Leadership Lessons: Understanding Distributed Leadership

Spring 2018

By Chris Bierly

Before moving to a new school, Anna (not her real name) was like a lot of teachers—she felt alone in her efforts to grow as an educator. Most of the time she worked in isolation, without any meaningful support. Her principal, who was responsible for all 30 teachers in the building, didn’t have time to offer more than a cursory “good job.”
That changed when Anna moved to another school to help launch a new model of distributed school leadership, designed to support teachers so they can steadily develop their craft and improve student outcomes. In addition to spending half her time teaching her own students, Anna became a teacher-leader with responsibility for facilitating the professional growth and development of a team of seven other teachers. She meets with the teachers one-on-one to set long- and short-term objectives, spending time in their classrooms each week to help them achieve those goals. The new leadership system brings its own set of challenges, but Anna finally feels like she has the support she needs to help her students—and her team members—learn and achieve.
Anna’s story is one of many that emerged from a joint research effort between Bain & Company and The Bridgespan Group that surveyed more than 4,200 teachers, assistant principals, and principals in 12 public school systems of varying sizes throughout the United States. In-depth interviews with teachers, principals, and system-level leaders uncovered a critical challenge: While many school districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) are investing in programs to develop more transformational leaders, there is rarely a plan in place to deploy these people effectively. As a result, development efforts are fragmented, principals are overwhelmed, and teachers lack the support they need to progress as instructors and produce high-performing schools at greater scale.
This scenario is playing out not only across large school districts and CMOs, but also in independent schools. While some of the challenges for teachers and school leaders at independent schools may differ from those in public districts, the underlying motivation to improve their craft and better serve students is the same. No matter the setting, the opportunity is clear: All schools need to commit to models of distributed leadership, establishing a cadre of talented educators in each building who have end-to-end responsibility for the development of the teachers on their teams.

It Takes a Team

What do exceptional schools have in common? The clearest answer is great leadership. In our survey, 96 percent of respondents agreed that great leadership is an essential ingredient in making a school successful.
But if putting strong leaders in the principal’s and head’s role is the first step in raising the leadership capacity in schools, the critical next step is creating the kind of leadership model that can magnify their effectiveness. Most schools lack this sort of model. Instead, the vast majority of all instructional leadership responsibilities at the schools in the survey rest solely with the principal. Ninety-six percent of principals said they were responsible for the performance and growth of the teachers in their buildings, and 82 percent said they were the primary person responsible.
It is critical, of course, that principals and heads take responsibility for the overall performance of their schools. But there is a difference between overall responsibility and hands-on accountability for the personal development of every adult in the building. The average principal in our research is directly responsible for the performance and development of 37 teachers, as well as additional noninstructional staff. The average manager of highly skilled professionals like accountants or human resource specialists is responsible for five people. Even managers of less-skilled employees, like call-center workers or janitors, typically have direct responsibility for only around 15 people.
Schools recognize they have a problem. Most major school districts and CMOs are devoting significant resources to creating more leadership positions in their schools—to give teachers new opportunities and to take the load off principals. These efforts include the deployment of teacher-leaders, professional learning communities, and instructional coaches.
Of these investments, teacher-leader roles have expanded the fastest. Schools use these positions to retain strong teachers by recognizing them, rewarding them, and giving them opportunities to grow. However, more often than not, teacher-leaders aren’t given specific responsibility for leading and developing other teachers in the building: Eighty-four percent report their duties are facilitating meetings or passing on information from supervisors, and only 22 percent said they felt responsible for the performance of the teachers they lead. Simply put, we aren’t setting up leaders for success.

Five Principles of Successful Distributed Leadership

The issues school leaders and teachers face are significant and widespread, but they are by no means unsolvable. Many of the schools we’ve studied are making meaningful progress with new leadership models. Our research has found that the most promising models have five key principles in common. Here’s how you can set your school up for success.
    1. Make a bet on a leadership model. An effective distributed leadership model is a comprehensive blueprint for how a school will resource and deploy leadership to deliver on its core mission. A great design defines leadership roles, how they will work together, and the systems needed to support them.

    2. Create and strengthen leadership capacity. One common thread is strengthening the amount and quality of leadership focused on the core mission. Some schools are increasing the number of assistant principals; others are betting on teacher-leaders. The choice of which roles to prioritize depends on the school’s overall structure and objectives.
    3. Focus leaders on improving teaching and learning. Distributed leadership models are putting more leaders closer to the front line. They set leaders up to provide the kind of hands-on, day-to-day coaching and support—real feedback, not a checklist—that will help teachers develop their skills.
    4. Create teams with a shared mission. An essential part of strong leadership is building great teams and creating situations where team members can share knowledge, dissect problems together, and work toward common goals. Effective models not only break down barriers for teachers to work together, but also create the expectation that they will.
    5. Empower leaders with the time and authority to lead. Adding more leaders is only part of the answer. Systems must also set up those leaders to guide a team of teachers effectively. Principals and heads need to be able to step back, delegate authority, and focus on “leading a team of leaders.”
There’s no doubt that implementing an effective distributed leadership model is a challenge for any school. It requires a multiyear, systemwide focus on change. The experience of systems that have made the most progress would suggest that it is not essential to have a “perfect” plan in place before getting started. As long as the goal is getting to a clear model, thoughtful piloting and iterating will lead in the right direction.
Chris Bierly

Chris Bierly is a Boston-based partner at Bain & Company and the global head of Bain's K-12 education practice. He has more than 30 years of management consulting experience, advising clients across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.