Balancing educational leadership perspectives for aspiring school leaders

The past decade sees a rise in studies seeking to correlate educational leadership practices and school effectiveness.

Noticeably,  these studies lead to the development of theories and models to provide either an explanation to the success of schools or a solution to the underwhelming performance of certain academic institutions.

As such, this brief critical analysis looks into three contemporary educational leadership perspectives from Tony Bush (2007), Leithwood, et al. (2008), and Alma Harris (2012).

Nature of leadership

Firstly, from a psychosocial standpoint, leadership rests on personal, cultural, and behavioural aspects manifested and exerted in relationships (Kouzes & Posner, 2012; Maxwell,  2007; Collins, 2011). As a result, leading people requires an introspective character of adaptability and the willingness to model such.

Character of a school leader

Leading people requires an introspective character of adaptability and the willingness to model such behaviors as noted by Kouzes & Posner (2012) and Maxwell (2007).  When applied in organizations, Collins (2011) emphasizes the strong, positive impact of personal humility, professional drive, creativity and discipline in leadership.

Educational leadership follows this psychosocial framework in fully understanding the dynamics of this cognitive activity (Spillane, et al., 1999).

Although there is no single way of defining educational leadership (Bush, 2003), it still follows the underlying values of leadership as a behavioural process but limited to the school context (Fullan, 2009; Spillane & Diamond, 2007).

Moreover, current studies in educational leadership highlight the presence of school leaders particularly principals taking on roles such as “compass setting, human development, and organizational development” (Spillane & Diamond, 2007).  In his book, The Challenge of Change, Michael Fullan (2009)

The presence of the principal

Current studies in educational leadership highlight the presence of school leaders particularly principals taking on roles such as “compass setting, human development, and organizational development” (Spillane & Diamond, 2007).  For example, in his book, The Challenge of Change, Michael Fullan (2009) contextualizes leadership as a “tri-level model” that expands the responsibilities of leadership not just in schools but in district and state levels.

The need to go beyond a simplified conceptualisation of educational leadership emanates from politically-driven demands for reformation of schools towards effectiveness and “higher standards” (Fullan, 2009; Harris, et al., 2003).

 Perhaps, this is not just a concern of developing students in the classroom or making teachers do what they need to do. However, Harris (2003, 2016) stresses that this is about reforming school systems towards globalised educational standards induced by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the ‘Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Consequently, school leaders have to work backwards in ensuring government policies trickle down to the school’s visions and to student outcomes (Bush, 2003, p. 4).

Tony Bush: Educational Leadership and Management Theory

In explaining the concept of educational leadership, Tony Bush (2007) clearly contextualizes this as a process of change in a school setting and differentiates it from management as a process of maintenance.

Educational leadership versus management

Although contrasting in process, educational leadership and management must both be practiced together in achieving the school’s objectives so as to be functional as a system.

 Furthermore, Bush (2003) categorizes educational management and leadership according to specific models to provide multiple perspectives in explaining educational leadership:

Likewise from all these different models,  a single model cannot define educational leadership.  Notably, management and leadership share parallel dimensions geared towards teaching and learning (Bush, 2007).

Instructional leadership as a process

Despite the variety of approaches, educational leadership remains as a “process of influence based on clear values and beliefs and leading to a vision for the school” (Bush, 2007, p. 403).  Henceforth, by synthesizing the themes of these educational management and leadership models, Bush (2003) leads to a clear definition of instructional leadership as a process and a

Hence, by synthesizing the themes of these educational management and leadership models, Bush (2003) leads to a clear definition of instructional leadership as a process.  Also, it is the mindset of leaders to ensure that quality of teaching and learning to be prioritised at the classroom and school-level.

Although Bush (2007) provides a clear overview of the models in educational management and leadership in the context of South African schools, a more in-depth and distinct discussion of these leadership perspectives should be further elaborated in different social contexts.

 In contrast, concrete leadership and management practices should then be explored following these models in different regions or countries for future school leaders to evaluate these principles according to how they are practiced in reality.

Leithwood, et al.:  Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership

The study by Leithwood, et al. (2008) is something more controversial. It outlines the following seven strong claims about successful school leadership:

“1. School leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning.

2. Almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices.

3. The ways in which leaders apply these basic leadership practices – not the practices themselves – demonstrate responsiveness to, rather than dictation by, the contexts in which they work.

4. School leaders improve teaching and learning indirectly and most powerfully through their influence on staff motivation, commitment and working conditions.

