Sunday / May 19

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Shared Leadership

The principal is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the school—from staff and student safety, to the operation and maintenance of the physical plant, to student achievement. How, then, can a principal share leadership, and what are the benefits and drawbacks?

First, for those unfamiliar with the concept, here is a comparison—including a few of the potential differences—between shared leadership and the ways in which most principals work with a traditional leadership team:

Traditional Leadership Team Shared Leadership


Principal ultimately responsible for everything in the school.  




Teacher leaders provide input for some administrative decisions.  




Principal routinely makes many operational decisions about the day-to-day running of the school with no teacher input.  




Teacher leaders hold position of symbolic leadership. X
Teacher leaders share leadership in substantive ways in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  


Teacher leaders regularly make specific decisions through consensus process with the principal.  


Elementary teacher leaders represent grade level teams.  




Secondary teacher leaders are the department heads.  


Secondary teacher leaders are responsible for small, course-alike teams.  


Teacher leaders lead teams of colleagues whose purpose is to continuously study and apply teaching/learning methods to ensure the success of every student in the team.  




Teacher-by-teacher student outcomes (e.g. quiz and test scores, work samples) are regularly and frequently shared and discussed in order to prevent student failure and plan for improved success in upcoming instruction.  




Teacher leaders meet regularly for professional learning with the principal (the “lead learner”), especially to develop and practice skills for leading teams of colleagues.  




Teacher leaders assume ownership of team-wide and school-wide outcomes for student success.  



The Critical Advantage: Ownership

In my many years of experience working with teams at every level, the greatest single difference in these two styles of principals in working with teacher leaders is ownership. Although this is certainly not a formal goal of shared leadership, it is an inevitable outcome. People care about the success of endeavors they actually lead, and it positively impacts their development as leaders—a positive cycle! Symbolic leadership—perhaps occasionally “rubber stamping” the principal’s decisions—does not generate the same level of ownership, nor the same kind of leadership growth for teacher leaders. Shared leadership does require an over-and-above time commitment on the part of both principals and teacher leaders. But, perhaps ironically, given that demand, it results in a vastly higher level of professional satisfaction for experienced classroom teachers. Some decide to move into the ranks of administration as a result, while others—who may have considered administration because there is no other kind of advancement or personal development available to them as effective, veteran teachers—will experience higher enjoyment in the classroom and a renewed commitment to teaching.

The Drawbacks – Time

This brings us to what may be the largest stumbling block on the road to shared leadership: the additional time commitment. Shared leadership is developmental. It grows over time, as the skills of both the principal and the teacher leaders develop. This doesn’t happen in a session or two, or through quarterly meetings. Shared leadership is essential for schools aspiring to become Professional Learning Communities. Such schools quickly discover that effective teacher teams must meet regularly—two to four times a month, for at least one to two hours at a time. This time must be scheduled during the teacher’s paid workday, when students are not present. Weekly late start/early dismissal days are the most common solution, although other creative solutions are possible. Unfortunately, the most often-missed component of PLC development is the development of the teacher leaders. Teacher preparation programs rarely provide any preparation for leading teams of peers. Simply negotiating time in the contract day for teams to meet, and exhorting, “Go forth and collaborate!” results in frustration and abandonment. Soon, the hard-won team meeting time has lapsed into a social hour, or has become just another individual prep period. Team leaders’ regularly scheduled time with the principal, developing and honing their leadership skills, while the principal develops and hones his/her skills in sharing leadership, is absolutely critical for success.

Another Drawback – Peer Attitudes

Roland Barth (2013) wrote, “There’s also a taboo in our profession against one teacher elevating himself or herself above the others. You see it with merit-pay discussions, but you also see it when one teacher takes responsibility for something in the school and the other teachers are just worrying about their own 30 kids. The teacher who takes a leadership role can expect to be punished by fellow teachers.”

Perhaps ‘punish’ is too strong a word for what teacher leaders might experience—or perhaps not. In one cohort of high school teams I facilitated, members of one school team—whose principal I’ll call Karen – reported in their early days as a team that some of the naysayers back at the site had begun to call them “Little Karens.” This is all the more reason that the team needs regular time together. Having a safe place for nursing bruises is important, but strategizing and developing a common front for positive change is another critical function of shared leadership development. The hoary traditions of schooling and school structures are not naturally conducive to shared leadership.

Why Choose Shared Leadership?

Given these disadvantages, why would a principal choose to share leadership? Since the dawn of the Age of Accountability for public schools, with all its pressure upon educators, there is nothing comparable to shared leadership in a PLC for ensuring rapidly improving and sustained high levels of learning for all students. We have seen a rapid proliferation of schools claiming to be PLCs, and a rapidly growing, compelling body of research supporting the movement (DuFour (2015), Hattie (2009, 2015), Carroll, et al. (2010) and Hord, et al. (2010)). But there are also great numbers of schools where teachers report, “We tried that at our school, and it didn’t work.” The missing component? Shared leadership. New initiatives—including PLCs—are mandated constantly from districts, states, and the federal government, but they come and go. Teachers call them pendulum swings. By contrast, shared leadership brings ownership, and ownership brings a lasting commitment to continuous improvement on the part of those who work, day in and day out, teaching the students, in the classrooms of your school.

Terry Wilhelm is the author of Shared Leadership: The Essential Ingredient for Effective PLCs (2016), published by Corwin Press. She is a national consultant and founder/owner of Educators 2000. Her website is


Barth, R.  (2013).  The Time is Ripe (Again).  Educational Leadership, 71 (2), 10-14, 16.

 Carroll, T., Fulton, K., & Doerr, H.  (2010).  Team Up for 21st Century Teaching & Learning:  What Research and Practice Reveal about Professional Learning.  Washington, DC:  National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

DuFour, R. (2015).  In Praise of American Educators and How They Can Become Even Better.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.  New York, NY:  Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2015) What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, London: Pearson.

Hord, S., Lloyd, J., Roussin, L., & Sommers, W. (2010).  Guiding Professional Learning Communities:   Inspiration, Challenge, Surprise, and Meaning.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

Written by

Terry Wilhelm, M.A., has served as a teacher, principal, district office and area service agency administrator, and university adjunct professor in educational leadership. Her work with principals and school leadership teams spans over fifteen years and is the basis for this book. K-12 urban, rural, and suburban schools of all sizes are represented in her work with teams. Terry has authored many articles on school improvement, and is a regular contributor to Leadership, the journal of the Association of California School Administrators. She has a weekly column, Leaders’ Link, written for HotChalk, Inc., and she is a national consultant and founder/owner of Educators 2000. She is the author of the newly-published Shared Leadership.

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