Zooming in educational leadership theories: Instructional leadership & distributed leadership perspectives


Educational leadership theories are broad and universal. Thus, there is a need for a context to scrutinize these theories. Oftentimes misconstrued with management, we have to clearly define leadership as a separate entity in the school context.

Hence, by zooming in educational leadership theories from instructional and distributed perspectives, we can look into the differences between management and leadership.

Management vs Leadership

To distinguish management from leadership, we have to put the latter in a distributed perspective. Whereas management is all about maintenance, leadership is about progress and development. This is one of the key dimensions of distributed leadership.

Generally speaking, leadership from a distributed perspective emphasizes that leadership is not just a function of an individual. It is more of a social interaction.

Distributed leadership perspectives

Two schools of thoughts lead to further elaboration of distributed leadership. First, Spillane (1999) defines distributed leadership as a cognitive activity engaged in by the interaction of leaders, followers, context, and tasks. This deviates from the centralization of power to social and situational distribution of leadership tasks and functions through schemes of interdependency (Spillane, 1999).

On the other hand, Harris (2012) brings the ideas of Spillane forward from a psychological activity to a social reality. The literature simplifies the cognitive concept of distributed leadership as a form of “leadership shared within and between schools.”

This study also notes that this is not a matter of spreading responsibilities or delegating. This needs to be planned purposefully to carry out the following:

  1. sharing of power and decision-making
  2. leadership as interaction
  3. a high degree of trust
  4. blending leadership practices and activities to school development
  5. system transformation

Critical thoughts on distributed leadership

Until now,  the practice of distributed leadership is still in question in school systems.  One contention is that this gets simmered down and confused with ‘delegation’, which is what’s happening in a lot of schools.

Worse, the idea of distribution of leadership seems to be more of distribution of titles/positions to those deemed more collaborative with the principal rather than the merit of ability and competence.

Despite having a lot of ‘leaders’, it might seem that this decentralization is more of assigning roles and responsibilities to fill in the gap. Does the distribution of leadership start from transactional leadership?

If it is, then won’t that be more of delegation of tasks by a transactional leader?

If not from a transactional leader, what if the distribution starts from an instructional-transformational leader?

Would that fit the ideal conception of distributed leadership?

Needless to say, distributed leadership is one of the highly idealized educational leadership theories. If practiced to the core, it could yield amazing results for the stakeholders of the school: teachers and students in particular.

If only all schools could ensure a purposefully and well-planned distribution of leadership, then there would be harmony in school system fostering better learning outcomes.

Instructional leadership perspectives

Other than distributed leadership, another educational leadership theory in practice is instructional leadership. From Hallinger & Murphy’s conception of the theory in the 1980’s, instructional leadership has gone a long way. To be more specific, instructional leadership has links with school improvement in the past decades.

Come to think of it, instructional leadership is a highly transferable idea since teachers are also instructional leaders in their own classrooms.

For an instance, teachers usually start their class by sharing with their students the specific learning goals for the session. To avoid exclusion and to be more flexible, they spend minutes looking into these goals. Also, they emphasize that these goals are not set in stone.  In this way, teachers practice the idea of framing goals.

From a small classroom setting, we can amplify the importance of framing and communicating goals in a larger school setting. A principal should not resort to draconian measures by imposing school goals as this impedes flexibility to change. Instead, the principal should invite stakeholders in formulating school goals based on mission-vision.  In effect, everyone can have a shared accountability for these goals.

Furthermore, the principal may have to set up a committee to look into these goals so that they can assess whether these are CLEAR and SMART goals.

Through this measures, the community could be able to frame a set of SCHOOL’s goals that truly reflect the SCHOOL as a learning community and not just that of the principal. The next step is how we could live up to the standards of these goals.

The next step is how the school could live up to the standards of these goals.

Instructional leadership  and principalship

Is it possible for an ‘outsider’ to be a school principal?

This ‘outsider’ refers to a person who is not from the field of education, and worse, who pretends to be knowledgeable in this field.

This might be highly contentious, but it is a NO.

For schools to be effective, there is a need for a principal who knows the ins-and-outs of the school system (the CONTENT and PROCESSES involved). How can you manage something that you are not even familiar with? Who could be the best candidates for

How can you manage something that you are not even familiar with? Who could be the best candidates for the principalship?

Those who have been in this system–the teachers.

Teachers know the curriculum, the instructional processes, and the students based on the assumption that this is part of their nature.

Hence, in managing the instructional program, the school system needs PRINCIPALS who ‘have been there and done that’ and not just because they are sons or daughters of some rich aristocrat basking in the glory of medieval feudalism.

The instructional leadership challenge

As one of the educational leadership theories, the most challenging dimension of instructional leadership is developing school climate. It involves people to achieve the ends of progress and sustainability.

In a way, this can also be the product of the first two dimensions. As leaders define goals and manage instructional programs, a school climate needs to be in place to support and enact the two dimensions.

For example, even though a school has clear goals and has well-crafted instructional programs, the whole system is still away from perfection. If the school principal tends to overlook instructional time, then a possible meaningful learning opportunity gets lost.

Based on the Pareto effect, it is this 20% (the simple things) that make up the whole. If we strive to clean up and be consistent in acting on these acts to develop a school climate anchored on clear goals, then we could have more progressive and sustainable schools.

Educational leadership theories and improving the system

To prepare for the future of this school system, we just need TWO BITES of REALITY. There is no single recipe in running a perfect school, but there are more than a hundred and one ways by which we can transform schools and sustain this development. This is the first reality we have to embrace.

To aim for perfection is to shoot for the stars. We are not shooting for stars; we are cultivating students. Neither are we propagating educational leadership theories.

The second reality is that school leaders must uphold the processes of TEACHING and LEARNING. The goals, actions, and plans of the leader should all go back to the ideals of teaching and learning.

If it’s not for teaching and learning, forget about it. We may name all the educational leadership theories and models of teaching and learning: distributed, transformational or instructional leadership. However, what matters most is the way leaders conduct themselves as a principal–bringing forth the essence of teaching and learning.

Empower teachers and prioritize students. Be patient for it may take more than 100 days before you get a full hang of it.

At the end of the day, if school leaders know where they and the school are heading to, they will eventually get there.


Hallinger, P. (2009). “Leadership for the 21st century schools: From instructional leadership to leadership for learning.”


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


Spillane, J. P., et al. (1999). Distributed leadership: Toward a theory of school leadership practice, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University Evanston, IL.

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