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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Research Matters / The Myth of the Superhero Leader

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Leadership
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In light of the many feats we ask principals to perform as instructional leaders—like guiding teachers to improve student outcomes and arranging for teachers' continued learning, all while overseeing budgets, placating parents, and addressing student behavior and mental health needs—principals might wonder if their job description should also include leap tall buildings in a single bound. Is the widespread notion of principals as instructional leaders tantamount to asking them to be superhuman? Where did this idea of principal as hero come from, anyway?

Origins of Instructional Leadership

By most accounts, the concept of instructional leadership emerged in the 1970s, when researchers began to study so-called effective schools—high-poverty schools that were performing better than expected—and noted a common feature: Leaders focused on instruction. That is, principals were instructional leaders. In the ensuring years, scholars proposed dueling lists of key traits for instructional leadership.
As the lists grew, so did questions, including whether it was humanly possible to be an instructional leader. How could anyone, short of a bite from a radioactive spider, do everything scholars, superintendents, and policymakers expected of principals? Some scholars, like Leithwood (1992), questioned the roots of the concept, noting that it emerged from studies of a particular type of school (turnaround schools) whose leaders focused on boosting standardized test scores in a top-down way. What about the rest of schools, including those that were good but could be better? Might they need a different kind of leadership, one that could, say, inspire people to change by rallying around a shared moral purpose? Thus, a new concept, transformational leadership, was born—along with lists and surveys to define and measure it (Bass & Avolio, 1994).

Which Leadership Behaviors Matter Most?

By the early 2000s, researchers hoped to cut through the proliferation of lists by using scientific (or at least quantitative) methods to pin down more precisely which leadership behaviors had the most impact on student achievement. One meta-analysis of 37 published studies (Witziers, Bosker, & Kruger, 2003), found no significant link between principals' scores on a measure of leader effectiveness and the performance of those principals' schools. Yet a McREL meta-analysis drawing upon a sample of 70 studies identified 21 leadership responsibilities with links to student achievement that reflected elements of both instructional and transformational leadership (Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003).
A few years later, in a meta-analysis of 27 studies, Australian researchers (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008) found that instructional leadership behaviors, such as actively engaging in teacher learning and guiding curriculum planning and enactment, had three to four times the effect size of transformational leadership behaviors. This finding prompted the researchers to conclude that "the closer leaders are to the core business of teaching and learning, the more likely they are to make a difference to students" (p. 636). Nonetheless, they noted that while transformational leadership behaviors like building school culture and fostering shared purpose weren't as strongly tied to student achievement, they still had significant effects, and thus might be "necessary but not sufficient" (p. 666) for improving school performance.
This phrase might apply to most, if not all, leadership behaviors. In fact, the one thing we might glean from studies of school leadership is that the best leaders demonstrate a wide array of behaviors, playing not one but many roles, which I've identified as:
  • Visionary: Seeing new possibilities and inspiring others to pursue stretch goals.
  • Learner: Modeling intellectual inquiry by reflecting on data and learning with teachers.
  • Commander: Turning vision to action by aligning resources and accountability to goals.
  • Connector: Creating a positive culture that empowers teachers to learn from each other.

Send in the Architects

In practice, these four roles likely reflect both natural traits and learned behaviors, so some leaders may slide more easily into certain roles and need to "lean in" to others. Yet, as a recent study suggests, the most effective leaders balance all four. British researchers Alex Hill and colleagues (2016) analyzed the behaviors of hundreds of school principals in the United Kingdom. They identified five leadership "personalities" that produce markedly different results:
  • Philosophers seem most comfortable in the visionary and connector roles. They talk a good game about new ways of teaching and empowering teachers, yet often fail to translate vision into action.
  • Surgeons are comfortable in commander mode. They quickly size up problems, remove ineffective teachers, and bring in new programs and routines to boost test results. School performance initially improves, but levels off after a couple years due a lack of investment in teacher learning.
  • Soldiers are no-nonsense commanders of a different sort; they focus on trimming fat from school budgets, automating processes, and tightening the screws to get teachers to work harder. (As one such leader put it, "If you cut resources, people have to change!") School finances improve, but little else. Morale tanks.
  • Accountants serve as commanders and connectors. They busy themselves with bringing new resources to the school and avoid ruffling feathers by giving teachers latitude in using resources. The financial picture improves, but little else changes.
Only one leadership personality, the architect, delivers sustained improvement—by balancing all four roles. In the words of the researchers, "they're insightful, humble, visionary leaders who believe schools fail because they're poorly designed," so they work with teachers to develop a collaborative school vision and engage directly in professional learning, coaching, mentoring, and peer collaboration. "In many ways," noted the researchers, "they combine the best parts of the other leaders."
With an architect at the helm, gains come slowly at first, but about three years in, performance begins to improve—and keeps improving. Notably, architects are unassuming leaders who seek few accolades, preferring to recede into the background. As one put it, "No one should notice when I leave the room." Thus, these balanced leaders seem to debunk the myth of principals as superheroes by demonstrating that the best leaders are those who create conditions for everyone else to be everyday heroes.
References

Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hill, A., Mellon, L., Laker, B., & Goddard, J. (2016, Oct. 20). The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school. Harvard Business Review.

Leithwood, K. (1992). The move toward transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, 49(5), 8–12.

Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, (44)5, 635–674.

Waters, T., Marzano, R. J., & McNulty, B. (2003). Balanced leadership. What 30 years of research tells us about the effect on student achievement. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Witziers, B., Bosker, R., & Kruger, M. (2003). Educational leadership and pupil achievement: The elusive search for an association. Educational Administration Quarterly, 34(3), 398–425.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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