Challenging the Status Quo in Education Leadership

By Karen Starr posted 03-27-2018 14:58


“The leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” At first glance, John Maxwell’s description of an effective leader sounds like it would apply to all situations. But school business is an area where leadership by this definition may not always work. While there is a huge array of literature about different styles of leadership—varying from servant to authoritarian—most of it does not define leadership and not all of the advice given will work in the unique school business field.

Why challenge traditional definitions of leadership?

Often, dominant leadership understandings and assumptions actually work against the interests of school business officials and weaken education leadership in schools and districts. Corporate failures have proven that the “know it all, do it all” approach to leadership is not always successful. Vesting too much faith, hope and power in one person centralizes decision making and policy direction from the top, singularizes and individualizes responsibilities, and can bottle neck decision making. Under this authoritarian leadership style, employees’ power is reduced, they do not have authority to get things done and feel powerless to change anything. This lack of voice or engagement eventually eats away at morale across the organization.

Consider the consequences of that kind of “top-down” leadership in the school district. School business officials often work with top-level district leaders who have little background in school business. This presents a challenge when the school business officials are not empowered to make the sound financial decisions they were trained to make. Projects may go unfunded, resources may be cut, budgets may be blown, and ultimately the students suffer.

What style of leadership works best in education?

School districts operate more effectively with a distributed style of leadership. Everyone has a leadership role. Everyone utilizes their strengths. Everyone shares the responsibilities and stewardship. A shared leadership model builds capacity; team members learn leadership by being leaders. Everyone contributes to making wise, collective decisions that take account of all areas of the organization.

How can school business officials apply the distributed leadership style?

Your position provides connotations about the authority you have, but the way you define yourself as a leader and enact leadership will eventually override preconceived notions about you. For school business officials, adopting the distributed style of leadership creates the healthiest environment in your school system. Everyone contributes their talents and interests and feels connected. In the unique school business field, leadership is a shared responsibility and must be balanced across roles for the sake of the health of the school system.

This is a leadership-at-all-levels approach. Bottom line: leadership is a verb not a noun. It’s a doing word. It’s the actions that we take. What actions can you take today to build a culture of distributed leadership in your district?




03-29-2018 14:45

There are a fair number of districts in which the business office is quite small.  Not to limit this to such small districts, but the notion of distributed leadership especially in those situations needs to be inclusive of leadership throughout the district.  There may not be many (or any) business office staff to distribute the shared stewardship to, but an effective leader will engage and involve principals, the superintendent, instructional staff, and others for the benefit of students.

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Karen!

03-29-2018 11:22


Having worked in the private sector in my first career and now as a school business official for 15+ years, this article and your perspective truly resonates with me.  Early on in my career, I struggled with the concept of distributed leadership only to learn that by dominating any conversation, my voice was not valued.  Thanks for reminding me on how I can be a more effective leader for my organization by continuing to value other's talents and interests in the process!

Thanks again,