The concept of shared leadership makes good intuitive sense and it’s rare to find anyone who takes issue with the idea. After all, we understand that top-down leadership alone will never make the intended differences we require in classrooms and schools for all kinds of reasons. The most significant being that it can’t meet the contextual nuances required for quality implementation. But if shared leadership is such a “no-brainer,” why do we see so little of it?
One of the biggest obstacles is that we don’t have a common understanding of what shared leadership actually is. In fact, it’s often easier to describe what shared leadership is not. For example, shared leadership is not a form of delegation where a principal directs school
staff to implement the principal’s ideas. Shared leadership is not doing group work that is directed by a principal. And shared leadership is not creating committees to give advice to the principal.
Shared leadership, in its promise, rests on the guiding principle that everyone’s voice matters. Everyone’s experience and expertise are necessary for the school community to work effectively, and the ideas created by the group have the potential to be much stronger than those created by any one individual. It’s a concept well captured in the clichéd phrase: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which goes back to Aristotle. Interestingly, Google named its quest to build the perfect team “Project Aristotle” for this very reason! (Duhigg, 2016).
Shared leadership is about true collaboration. It’s about the kind of collaboration that understands the necessity of both interdependence and individual accountability within a shared space. By working together, by thinking through complex issues together, and by sharing our learning along the way, we are able to create something that goes beyond what each of us can accomplish alone.
Collaboration of this sort means that one’s attitudes, beliefs, and actions are impacted and changed because the optimal conditions for “together is better” have been intentionally cultivated. Even though the principal in a school-based shared leadership model is the “conductor of the orchestra,” all members of the orchestra are required in order for the school community to improve. Each member takes responsibility for playing their respective instrument well (individual accountability), and each understands when and how their individual sound intersects with those of other members to create the performance (interdependence). It’s a compelling vision. The question is, what’s the methodology for getting there?
We take up this adaptive challenge in our most recent book, The Intelligent, Responsive Leader (Katz, Dack & Malloy, 2018).
Core to our argument is the importance of advancing the concept of the school as a learning organization. Each day, principals experience a variety of pressures. Some of these might come from the central office, which directs principals to implement certain initiatives along with an associated set of accountability expectations. Other pressures might come from inside the school, from individuals or even the collective staff who advance their own perspectives and desires that emanate from the local context.
Navigating this tension, or rather leveraging this tension as a productive one, requires the principal to adopt a learning stance; it requires the principal to be both a learning leader and a lead learner. That said, all too often school leaders are consumed with operational issues, or their work is largely dictated by dealing with one crisis after another, resulting in a mostly reactive stance.
Despite a very convincing research base that points to visible and public co-learning with staff as the most impactful principal leadership practice when it comes to the desired goal of improved student achievement (Robinson, Höhepa & Lloyd, 2009), pervasive evidence for this on the landscape of school leadership remains elusive.
More often than not, school leaders appear less like “lead learners” and more like “lead knowers.” It’s not, “I lead because I know how to learn,” so much as, “I lead because I know more.” Often leaders believe that they need to have all the answers, which is a daunting prospect in our rapidly changing world. And we see all kinds of behavioural consequences emanating from this problematic stance, not least of which is an aversion to saying, “I don’t know” or admitting a mistake.
Neither of these behaviours is particularly conducive to learning and improvement because they work against productive responsible risk-taking (Katz & Dack, 2013). Shared leadership calls for a very different stance. In that space, leadership is much more about influence. When educators engage in a deliberate and intentional learning process, the ability to inf luence is shared with all members of the school community engaged in the learning.
In our language, leaders need to embrace both the “intelligent” and the “responsive.” Intelligent expectations are those that are based upon sound evidence and research. For example, we know a lot about how to teach students to read. We don’t need to invent the strategies, nor do we need to engage in adaptive learning processes to figure out the strategies. We might need to help teachers to implement the strategies, but we don’t have to work out what they are. We would call this an intelligent expectation.
At the same time, the context of the classroom or school also matters. Even though research might tell us a lot about the “what” of improvement, that’s not the same as knowing “how” to make it work in particular contexts. Leaders must be “responsive” to the context in order for teachers to be supported effectively to meet the needs of students. School boards will hold intelligent expectations based upon evidence and research regarding what should exist in every school and classroom. However, because of the unique and diverse nature of every classroom and school, the implementation becomes much more complex. Shared leadership requires that communities of educators who possess significant expertise gather around tables to learn together; to learn how to get the promises of the intelligent expectations to become realized in context. Nobody waits for the next direction from the person with the highest formal authority, and formal leaders – like principals – model what being a learner in this shared space looks like.
We are in the learning business. Shared leadership invites every member of the school community into a learning space that occupies the intersection between the intelligent and the responsive. Moving the concept of shared leadership out of rhetoric and into reality requires understanding that leadership is less about position, more about influence, and inextricable from learning!