Building Leadership Capacity


One of the things I’m going to try to keep up over the next few months is to regularly review educational research papers. Hopefully the reviews will build up into a useful resource to inform my own practice. The research papers will be derived from resource links on my blogroll (not really too comfortable with that word but I don’t have any option).  It was in the Journal of Research for Education Leaders that I spotted this interesting paper on Building Leadership Capacity through Educational Leadership Programs (sic), Greenlee 2007.

We’ve recently been exploring how we might do this through the Leadership Development Network but it’s good to find some supporting evidence for the path we are looking to take. I’ve highlighted things which stand out for me in bold.

Greenlee’s starting premise is that:

For real school change to occur, both teachers and administrators must understand theoretically and practically “the nature of leadership and the complex systems in which leadership is exercised” (Bolman & Deal, 1994), however teacher leaders receive little or no preparation for leading.

The study set out to explore whether educational leadership training programmes have any impact on the leadership skills of teachers.

Greenlee provides a very useful literature review – some of which are worth repeating here:

Teacher leadership has been advanced as an essential component of successful school reform and the professionalization of teachers (Lieberman, Saxl & Miles, 2000).

Wasley (1991) provides that while teacher leaders benefit from collaborative arrangements they also have “the ability to encourage colleagues to change, to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily consider without the influence of the leader”.

Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001) assert that “teachers, who are leaders lead within and beyond the classroom, identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders, and influence others towards improved educational practice”

John Gabriel (2005) describes teacher leaders as those who influence school culture, build and maintain a successful team, and equip other potential teacher leaders to improve student achievement.

Studies have found that teachers participating in decision-making and collaborative teacher-principal leadership contribute to school effectiveness, teaching quality, and improvement in student performance (Glover, Miller, Gambling, Gough & Johnson, 1999; Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001; Marks & Louis, 1997; Ovando, 1996; Taylor & Bogotch, 1994).

Furthermore, when the collective capabilities of teachers are brought together to deal with complex problems, manage ambiguous tasks, and develop new courses of action then their commitment to the profession increases (Barth 2001; Smylie & Brownlee-Conyers, 1992).


The technical rational side of school advocates a traditionally organized institution held together by fairly applied authority and accountability for achieving results (Deal & Peterson, 1994; Tyack & Cuban, 1995)

Teacher leadership emerges as an essential component of school improvement within this traditional environment of formal organizational roles that define competence (knowing about educational leading) and authority (formal leadership roles). However, teachers are “almost never provided with lenses to help them understand the nature of leadership and the complex systems in which leadership is exercised” (Bolman & Deal, 1994).

Teacher leadership is not about empowering teachers by merely decentralizing decision-making authority. Rather, it is about mobilizing the frontline forces by increasing teachers’ access to resources, information and expertise in order to positively affect school change (Hallinger & Richardson, 1988).

Linda Lambert (2005) noted that those schools had high leadership capacity, which she defines as “broad-based, skillful participation in the work of leadership” (p. 63).  She found that as schools build leadership capacity, principals and teacher leaders become more alike than different as teachers begin to initiate action, take more responsibility for school effectiveness, frame problems, and seek solutions.

This is consistent with Sergiovanni’s (2001) notion of leadership density. He argues that high leadership density means that many people work collaboratively, are trusted with information, participate in decision-making, and contribute to creation and transfer of knowledge. However, all too often, teachers lack the educational leadership knowledge and skills that will make them successful school leaders.

A distributive leadership model emphasizes a perspective on “how leadership practice is distributed among positional and informal leaders as well as their followers” (Spillane, Hallett, & Diamond, 2003, p.16). Accordingly, teacher leadership for schools thrives when leadership is distributed in democratic learning communities.

Sarason argues that “schools will remain intractable to desired reform as long as we avoid confronting these existing power relationships” (1990, p. 5). Still, the fact remains, that the principal holds a key position in the school hierarchy and teacher leadership capacity is dependent on the attitudes and abilities of school administrators to create conditions which are conducive towards an egalitarian model of leadership (Lambert, 1998).

Challenges/barriers to change:  

One cannot ignore the strong norms of isolation, conformity and autonomy operating in schools that make teacher leadership difficult to implement (Barth, 2001; Little, 1995; Lieberman, 1988.

Distributed leadership structures may place teachers with little or no formal power on a comparative standing with administrators who hold considerable positional power

It should not come as a surprise then that the extent to which leadership is distributed may be a function of the attitude and inclination of the school principal (Hallinger & Heck, 1999; Lambert, 1998).

In order for schools to be leadership rich, the traditional roles of principals and teachers must be renegotiated through knowledge. In essence, if teachers are to be empowered in democratic learning communities then formal preparation for leadership should include teachers.

Conclusions about the impact of Educational Leadership Programmes;

Teacher leadership is not about empowering teachers. Rather, it is about organizing the largely unused leadership capital in teachers to positively affect school change.

Unfortunately, as teacher participants learned and practiced their skills and knowledge, they experienced resistance from other faculty and feelings of alienation.

Activities in the Educational Leadership (EDL) program promoted increased contact with the principal which seemed to alienate EDL students from their peers. The principals’ behaviors toward EDL students may have been interpreted as favoritism.

Roland Barth (2001), sometimes teacher colleagues exhibit an “inhospitable” ethos to teacher leadership or believe that the teacher leader receives unmerited recognition from the administration. For many teachers (48%) in this study this was a barrier to teacher leadership.

In general, a critical condition for teacher leadership is the extent to which school principals arrange structures to make leadership opportunities available to teachers.

It seems obvious the potential of teacher leadership remains underdeveloped. Perhaps the problem here is the notion of “distributing” leadership roles and responsibilities without distributing the necessary knowledge and skills to influence real school improvement efforts.

While educational leadership preparation programs deal primarily with preparing school principals, the knowledge and skills that facilitate working in democratic learning environments offered in these programs are not provided to teachers in their formal preparation programs. School improvement efforts may be enhanced by breaking down the barriers between the two forms of leadership and preparing both teachers and administrators to lead in democratic learning communities

Personal reflections:

1. There is significant untapped leadership potential in all our schools

2. We need to develop leadership programmes for all staff

3. Whatever types of programmes we develop we should try to prevent participants from being seen as being different from their peers.

4. We should challenge the traditional hierachical view of leadership in schools.

2 thoughts on “Building Leadership Capacity

  1. Don, speaking of research… I have just been at a workshop for my MSc dissertation and am focusing my research question(Having discussed a few with my Prof. this is the one I am going with “Can schools & educational establishments become learning organisations?”) Hope we can have a chat at some point- perhaps a couple of minutes at edbuuzz meet? I would like with permission to survey several educational establishments in East Lothian to gather some data. I hope to try and gather data that will identify whether EL have the core characteristics of Learning Organisations (11 in all! – as identified by Senge, Pedler & Aspinwall amongst others).

  2. Hi Don,

    I am about to start my NPQH. I thought this article was fascinating.Where could I go to find some concise material on Education and Leadership and how could i learn more about distributive leadership?
    Thanks Bruce

Comments are closed.