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What is Educational Leadership?

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The central concept is influence rather than authority. Both are dimensions of power but the latter tends to reside in formal positions, such as the principal or headteacher, while the former could be exercised by anyone in the school or college. Leadership is independent of positional authority while management is linked directly to it.



The posting below looks at various concepts of academic leadership. It is from a British perspective but it clearly also has a more universal application. It is from Chapter 1, The Importance of Leadership and Management for Education, in the book, Theories of Educational Leadership and Management, by Tony Bush. Fourth edition, 2011 published by SAGE Publications Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320. Copyright © Tony Bush 2011. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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What is Educational Leadership?


Gunter (2004) shows that the labels used to define this field have changed from 'educational administration' to 'educational management', and, more recently, to 'educational leadership'. In England, this shift is exemplified most strongly by the opening of the National College for School Leadership in 2000, described as a 'paradigm shift' by Bolam (2004). We shall examine the differences between leadership and management later in this chapter. There are many different conceptualizations of leadership, leading Yukl (2002: 4-5) to argue that 'the definition of leadership is arbitrary and very subjective. Some definitions are more useful than others, but there is no \"correct\" definition.' Three dimensions of leadership may be identified as a basis for developing a working definition.

Leadership as influence

A central element in many definitions of leadership is that there is a process of influence.

Most definitions of leadership reflect the assumption that it involves a social influence process whereby intentional influence is exerted by one person [or group] over other people [or groups] to structure the activities and relationships in a group or organisation. (Yukl, 2002: 3)

Cuban's (1988: 193) definition shows that the influence process is purposeful in that it is intended to lead to specific outcomes: 'Leadership, then refers to people who bend the motivations and actions of others to achieving certain goals; it implies taking initiatives and risks'. Bush (2008a:277) refers to three key aspects of these definitions:

  • The central concept is influence rather than authority. Both are dimensions of power but the latter tends to reside in formal positions, such as the principal or headteacher, while the former could be exercised by anyone in the school or college. Leadership is independent of positional authority while management is linked directly to it.


  • The process is intentional. The person seeking to exercise influence is doing so in order to achieve certain purposes.


  • Influence may be exercised by groups as well as individuals. This notion provides support for the concept of distributed leadership and for constructs such as senior leadership teams. 'This aspect of leadership portrays it as a fluid process, potentially emanating from any part of the school, independent of formal management positions and capable of residing with any member of the organization, including associate staff and students' (ibid.: 277).

Leadership and values

The notion of 'influence' is neutral in that it does not explain or recommend what goals or actions should be pursued. However, leadership is increasingly linked with values. Leaders are expected to ground their actions in clear personal and professional values. Greenfield and Ribbins (1993) claim that leadership begins with the 'character' of leaders, expressed in terms of personal values, self-awareness and emotional and moral capability. Earlier, Greenfield (1991: 208) distinguished between values and rationality: 'Values lie beyond rationality. Rationality to be rationality must stand upon a value base. Values are asserted, chosen, imposed, or believed. They lie beyond quantification, beyond measurement'.


Day, Harris and Hadfield's (2001) research in 12 'effective' schools in England and Wales concludes that 'good leaders are informed by and communicate clear sets of personal and educational values which represent their moral purposes for the school' (ibid.: 53). This implies that values are 'chosen', but Bush (2008a: 277) argues that the dominant values are those of government and adds that these are 'imposed' on school leaders. Teachers and leaders are more likely to be enthusiastic about change when they 'own' it rather than having it imposed on them. Hargreaves (2004), drawing on research in Canadian schools, finds that teachers report largely positive emotional experience of self-initiated change but predominantly negative ones concerning mandated change.

Leadership and vision

Vision has been regarded as an essential component of effective leadership for more than 20 years. Southworth (1993: 73-4) suggests that heads are motivated to work hard 'because their leadership is the pursuit of their individual visions' (ibid.: 74). Dempster and Logan's (1998) study of 12 Australian schools shows that almost all parents (97 per cent) and teachers (99 per cent) expect the principal to express his or her vision clearly, while 98 per cent of both groups expect the leader to plan strategically to achieve the vision.


