Speaking Out: Three Layers of Education Leadership

By Joseph Murphy
Principal, November/December 2013

A historical analysis of organizational research reveals that few topics have received more attention than leadership, especially in the education indus­try. Academics, developers, and practitioners have all taken turns adding to our understanding of school leadership and how it unfolds in schools and districts. I’d like to offer a simple, yet powerful, frame for how to think about the leader­ship required to fuel school improvement.

Based on an ongoing, 30-year analy­sis of school leadership, my colleagues and I have concluded that there are three layers of education leadership: acting from the heart; attending to the laws of school improvement; and practicing the craft of promoting aca­demic press and community-anchored schooling.

The Bedrock
What is the foundational layer of good leadership? A number of researchers have worked to answer that ques­tion, perhaps none more eloquently or effectively than Lee Bolman and Terry Deal in Leading with Soul. While the idea of acting from the heart may seem too mushy or unscientific, it is nearly impossible to find a highly effective school in which this bedrock is not fairly deep.

When talking to principals about the essentials of their work (and examining cases of highly effective schools), the conversation rarely focuses on a new curricular program or a new teacher evaluation system. They speak, instead, about their pow­erful advocacy for children and young people, and they have a very clear sense of priorities. There’s passion, commitment, and hope. Trusting relationships, care, and respect are central, as are integrity and service. This is the bedrock of great school leadership.

While it is essential, though, heart-centered leadership is not sufficient. Researchers and policymakers do principals and superintendents no favor when we stop here. Principals must also develop the required mid­dle layer of leadership: understanding the laws of school improvement.

The Scaffolding
Effective leadership is more than the sum of good activities. If the ideas discussed above form the bedrock, then wisdom about the rules of school improvement is the architecture on which policies need to be written, systems and procedures need to be forged, and to which practices need to be connected. These rules give mean­ing to and shape the work of leader­ship in effective schools.

What does this second essential layer of leadership look like? It is wrought from hard work, more so than the bedrock material. It is more integrated, and it is harder to see and feel. If the bedrock is a set of deep-seated, inherent principles, the scaffolding is a set of forged rules. For example, effective leaders under­stand that context always matters in improvement work. All interventions need to be molded and shaped to fit the school. The best principals do not make the often-committed and fatal assumption that bringing new structures to a school (such as block scheduling or detracking) will auto­matically lead to success. The wisdom of practice has taught them that interventions need to be infused with meaning, so they work hard to make this happen.

Strong leaders understand that in school improvement, there is no silver bullet; improvement is always an array of integrated efforts. Effective leaders understand that bringing alignment and cohesion to change efforts is as important, or even more important, than the individual actions them­selves. They are aware that early trumps later and prevention trumps remediation. These and other over­arching rules of school improvement comprise this second layer of effective leadership.

The Build-Out
Getting youngsters to reach ambi­tious targets of academic and social success is complex, often difficult work. Leading from the heart and systematically applying the principles of school improvement sets the stage to achieve that end. But leaders can only be successful if they add a third layer of actions. This layer involves paying relentless attention to the two essential elements of great schools: academic press and a community-anchored learning environment. It is also about forging an alloy of the two, or wrapping them around each other like a coil of rope.

Academic press is ensuring that all children are confronted with and sup­ported in reaching ambitious goals. This means engaging each student in a rigorous educational program, providing quality instruction that chal­lenges students to move beyond their level of comfort, and so forth.

Actions to bring forth a communi­ty-anchored school include: creating a professional culture in which teach­ers share a sense of direction, work on practice in a collaborative man­ner, and hold each other account­able for student outcomes; ensuring that every child is known, cared for, and respected; and fostering trust­ing relationships between teachers, between students, between teachers and students, and between educators and parents.

Researchers and educators know a good deal about leadership, and we continue to learn more each day, deepening the leadership narrative and crafting a more nuanced story. But, at the same time, we spend too little time attending to how to “essentialize” this knowledge. That entails asking, “What is the essence of effec­tive leadership? How do we make sense of what we have learned?”

This three-layer model of good leadership focuses on the essentials: acting from the heart; employing the rules of school improvement; and building up the two core elements of great schools: academic press and community-anchored organization. These ideas work best when they are integrated, so school leaders should engage on all three fronts. Principals need to take time to reflect on their strengths and the domains of leader­ship that may be underdeveloped for them. Then, they can create a plan to translate knowledge into action.

Joseph Murphy is a professor of education and the Frank W. Mayborn Chair in the Department of Leadership, Policy & Organizations at Vanderbilt University.

The author outlines the three essential layers of strong school leadership. Do you agree with his model? Share your thoughts on The Principals’ Office blog at www.naesp.org/blog. Click on Speaking Out.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.