5. School leadership has a greater influence on schools and students when it is widely distributed.

6. Some patterns of distribution are more effective than others.

7. A small handful of personal traits explains a high proportion of the variation in leadership effectiveness. “

 The reality of school leadership

In comparison, Bush’ (2007) conceptualization of educational leadership warrants empirical evidence. On the other hand, Leithwood’s (2008) literature review builds up the claims not from mere theories but from qualitative and quantitative data.

As a result, this presents a more realistic outlook in elaborating leadership in schools by using documented practices and findings directly from schools themselves.

However, despite the attempt to provide a closer look into educational leadership practices, this review lacks specific contextualisation of the research findings.

Is it safe to assume that this is based on research among schools in the UK as commissioned by the NCSL?  What is the timeframe of research for this literature review?

Clearly, without an indication of the sources of the research, there will be danger in the assumption that this is a global perspective when the claims are only based on a particular region or country.

Alma Harris: Distributed Leadership and its Implications on Principals

In relation to the literature review by Leithwood, et al. (2008), Alma Harris (2012) provides a more specific support to the seven claims about successful school leadership by addressing the need for school principals to adapt a more distributive approach and its implications.

Generally speaking, based on the premise that the distribution of leadership has a direct impact on student achievement, school leaders are expected to renounce transactional ways. Thus, they need to aim for a more interactive and shared leadership built on a high degree of trust (Leithwood, et al., 2008; Harris, 2012).

For this reason, drawing from a wide array of literature, Harris (2012) integrates early conceptions of educational leadership and concocts a form of leadership addressing the current needs and reality of school systems.

Sharing of leadership

Furthermore,  distributed leadership takes its cue from earlier studies suggesting leadership as a social activity involving several people. In addition, distributed leadership sets the tone for transformation and school achievement through “shared vision and commitment to school change” (Hallinger, 2003; Spillane, 2007; Leithwood, et al., 2008).

Besides, in response to other studies seeking for evidence on leadership practices of distribution beneficial for schools (Bush, 2007; Leithwood, et al, 2008), the literature review of Harris (2012, p.10) brings out a strong point that “purposeful or planned leadership distribution is more likely to impact positively on school development and change” based on empirical evidence.

On the other hand, veering away from the establishment of systems lead by a single person, Harris’ (2012) literature review offers a whole new approach to how leadership should be practiced in order to achieve or sustain high standards in schools.

Although backed up by research evidence, the principle behind distributed leadership looks ideal on paper. However, the practice still remains in question.

In relation to that, skepticism towards the 360-degree shift from a traditionally driven transactional approach.  Likewise, this can be addressed by a number of research studies from 2001-2009 in school transformation, school leadership, organisational change, and student outcomes (Harris, 2012, pp. 11-13).

Genuine distribution of leadership

In as much as this article adds value to earlier researches, there is still a need  “to develop, foster and actively encourage new, diverse and distributed models of leadership that can transform schools and school systems” (Harris, 2012, pp. 16).

Therefore, is it safe to assume that the empirical evidence for this review comes from a Western perspective with schools from the UK or US as points of reference?

Equally important, if this is the case, then further studies need to be conducted in other regions. Consequently, this is to present a universal case for distributed leadership.

Probably, it would be interesting to note in the future how distributed leadership could function in some Asian countries.  Accordingly, these countries value leadership deeply rooted in hierarchical systems patterned after Confucian ideals.

The Future of School Leadership

Like any other organization, schools function as a system that requires sound leadership to achieve its goals.

In general, Bush, Leithwood et al., and Harris provide a rich perspective on the continuous search for ways to guide school leaders. Nevertheless, these theories aim to improve not only student outcomes but also the learning process itself through leadership.

Subsequently, for the improvement of learning, these leadership perspectives have to be synergistically put into practice. Finally, these practices need be continuously evaluated critically, empirically, and universally in the decades to come.


Bush, T., & Bush, T. (2003). Theories of educational leadership and management. London: Sage Publications.

Bush, T. (2007). “Educational leadership and management: Theory, policy and practice.” South African Journal of Education 27(3): 391-406.

Collins, J. C., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by choice: Uncertainty, chaos, and luck: Why some thrive despite them all. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Fullan, M. (2009). The challenge of change: Start school improvement now! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Harris, A. (2011). “Distributed leadership: Implications for the role of the principal.” Journal of Management Development 31(1): 7-17.

Harris, A. (2003). Effective leadership for school improvement. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Harris, A., & Jones, M. S. (2016). Leading futures: Global perspectives on educational leadership. Sage Publications.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leithwood, K., et al. (2008). “Seven strong claims about successful school leadership.” School Leadership and Management 28(1): 27-42.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). Talent is never enough: Discover the choices that will take you beyond your talent. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Spillane, J. P., & Diamond, J. B. (2007). Distributed leadership in practice. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

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