School & District Management

School is No Place for Heroes, Says One Scholar

By Debra Viadero — June 17, 2009 1 min read
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Forget all those stories from the 1980s and 1990s about super-hero principals like Marva Collins or Joe Clark, says Peter Gronn, a leadership expert from across the pond.

In a thought-provoking lecture due to be delivered today at the University of Cambridge in London, Gronn says one person can’t possibly expect to do it all. And “a lingering culture of heroism” does more harm than good by putting pressure on principals and other school leaders to feel they have to live up to “grossly inflated expectations placed on them by other people.”

In practice, leadership traits, duties, and responsibilities in schools are shared by many people, from assistant principals to mentor teachers. Scholars in the U.S. and elsewhere have come to call that idea “distributed leadership,” but Gronn says he is uncomfortable with that characterization, too. He makes a case for revising scholarly thinking on how to build effective leadership in schools.

The problem with distributed leadership, he says, is that people tend to equate the concept with democratic leadership.

“While it may facilitate voice,” he writes, “distributed leadership does not necessarily guarantee a veto.”

A better idea, he said, is to think of school leadership as a configuration, a network of relationships that might shift in response to changing tasks and pressures. For instance, during World War II, war efforts in the U.K. were guided by a five-man leadership collective over which the prime minister was first among equals, but could not override group decisions. Likewise, in Washington, decisionmaking power is shared by Congress and the President, but their efforts are also guided by a web of key advisers and cabinet heads.

Seen in that light, he says, leadership is all about building an organization’s capabilities for leading effectively.

“Capability-building offers the most constructive means of de-mystifying leadership,” he writes. “A focus on the mastery of individual and collective capabilities ought to be sufficient to stifle any upstart pretensions by leaders who might want to play the hero.”

A more extensive summary of the professor’s remarks can be found here. Let’s hear what you think. Is this a more constructive way of thinking about how to lead schools?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.