expectation of leaders: task competence, or the knowledgeability to achieve the central purpose of the institution.

Mark Hopkins, the legendary Williams College president who so revered teaching, is still relevant. A teacher and a student discussing an interesting subject can lead someplace worthy. Whatever else schools do, they definitely must give first priority to learning. They must provide the resources and the processes and monitor the outcomes. This micro dimension of schooling--the success of individual students--must drive whatever macro initiatives are mounted to transform schools. Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools offers an excellent example of efforts to strengthen the student-teacher-classroom triad. That criterion--what happens behind the classroom door--drives restructuring activities in these schools.

Often the pressures go in other directions, as any frequent participant in school-board or parent meetings can attest. Debates about school calendars or student behavior or budgets can consume large hunks of educational leaders’ energy and time. But such is the real world, and studies show that one difference between effective and marginal leaders is the ability of the more competent to control time for important matters.

Making school leaders centrally responsible for student learning does not denigrate the many other functions schools serve, nor does it ignore the differences in expectations community by community and site by site. It does recognize that, more than ever, the public expects school leaders to ensure effective instruction. In a knowledge-driven world economy, Americans want their students to become competent in the classroom; to learn how to communicate effectively, compute accurately, think critically, show initiative in solving problems, and reflect socially responsible attitudes.

Opinion leaders and the general public have the right to expect all students to acquire these skills, and they become impatient when students fall short. Principals and superintendents, therefore, must not only lead. They must also educate.

Restructuring can misguide if it loses sight of this imperative. All of the accouterments of current reform: site autonomy, collaborative decisionmaking, professionalization, parental and community participation, choice, and the rest should be directed toward improving student learning environments.

Developing a strong school culture for learning should be a collective endeavor. It cannot successfully be otherwise. But school leaders must be comfortable with this mission, and possess the knowledge and process skills to make it happen.

Thomas Jefferson observed, as American democracy was being formed, that “the new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and the transfer of old words to new objects.” This perspective applies, on a lesser scale, to contemporary schools. Their leaders must be prepared for and practice new levels of leadership sophistication.

In one sense, the functions of school leaders are not that complicated: Define the purposes of schooling; develop the vision of a learning community; involve all stakeholders in the vision; plan, initiate, manage, and evaluate programs to achieve goals; develop staff; anticipate and resolve problems collegially; carry through; and evaluate and report outcomes.

The contexts in which these functions are performed, however, are changing dramatically, and the processes and participants are re-created as well. But the purpose of school leadership improving student outcomes is more focused than ever.

Given international competition, this emphasis will not likely diminish. What is required is not superficial institutional tinkering, for example organizational restructuring for the sake of changing the scenery. What is required is the forging of a solid link between leadership development and the subsequent success of schools in improving student outcomes. The result should be a new breed of educational leader, knowledgeable about the full dimensions of the role, practiced in the skills necessary to the many faces of leadership, and possessing a clear sense of purpose for student learning. .

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Leadership Revisited