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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Instructional Leadership: A Broad, Brushstroke of Insignificance?

Instructional Leadership: A Broad, Brushstroke of Insignificance?

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Moving from “building manager” to “instructional leader” is all the rage.   According the a commonly embraced mantra: Today’s principals need to be prepared differently because the old, right way of doing things is now the new, wrong way.

Interestingly, researchers from Vanderbilt and Stanford universities are inviting us to reconsider this broad, brushstroked pendulum swing toward instructional leadership, at least the way it is often operationalized.  They noted (1) that few studies have connected instructional leadership behaviors to school performance and (2) that specific behaviors, such as classroom informal walk-throughs, negatively predict student growth, particularly in the high school setting (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2013).

As we pause this week to think about what leaders should be doing in our K-12 schools, let’s consider whether or not instructional leadership really makes sense.  We’ll start first by pulling apart the term.

To some, instruction implies “teaching” … to others, “learning.”  One is an input … the other, an output.  Both have shortcomings, if considered at each end of a dichotomy.

If we focus too much on inputs, leadership walk-throughs could be reduced to bean counting; we would only need accountants to do the job.  Yet, if we focus too much on outputs as promulgated by accountability bobbleheads, we then should probably ask ourselves in the parlance of Stanley Bing’s Machiavellian spoof, “Do the ends really justify the meanness?”

So then, upon what should we focus?
Toward what should principals lead?  
Or rather, what should they do?

Let’s start by asking a more important question, posed recently in our own Department of Educational Leadership:  Is leadership a position or a process?   

If a position, it could be interpreted as something tangible, a snapshot.  With leadership defined as such, it would be easy to find someone to blame when things aren’t successful – a dartboard.  After all, it’s just hanging there right in front of us.

This is why in dysfunctional organizations, our smarter leaders have found that they fare better renting, or if buying, they do so out of town.   We’ve all heard the one about the new CEO inheriting three envelopes, haven’t we? 

A fellow had just been hired as the new CEO of a large corporation. The current CEO was stepping down and met with the new hire privately in his office, where he handed him three numbered envelopes.
"Open these if you run up against a problem you don't think you can solve," the first CEO said.
Things went along pretty smoothly for the first six months, but then sales took a downturn and the new CEO began catching a lot of heat. He went to his drawer and took out the first envelope. The message read, "Blame your predecessor."
The new CEO called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Sales began to pick up and the problem was soon behind him.
About a year later, the company was again experiencing a slight dip in sales, combined with serious product malfunctions. Having learned from his previous experience, the CEO opened the second envelope. The message read, "Reorganize." This he did, and the company quickly rebounded.
After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on hard times. The CEO went to his office, closed the door and opened the third envelope.
The message said, "Prepare three envelopes."


Just substitute “CEO” for “principal” above, and you’ll get the idea.  That’s leadership as a “position” in contemporary K-12.

If leadership is defined more as a process, we may be getting closer to something of greater import … something less temporary. Leadership-as-process involves more the how of something than the what.  

Recent research has found the more time school leaders spend coaching teachers, the more that process bears a relationship to greater math achievement growth (Grissom, Loeb, and Master, 2013). We do not suggest that leadership and coaching should be used interchangeably, yet we do note that these really interesting findings would be a bit less worrisome if Monday mornings in America were not “all about firing coaches.”

The questions then become: Just how much latitude will we give school principals to be coaches?  Taken further, how many tools will we give coaches, to coach?  Regarding those tools:

Will our coaches be granted access to the personality profiles of each team member, and thus use that information to create harmony or to disrupt the status quo?

Will we allow our coaches to bench the board member’s incompetent nephew?

Or, are we going to default to something more cowardly and self-serving: The continuing notion that “principal” is simply a temporary position at the behest of a board or superintendent -- a first line of defense, expendable, if things aren’t won.  Sort of like the way we actually DO treat coaches.

As with many armchair-quarterback scenarios, the semantics regarding building management and instructional leadership are often peddled by those who could not operationalize their differences – certainly, those who have neither managed nor led (nor coached).

What we need in schools is not necessarily to demand instructional leadership of our principals, yet rather, instructional supervision.

If we were to “get real,” as our students would encourage us, we would instead leave instructional leadership to the teachers who are qualified to model, and even in some cases lead, what they have been best prepared to do? Principals might then enjoy the latitude of garnering resources for teachers and staff, while monitoring and watching over those who choose to innovate or to remain idle.  The might even be able to manage their buildings.

The bottom line is that we need principals strong enough to be instructional supervisors, or as new research informs us … coaches. Let’s encourage the support of fair team owners and loyal fans toward this end.

At present, too many who attend “How-to-Be-Principal” PD are feeling the peer pressure to try-on newly sported outfits of instructional leadership, as not buying what their friends are wearing (and what “industry” says is in style) would be “So Totally Uncool.”

And while currently looking the part – walking through classrooms to the cadence of Right Said Fred – one downside might be that principals are doing their little turns on the catwalk in front of real instructional leaders, who find them as insignificant as they do unfashionable.


Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective instructional time use for school leaders: Longitudinal evidence from observations of principals. Educational Researcher 42(8), 433-444.


Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert teach in the Ph.D. program at Indiana State University and would love to have you in on this conversation, especially if you disagree with them.  Might even get some time in the Leadershop.  If you would like share your thoughts, opinions, or feelings, please feel free to contact them at or 

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