Shared leadership is the practice of governing a school by expanding the number of people involved in making important decisions related to the school’s organization, operation, and academics. In general, shared leadership entails the creation of leadership roles or decision-making opportunities for teachers, staff members, students, parents, and community members. Shared leadership is widely seen as an alternative to more traditional forms of school governance in which the principal or administrative team exercises executive authority and makes most governance decisions without necessarily soliciting advice, feedback, or participation from others in the school or community.
In practice, shared leadership may be defined differently from school to school, and it may take a wide variety of forms. One of the most common forms of shared leadership is a leadership team—i.e., a group of administrators, teachers, staff members, and others who meet regularly to make important school decisions and/or coordinate a school-improvement initiative. Shared leadership may also take other forms: formal committees created to oversee a specific program or provide feedback to the school principal and administration; teams of teachers organized by content area or academic department who meet regularly and provide recommendations on instructional decisions or the design of the academic program; or community meetings in which school leaders listen to the viewpoints and opinions of community members—teachers, students, parents, and others—and then act on their recommendations. That said, these examples constitute only a small selection of possible shared-leadership designs.
When a school adopts shared leadership, the specific features of the model are often formalized in school policies and incorporated into the official functions of the school. In perhaps its most fully realized expression, shared leadership extends well beyond day-to-day managerial and operational concerns to encompass leadership responsibilities such as long-range planning, school-improvement coordination, academic-program design, and decisions related to the kinds of professional development provided to teachers and staff members. Some schools, for example, are entirely led by teachers, with administrative roles such as principal and assistant principal held on a rotating basis by different teachers in the school. For related discussion, see teacher-leader and school community.
Shared leadership is also related to the concept of voice in education. In this case, shared leadership is a practical way to include the “voices”—i.e., the opinions, viewpoints, feedback, insights, and wisdom—of students, teachers, parents, and community members in the leadership decisions made by a school.
In most cases, the decision to adopt a shared-leadership model, or to create opportunities for shared leadership in a school, results from an affirmative decision to abandon top-down, administration-driven, or hierarchical systems of school governance. As a school-reform strategy, shared leadership is motivated by a wide variety of rationales, including the following representative examples:
- By distributing leadership roles and responsibilities throughout an organization, principals and administrators will be less managerially burdened and can devote more time to bigger-picture leadership responsibilities related to the overall condition and performance of the school—e.g., ensuring that the school culture remains positive and productive, that teachers continue to grow and improve their teaching abilities, that student achievement improves, that important responsibilities are being effectively executed and coordinated, that the staff remains accountable to the school’s mission and vision and to its students, etc.
- In a school setting, administrators can build greater support and understanding among faculty, staff members, students, and parents when they provide opportunities for others to lead, take on more responsibility, and contribute to important decisions.
- Sharing leadership responsibilities helps schools become more inclusive and self-reflective because more people are exchanging important information, discussing issues, and making decisions collaboratively.
- Distributing leadership responsibilities encourages teachers, staff members, and others to feel more personally invested in the success of the school and more responsible for its performance and results. By sharing decision-making authority with others in the organization, people will become more engaged in and committed to what they are doing.
- By sharing leadership more broadly, administrators are not only encouraging the professional aspirations and growth of other members of the school organization, but they are also nurturing the development of leadership experience and skills within the school, and thereby cultivating the next generation of school leaders.
- Shared leadership enables schools to draw on a larger pool of talent, wisdom, expertise, and experience beyond a single principal or relatively small group of administrators. By letting individuals focus their attention, energy, and skills on what they do best, the whole organization, and the students in particular, will benefit.
While shared leadership can benefit a school in many ways, it can also introduce a variety of complications and complexities that might be avoided in a top-down leadership model. For example, shared leadership may make it more challenging to navigate and manage all the different personalities, relationships, and skill levels involved in making important school decisions; it might increase the complexity and frequency of internal management-related communications to the point that it becomes burdensome or counterproductive; or it may delay important decisions while people work to schedule meetings or secure majority approval. In these cases, it’s likely that debates about shared leadership may arise in response to the inadequacies of a specific leadership model, or to how the model has been executed, rather than resulting from a philosophical objection to the general concept or approach. As with any school-reform concept or strategy, the success or failure of shared leadership often depends on the quality of its design and execution, and, of course, on the strengths and abilities of the leaders involved.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.