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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do Schools Need Leadership?

Do Schools Need Leadership?

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

On a sign in our town: Are you a leader? Hiring managers for new business.  

This is an example of the typical confusion that exists in the general public between two very different terms, leader and manager.  For those who know the difference, the sign might imply that leaders need not apply, as they are not being recruited.  We doubt this was the business’s intent, as most businesses want leadership.  Leadership is the reason an organization succeeds or fails, so people think.  

One question on our minds amidst the Death and Life of the great American School System and the subsequent Reigns of Error (Ravitch), as well as our attempts at Catching Up or Leading the Way (Zhao), in an era with perplexing Focus (Schmoker), would be, “Do schools need leadership?” 

Consider what takes place within …

Learning is a transactional process.

Students listen to teachers and then determine which part of that stuff they will believe, and thus which stuff will be useful in their lives. The useful stuff is kept in their minds for future reference; the other stuff is dumped. Yet, heaven forbid that some of the discard might be on “The Test,” so what can a teacher do to help students keep the useless, yet prescriptively pertinent stuff in mind at least until the test is over?

Answer:  The teacher needs to find a way to motivate the students to drag around a few bricks: Quid pro quo.  Is leading a part of this?

Again, learning is a transactional process.

Educators need students to produce outcomes that at times, have little value to students, and at times, even teachers.  It’s a microcosm of the larger scene of national pressure upon educators to produce test-do’ers, the contemporary definition of good students.  Like with certain forms of grunt work, most people don’t like to dig holes, but many will do it for money, or in response to a force greater than themselves. Students will produce irrelevant outcomes if they are bribed enough, or threatened … teachers as well. 

If this is true, that is, if doing school the way it must be done today necessitates extrinsic bribery and bullying, then success in school requires a more transactional approach, person-to-person.  This is a bit more complicated than allowing for intrinsic motivation to flourish in terms of interests, aptitudes, and abilities.  Forced fits take more finesse, requiring someone in positional authority to serve as a concierge, a steward of interaction, a savvy sentry, one who wields both the carrots and sticks toward a prescribed outcome.  In the classroom, the teacher is one such steward, managing relationships toward content outcomes of another’s bidding. 

In the school, the principal manages similarly.

School the way it is currently defined today, from without, might have no place for leadership.

One could contend that with our current situation, leadership impedes stewardship.  It certainly might impede regimentation.  True leadership might get in the way of management’s careful negotiation of relationships between teachers and students. With the current outcomes expected of American schools and students, management is the more efficient means for ensuring a predictable and expected product – test-passers – than asking some conceptual visionary to take us forward, somewhere.

After all, our metaphorical plane’s route is already programmed.  We’re on automatic pilot and at a prescribed cruising altitude, scheduled to land somewhere around testing time.  Certainly not Finland.  Or even China, as they are busy moving away from what we have become.

Leaders are people who are paid to think of tomorrow and build new structures to get us there, not necessarily what is expected currently in our K-12 schools.  Better employed with the demands of today, leaders might be subcontracted like interior designers for the organization’s structure when a facelift is needed to produce better widgets, or like travel agents working to book our tickets when the next set of rules moves the target destination. Leadership’s outsourcing would be convenient, in that they can be asked to leave when their thinking gets too crazy. Nobody would feel obligated to laugh at their jokes, nor would anyone feel obligated to pay them outrageous salaries while they lead the maniacal race for someone’s dangled dollars.  More then could be spent on teaching to the next test. 

Leaders live in the future. We need people who can help other people manage the present, as that is what is expected of us.

We need stewards.  Managers are the stewards.

If we claim that schools are not places for leaders – that they are places for managers – we should not be ashamed of it.  Management is just as challenging as leadership.  We shouldn’t believe all those publications, pundits, and pontificators that glorify leadership as the top of the executive food chain, those that decry management as a lesser life form.  These folks make a repeated mistake of equating leadership with positive organizational change and management with the maintenance of status quo.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  After all, not all leaders could be managers; that would take a deep understanding of people and the putting of their needs first. Many strong managers could do leadership if they were allowed to look outward or move forward creatively.  

Think of the irony involved with leaders in education today, those who are out front with all of their hyper-vigilant visioning, championing, and charting in order to increase performance on tests, all the while their people are imploding because they know it is the wrong thing to do. We call that leading.

How often does America legislate for doctors “what” defines a healthy patient?  How often do we mandate the “how” of a nurse’s care?  Leadership still exists in that profession, at all levels.

Yet, what about in education? To deny that K-12 administrators must spend their days counting beans, looking at the bottom line, and hoping to show a profit rather than leading, is a bit naïve.  Equally naïve is the notion that the folks forced to play this game, teachers and students, do not need much time and attention, care and feeding.  If test-doing is the game we are in, then we need to get good at it.  Getting better at it involves stewardship of our people as we are forcing an extrinsic system upon many who are hard wired for intrinsic need fulfillment. 

Our current system, if we were being quite honest, is afraid of leaders.

In education, if we are to maintain what we have become, let’s allow building administrators to unapologetically be what they need to be – managers – in systems that require stewardship to keep everyone on the same page, in a book that non-educators are writing.


Please be encouraged to join the discussion with Dr. Donlan and Dr. Gruenert by writing them at or at  They would be happy to talk leadership and management, at any time.

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