These projects show the high level of support for the notion of visionary leadership but Foreman's (1998) review of the concept shows that it remains highly problematic. Fullan (1992a: 83) says that 'vision building is a highly sophisticated dynamic process which few organizations can sustain'. Elsewhere, Fullan (1992b) is even more critical, suggesting that visionary leaders may damage rather than improve their schools:

The current emphasis on vision in leadership can be misleading. Vision can blind leaders in a number of ways ... The high-powered, charismatic principal who 'radically transforms the school' in four or five years can ... be blinding and misleading as a role model ... my hypothesis would be that most such schools decline after the leader leaves ... Principals are blinded by their own vision when they feel they must manipulate the teachers and the school culture to conform to it. (Ibid.: 19)

Bolam et al.'s (1993) research illustrates a number of problems about the development and articulation of 'vision' in English and Welsh schools. Their study of 12 self-selected 'effective schools shows that most heads were able to describe 'some sort of vision' but 'they varied in their capacity to articulate the vision and the visions were more or less sophisticated' (ibid.: 33). Moreover, the visions were rarely specific to the school. They were 'neither surprising nor striking nor controversial. They are closely in line with what one might expect of the British system of education' (ibid.: 35).


It is evident that the articulation of a clear vision has the potential to develop schools but the empirical evidence of its effectiveness remains mixed. A wider concern relates to whether school leaders are able to develop a specific vision for their schools, given the centrality of government prescriptions of both curriculum aims and content. A few headteachers may be confident enough to challenge official policy in the way described by Bottery (1998: 24); 'from defy through subvert to ignore; on to ridicule then to wait and see to test; and in some (exceptional) cases finally to embrace'. However, most are more like Bottery's (2007: 164) 'Alison', who examines every issue in relation to their school's OFSTED report.


Hoyle and Wallace (2005: 11) are critical of the contemporary emphasis on vision. 'Visionary rhetoric is a form of managementspeak that has increased very noticeably in schools since the advent of educational reforms'. They contrast the 'visionary rhetoric' with 'the prosaic reality' experienced by staff, students and parents: 'If all the visionary rhetoric corresponded with reality, would a third of teachers be seeking to leave the profession?' (ibid.: 12). They add that visions have to conform to centralized expectations and to satisfy OFSTED inspectors; 'any vision you like, as long as it's central government's' (ibid.: 139).



Bolam, R. (2004) 'Reflections on the NCSL from a historical perspective', Educaitonal Management, Administration and Leadership, 32(3): 251-68.

Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Pocklington, K. and Weindling, D. (1993) Effective Management in Schools, London: HMSO.

Bottery, M. (1998) Professionals and Policy, London: Cassell.

Bottery, M. (2007) 'New Labour policy and school leadership in England: room for manouevre?', Cambridge Journal of Education, 37(2): 153-72.

Bush, T. (2008a) 'From management to leadership: semantic or meaningful change?', Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 36(2): 271-88.

Cuban, L. (1988) The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Day, C., Harris, A. and Hadfield M. (2001) 'Challenging the orthodoxy of effective school leadership', International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(1): 39-56.

Dempster, N. and Logan, L. (1998( 'Expectations of school leaders', in J. MacBeath (ed.), Effecitve School Leadership: Responding to Change, London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Foreman, K. (1998) 'Vision and mission', in D. Middlewood and J. Lumby (eds), Strategic Management in Schools and Colleges, London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Fullan, M. (1992a) Successful School Improvement, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Fullan, M. (1992b) 'Visions that blind', Educational Leadership, 49(5): 19-20.

Greenfield, T. (1991) 'Reforming and revaluing educational administration: whence and when cometh the phoenix', educational Management and Administration, 19(4): 200-17.

Greenfield, T. and Ribbins, P. (eds) (1993) greenfield on Educational Administration: Towards a Humane Science, London: Routledge

Gunter, H. (2004) 'Labels and labeling in the field of educational leadership', Discourse - Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 25(1): 21-41.

Hargreaves, A. (2004) Inclusive and exclusive educational change: emotional responses of teachers and implications for leadership', School Leadership and Management, 24(3): 287-306.

Hoyle, E. and Wallace, M. (2005) Educational Leadership: Ambiguity, Professionals and Managerialism, London: Sage.

Southworth, G. (1993) 'School leadership and school development: reflections from research', School Organisation, 12(2): 73-87.

Yukl, G.A. (2002) Leadership in Organizations, 5th edn, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.