If you don’t allow people to contribute, to offer their point of view, or to criticize what has been put out before them, then they can never like you. And you can never build that instrument of collective leadership.
– Nelson Mandela
Today’s public schools face a number of challenges — including diminishing resources, increasing academic expectations, and growing proportions of students living in poverty, with trauma, and even without homes. The job of leading a school, as reported by principals themselves, has become too complex.
The concept of distributed leadership in education has been around for many decades and often is used reverentially by academics in the field. Yet, the ill-defined concept, even when applied, typically translates to principals finding a few teachers to whom they delegate instructional or administrative responsibilities. Deeper learning outcomes for every student mean schools need to look and act differently: student-centered instruction and personalized, competency-based learning are needed in order to serve the whole child.
This kind of schooling demands a new kind of leadership and cannot rest on a few individual administrators or even a handful of assistants and teacher leaders. It requires collective leadership — where teachers and administrators together inform, inspire, and influence colleagues, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders to improve student outcomes.
Let’s be clear. Collective leadership is not another K-12 program. It is a process that taps into the unique talents and skills of everyone in the school, district, or charter. In schools, collective leadership begins (but does not end) with educators (teachers and administrators) leading together, recognizing that long-term success rests on diverse perspectives and contributions.
As Jon Eckert explains in his recent book, in distributed leadership clear boundaries between leaders and followers are always intact. In collective leadership those boundaries become murky — with poignancy and power in this murkiness. Recent research continues to highlight the power of peer learning, teacher leaders, and collective leadership in improving student achievement. And related research highlights how teaching expertise is more likely to spread among teachers on the basis of relational, not positional, leadership.
Collective leadership is adaptive work.
It is common in education to implement technical solutions in an attempt to solve adaptive challenges. Technical fixes are those that apply current knowledge to a clearly defined challenge and do not require new knowledge or a different mindset, whereas adaptive challenges are those that need new knowledge to solve and require those who are applying those solutions to behave in new and different ways. Watch the video below to learn more about technical vs. adaptive change.
While there are technical aspects to making the shift to collective leadership (setting schedules, determining compensation, articulating job responsibilities), the effectiveness of the shift to collective leadership relies on managing the adaptive changes associated with this work. Simply redistributing responsibilities to different people without considering the new knowledge and skills that are needed, as well as the impact on the educator’s role and identity, is not likely to work. In order for collective leadership to take root and thrive, administrators, teachers, and all other members of the school community need to learn a new way of being. And this is what makes the shift to collective leadership primarily an adaptive one.