This is a question that I have asked myself for many years. The importance of shared leadership is something that we have been discussing for some time. Who can argue with the concept of collaboration and shared leadership? Of course, we understand that top-down leadership alone will never make the differences we require in classrooms and schools. But why do we discuss the importance of sharing leadership, without discussing how to actually make it happen?
One of our biggest difficulties may be that we do not share a common understanding of what shared leadership actually is. In some ways, it is easier to describe what shared leadership is not. For example, shared leadership is not a form of delegation where a principal directs his or her staff to implement the principal’s ideas. Shared leadership is not doing group work that is directed by a principal. Shared leadership is not creating committees to give advice to the principal.
Shared leadership 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 are much stronger than those that could be created by any individual.
Shared leadership is about true collaboration. By working together, by thinking through complex issues together, and by sharing our learning along the way, we are able to create something more amazing than anything we could create by working alone. Collaboration means that my attitudes, my beliefs, and my actions are impacted and changed because of the work we are doing together. Even though the principal in a shared leadership model is the “conductor of the orchestra,” all members of the orchestra are required in order for the school community to improve.
My colleagues Steven Katz, Lisa Dack, and I have addressed these issues in our newbook, The Intelligent, Responsive Leader (Corwin Press, 2017). A key foundation of this book is the importance of advancing the concept of a school as a learning organization. Each day principals in schools experience many pressures. Some of these pressures may come from the central office who is directing principals to implement certain initiatives. Some stresses may come from the expectations or perspectives of individual staff members or even the collective staff in a particular school. In order to move forward positively and effectively, we argue that the principal needs to focus on learning. Too often school leaders are pulled into operational issues or crises, and don’t have the time to learn with their staff. Even though research suggests that learning with one’s staff is probably one of the greatest strategies that a principal can use, time and time again we see evidence that this simply does not happen.
Often leaders believe that they need to know all the answers. They may believe that they cannot admit their mistakes. If they have questions or feel confused about certain matters, they may be afraid to admit it. There are many reasons why these perspectives exist, but shared leadership speaks to a very different stance. We believe that leadership is much more about influence, and when educators engage in a deliberate and intentional learning process, the ability to influence is shared with all members of the school community engaged in the learning.
Intelligent and Responsive Leadership
Leaders should be both “intelligent” and “responsive” if they want to impact learning positively and effectively. Intelligent expectations are those that are based upon evidence and research. For example, there are many significant strategies that teachers must employ in order to teach students how to read. We do not need to invent the strategies, nor do we need to engage in adaptive learning processes to figure out what the strategies might be. We may need to support teachers to use the strategies, but it is not as though we have to determine the strategies from scratch. We would call this an intelligent expectation.
Further, the context of the classroom or school also matters. Even though research may tell us how we might proceed, leaders must be responsive to the context in order for teachers to be supported effectively to meet the needs of their 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. They should not wait for the next direction from the person with the greatest authority. And the person who holds the formal leadership position, such as the principal, must model the fact that they are a learner in order to set the context for the significant and complex learning that is required.
We have all experienced conversations with colleagues that were pleasant or informative, but at the end of the day nothing changed in terms of classroom practice. Those who engage in inquiry never lose sight of the importance of impact. In other words, what difference does it make that we are learning together, that we are sharing leadership in this particular school, and that we are reflecting regularly on our learning so as to influence our next best learning move? Collaborative inquiry means that we are willing to be uncomfortable. Shared leadership is connected to the concept of discomfort because shared leadership means that we cannot stay in leadership paradigms that are safe and positional. Further, by getting out of our comfort zone, and by challenging our perspectives and beliefs, we are leaving ourselves open to the fact that certain ideas, perspectives, and beliefs may need to be changed. Because true learning is about continuous change, we simply need to accept that learning and leading are uncomfortable propositions.
Learning is at the heart of everything we do. Shared leadership invites every member of the school community into this learning process, a process that has the potential to transform practice and positively impact the lives of our students. Maybe shared leadership will become more prevalent in our schools when everyone understands that leadership is less about position, more about influence, and completely connected to inquiry and learning.