Posted - April 2017

Nobody’s Perfect, But a Team Can Be! (Belbin)

by Jan Alen, CIS Affiliated Consultant

Over the past decade or more, the evidence has become overwhelming clear, the prevailing mental models of the principal being all things to all people is well and truly past it’s ‘use by’ date. A major shift in thinking and practice in schools and systems is required to meet the ever changing school environment in today’s schools. This shift, highlights the urgent need for encouraging and supporting models of ‘shared or distributed leadership’ in schools in order to:

  • better manage the complex and ever increasing challenges facing schools;
  • demonstrate leadership beyond the ‘positional leadership roles’
  • grow other leaders in the school;
  • tap into the leadership diversity, skills and potential of staff;
  • provide opportunities for growth by providing opportunities and challenges for aspirants;
  • improve the balance between professional and personal life for those in leadership roles, and ultimately,
  • improve learning outcomes for all students.

Conversations about ‘shared leadership’ acknowledged the tension that exists with outdated models of leadership where individuals, their communities and systems around them expect the principal to have all the capabilities required for the role and be the expert and the fountain of knowledge and truth. The key question that I put forward in this article for readers to think about - Is the ‘hero’ or ‘sole’ leader sustainable in today’s world of schooling? In recent years, there has emerged a plethora of literature and research that indicates that new and different models of leadership need to be explored, tried and tested in schools, to establish a momentum that will change and challenge the traditional and acceptable ways of leading schools in the 21st century.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: The flawless person at the top who has got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organisations will be. In today’s world, the executive’s job is no longer to command and control but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organisation. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete - as having both strengths and weaknesses - will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others’. (Ancona)

‘In the new role, the principal recognises that no one person in the school is the most knowledgeable or experienced practitioner. Rather, the principal is aware of the strengths of staff and taps into each member’s expertise to improve teaching and learning in the school. The principal works with the staff to develop a strong professional culture in which teachers continuously collaborate to ensure fulfilment of the school’s vision.’ (Jackson & Davis - Turning points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century)

Jackson and Davis identify and explore a number of principles that underpin the creation of a culture of collaborative and shared leadership. The principles are supported by six practices which they call Turning Points Practices, one of these being – Building Leadership Capacity and Professional Collaborative Culture. This is described as ‘creating a democratic school community, fostering skills and practices of strong leadership, establishing regular common planning time, and embedding professional development in the daily life of the school.

Furthermore, Yukl and Lepsinger (2007, 11) state that

‘ In the face of complex challenges, a leader, no matter how skilled and otherwise effective, cannot simply step into the breach, articulate a new vision, make some clarifying decisions, and proclaim success. Because a complex challenge requires a whole system and all the people in it to change, it lies beyond the scope of any individual person to confront.’

There are a range of terms in the literature used to describe a ‘shared leadership’culture – parallel leadership (Crowther et al 2002), leaderful practice (Raelin 2003), connected leadership (Yukl & Lepsinger 2007),

For the purposes of this article I will use the term ‘shared leadership.’

So what is ‘Shared Leadership?’

Spillane (2006, 11) defines shared leadership as ‘the interaction of two or more members of a group that often involves a structuring of the situation and the perceptions and expectations of the members. …Leadership occurs when one group member modifies the motivation or competitiveness of others in the group. ‘Organisational members influence the motivation, knowledge, affect or practices of other organisational members’

‘Shared leadership involves a formal leader plus other leaders, whereas distributed leadership is about ‘the many and not just the few’. It is about interactions, not just the actions of heroes’ (Spillane)

In a report commissioned for the National College for School Leadership in the UK, 2003, (NCSL), Court draws on the work of Kagan (1994) to provide a concept of leadership on a continuum from ‘sole leadership’ to ‘shared leadership’ (see diagram).

Each style of leadership on the continuum is described as follows:

  • Sole Leadership
    • One person is the authority
    • Positional power
    • Dominant
    • Decision maker
  • Supported Leadership
    • Where recognised ‘sole leader’ draws on advice and input from others to achieve an outcome
  • Dual Leadership
    • Involves a partnership between two people both recognised as leaders.
    • Principal and Deputy
    • Two Deputies
    • CEO & Board President
  • Shared Leadership
    • Leadership is diffused
    • Becoming a holistic property shared to some degree by all persons and groups involved in collaboration.
    • Utilises a diversity of skills
    • Working with and through teams to achieve results.

Shared leadership doesn’t just exist because the leader or the system deems it necessary. It takes time and is dependant on clear, non ambiguous, consistent and transparent behaviours and actions of the leader or leaders involved. Recalling the often used cliché, ‘there is no I in TEAM’, members of this team need to focus their energy and attention on the ‘greater good which can be challenging when egos and ambition can get in the way. However, a greater level of satisfaction can be gained from a sense of team success that far outweighs individual success.

