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Distributed Instructional Leadership: What School and District Leaders Can Do to Make it Happen

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

The Principal's Role in Distributed Instructional Leadership

Distributed instructional leadership requires a fundamental shift in the way formal leaders, such as principals understand and perform their role (Murphy, Smylie, & Louis, 2009). It also shifts focus away from the work of managing the school toward the work of ensuring that its instructional program functions effectively to promote high levels of learning among all students.

For building principals, distributed instructional leadership means actively facilitating and supporting the instructional leadership of others (Harris, 2012, 2013). It does not mean that formal leadership structures within the school are redundant or unnecessary. On the contrary, Harris and Muijs (2004) note: "The responsibility of those in formal leadership roles in schools is to ensure that informal leaders have the opportunity to lead at appropriate times and are given the necessary support to make changes or to innovate" (p. 5). Individuals with positional authority (e.g., principals) occupy formal leadership positions and can "…move initiatives forward or kill them off quickly through actions or slowly through neglect" (Murphy, et al., 2009, p. 6).

Intentional leadership distribution cannot take place without the principal understanding that his or her role is one of developing the leadership capacity of others. In an extensive review of 69 studies involving over 2,800 schools and 1.4 million students, Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005) identified 21 specific leadership behaviors (e.g., monitoring the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student behavior). Shared among formal and informal leaders, these behaviors contribute to a school’s collective efficacy as well as its “capability to develop and use assets to accomplish goals that matter to all community members through agreed-upon processes." (p. 99).

Across the studies in Marzano and associates' synthesis, key leadership actions of effective principals included: creating strong leadership teams, distributing responsibilities throughout the teams, and selecting the right work. Similarly, Leithwood and colleagues (2004) concluded that effective leaders engaged in three sets of core practices: (1) setting directions (e.g., developing shared goals and high performance standards); (2) developing people (e.g., providing individual support, modeling effective instructional strategies); and (3) redesigning the organization (e.g., developing collaborative cultures and structures, building productive relations with parents and the community) (p. 4).

In comparing the actions used by principals who embrace distributed leadership with those of principals who embrace a more traditional approach, Robinson (2011) noted differences in principals' problem formulation and problem-solving processes. For example, principals working within a distributed leadership model were more likely to actively seek the interpretations of others, relate problems to the wider mission of their schools, develop widely shared goals, and carefully plan a collaborative problem-solving approach. In contrast, principals using a more traditional approach were more likely to refrain from seeking others' interpretations of problems, treat particular problems in isolation from other problems and goals, and focus on meeting their own goals; they were less likely to engage in planning (p. 33).