In Kagan’s terms ‘shared leadership’ is underpinned by:

  • High levels of trust
  • Focus on building the relationships
  • Openness & honesty
  • Commitment to the development of others through challenge, support, feedback
  • Value individual differences
  • Transparency about intent
  • Share information
  • Shared responsibility

Schools can provide an ideal environment for ‘shared leadership’. Beyond the role of the positional leaders, there is potentially an enormous wealth of talented and skilled professionals to contribute to the leadership culture of a school. Leaders’ modelling shared leadership sends a powerful message and could also have a significant impact on the perceptions of students as they grow into the next generation of leaders. Schools that recognise this are already including students in their ‘shared leadership’ model.

Shared leadership is demonstrated with strong commitment and visible teamwork. The importance of teamwork (as opposed to teambuilding) cannot be underestimated.

Shared leadership signals a shift from individual achievement towards a focus on collective achievement, shared responsibility and the importance of teamwork.

Acknowledging this shift, in 2008, the Queensland Department of Education, Training and the Arts commissioned a report on ‘best practice’ for school leadership teams, (Cranston & Ehrich). The report recognised that investing in the professional development of individual leaders, while important, also needed to be complemented by an equivalent investment in leadership teams. Here is an extract from the report that bears strong relevance to the building ‘shared leadership’ culture.

1. The Importance of Teams

‘For some years, there has been a strong argument that sharing leadership in teams is not only empowering for its members and an inclusive activity, but also more effective since it is unlikely that one person can act alone effectively in all circumstances. This is particularly the case now in schools where responsibilities and accountabilities have increased in recent years.

  • It can be empowering
  • It is inclusive and morally just since it gives voice to all members
  • More effective than working on one’s own
  • Engenders greater commitment and support
  • Has idealistic and practical dimensions

Effective teams are those that are said to demonstrate particular characteristics. These characteristics relate to the dynamics of the team, its purposes and practices, the relationships among team members and the relationships it has with others in the organisation. These characteristics include:

  • Common purpose and clear vision
  • Clear roles, commitment, and communication
  • Range of personal attributes across the team
  • Positive team modelling
  • Clear expectations by members
  • Resolving disagreements openly by discussion
  • Readiness to change on the part of members
  • Inclusion of wider staff in the processes
  • Integrity as a key element of teamwork
  • Trust, collegiality, respect and partnership amongst members
  • Demonstrated commitment to reflecting on, and improving team dynamics and practices

Some writers argue that it is the formal leader of the school, i.e. the head teacher or principal who, in most cases, sets the parameters and culture or tone for the type, extent and quality of teamwork that is enacted. Key matters to highlight about the principal in school leadership teams include:

  • Influence in shaping dynamics and promoting a culture of teamwork
  • Occupies a unique position: that of leader and member of the team
  • Determines largely the extent to which teams are collegial or hierarchical
  • Determines the degrees of sharing and tasks undertaken
  • Provides ongoing learning opportunities for team members

The report also recognised that the principal is often faced with a tension between being the positional leader or accountable officer and developing other leaders in the school.

‘Because of the dual location of the formal leader as both leader and team member, teamwork can be perceived as a risky activity. Formal leaders may be reluctant to share their decision making with other members of the team for fear of costly mistakes being made; mistakes for which they must bear the consequences. Sharing decision making in this way may also bring into question issues of power, such as power over, power with, power through.

Past practices and culture are important here. The formal leader(s) may face tensions and dilemmas between:

  • Exercising formal authority vs desire for collegiality
  • Need to maintain control and hierarchy vs equal contribution for members
  • Empowering others vs responsibility for decisions made

2. Challenges facing teams and team efficacy

Teamwork does not occur automatically or by chance. It requires sensitive and pro-active leadership to facilitate it. There are many challenges facing teams and a range of barriers impacting upon team efficacy. Among these are:

  • Lack of clarity and expectations among team members
  • Defensive patterns of behaviour by members
  • Time constraints
  • Limited or no provision of resources
  • Team members’ disagreement over goals
  • Intragroup competition
  • Domination by one or more players
  • Personal attacks

3. Team learning and reflection

Effective teams do not simply happen; they require training and development and ongoing reflection if they are to be successful.

  • Teams must be accountable and able to evaluate their performance
  • Teams need to learn together
  • Teams may use a variety of tools (e.g. brainstorming, SWOT analysis, Appreciative Inquiry) to assist them to work together
  • Teams need to develop goals and visions together
  • New members of teams can benefit by an induction process whereby they are “socialised” into the team
  • Structured developmental activities can support team learning
  • Teams should reflect constantly on their performance’
Ways Shared leadership can happen: the role of the principal

Teamwork is a significant process in building a culture of shared leadership. The role of the principal shifts from being the ‘lone ranger’ and the expert, fixer, problem solver or protector. Jackson and Davis argue that ‘The principal’s new role focuses on five interconnected areas:

  • Sharing decision making power with staff
  • Providing support for effective functioning of teams and
  • Being an instructional leader who prompts others to continuously learn and improve their practice.’

Ancona (2007) purports that the role of the leader is about:

  1. sense making
  2. relating
  3. visioning
  4. inventing
  5. balancing the above

It has to be stated that ‘shared leadership’ in schools, cannot happen unless teachers participate and step into the leadership space. A number of writers

have identified strategies for teachers to share the leadership in their schools, these are a summary:

Ways Shared leadership can happen: how teachers can contribute:
Understanding Self:

Leaders don’t just emerge, some do, but this is not enough. Deepening leadership in schools requires a concerted, sustained investment of time and resources in building a leadership mind and skill set. Principals who understand this ensure that those in positional roles and those with leadership potential engage in conversations about leadership, have opportunities to make mistakes, learn from tackling challenges and learn about themselves and others as leaders. A key transition that teachers face as they take on leadership roles is understanding about ‘self’ and their impact on others. This is the first step in understanding the importance of personal and relational skills in leading and influencing others.

Developing Others through Coaching:

Learning to coach others is an important starting point in leadership. Coaching skills help new and experienced leaders to work in a positive and constructive way with others. The ‘ripple effect’, of coaching, Sean O’Connor (2013) explored the impact of coaching beyond the person being coached, Work by Jane Dutton (2003) suggests the key to energising your school (or any organisation really) is through creating positive connections, respectful engagement and, most importantly, having high quality conversations.

Learning to coach also creates positive habits for leaders who may otherwise develop a propensity for taking on too much, taking over, over compensating for others and over time risk ‘burn out’. Programs for leaders and teachers are pitched at strengthening positive conversations between leaders at all levels of the school and school community. See

Other approaches to building a culture of shared leadership include:

Devaney (1987) – 6 ways

  1. continue to teach and improve their own learning
  2. organise and lead well-informed peer reviews of school practice;
  3. participate productively in school-level decision making;
  4. organise and lead in-service education that is meaningful to the student population and school program;
  5. advise and assist individual teachers through mentoring, coaching or consultation; and
  6. participate in the performance evaluation of teachers by providing appropriate appraisal and feedback.

Bergmann et al (1999) – 5 ways

  1. create a compelling future;
  2. let the customer drive the organisation;
  3. involve every mind;
  4. manage work horizontally;
  5. build personal credibility.

Leiberman, Saxl, Miles (2000) in their research on teacher leaders identified six sets of teacher leader skills:

  1. building trust and rapport
  2. organisational diagnosis
  3. dealing with the process
  4. using resources
  5. managing the work
  6. building skills and confidence in others

Crowther et al (2002) proposed six very similar arenas for teacher leadership:

  1. convey convictions about a better world;
  2. strive for authenticity in their teaching, learning, and assessment practices;
  3. facilitate communities of learning through organisation-wide practices;
  4. confront barriers in the school’s culture and structures;
  5. translate ideas into sustainable systems of action; and
  6. nurture a culture of success

On the flipside, principals and leaders need to acknowledge that there are barriers to shared leadership in schools including:

  • Resistance to change
  • Culture of dependence
  • Hierarchical and authority based models of leadership that are reinforced by systems
  • Principals feeling the pressure of accountability and fearing losing control
  • Confidence and capability
  • Time required to engage and develop trust and relationships (the foundation for shared leadership)
  • Operational nature of schools, and time constraints
  • Silos and isolation – teachers in classrooms, admin in offices
  • Outdated mental models and perceptions about leadership
  • Communities holding onto outdated models of leadership

However, recognising that leadership is always going to be challenging, the benefits of shared leadership are significant and long term including:

  • Increased skill resource at all levels
  • Reduced isolation of individuals and work areas
  • Improved staff morale
  • Enhanced professional growth, stimulation, dialogue & job satisfaction
  • Better decisions
  • More completed projects
  • Improved professional supervision
  • Increased commitment
  • Better communication
  • Increased leadership density etc.

Other potential benefits of shifting the models of leadership include increased opportunities for leadership aspirants to grow their skills as leaders, support principals in improving the balance between their work and family lives, strengthen the health and well being of principals, and attract more applicants to leadership roles in schools, particularly women and ‘millenials’.

Shared leadership is not only desirable but essential for a better educational future. Principals I have worked with over 25 years, have articulated their struggles to challenge their own mental models of leadership as well as of those around them. They are striving for a better world; a world in their schools where ownership of what they do and how they do it is shared and celebrated and where the energy of the collective provides support and the momentum for navigating through a very complex and rewarding environment.

In conclusion, ‘No leader is perfect. The best ones try to be – they concentrate on honing their strengths and finding others who can make up for their limitations.’ (Ancona)

Jan Alen
Director, Jan Alen Consulting P/L


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  • Article - Fairfax Business Group New Zealand
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