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'Formative Leadership' Theory Views Principal as Leader of Leaders

The theory of "formative leadership," developed by Dr. Ruth Ash and Dr. Maurice Persall, of Samford University, is based on the belief that many leaders exist within a school. The theory supports the teacher as a school leader and the principal as the leader of leaders. Included: Tips for helping your staff embrace change.


The theory of "formative leadership," developed by Dr. Ruth Ash and Dr. Maurice Persall, of Samford University, is based on the belief that a school has many leaders.

How Do You Recognize a 'Formative Leader'?

Formative leadership is a new and different leadership paradigm in which the school leader -- the chief learning officer -- exhibits very specific behaviors. Dr. Ruth Ash and Dr. Maurice Persall, the forces behind the theory of formative leadership, shared with Education World some of the qualities of a true "formative leader." A formative leader

* freely shares data, information, and knowledge with the entire school team.

* develops systems to help remove any barriers to knowledge transfer.

* acknowledges that learning is the basis of change and improvement.

* encourages change and innovation.

* makes decisions based on data.

* recognizes meaningful conversations about teaching and learning as effective strategies for improvement.

* optimizes the talents of all personnel.

* encourages thinking that drives the strategic planning process.

"Leadership is not role-specific," wrote Dr. Ash in The Principal as Chief Learning Officer: The New Work of Formative Leadership. "Leadership isn't reserved only for administrators. Rather, it is the job of the school leader to fashion learning opportunities for the faculty and staff in order that they might develop into productive leaders.

"The theory is grounded in the belief that educators should enhance not only student learning but also the learning of the adults within the school," added Dr. Ash.

Dr. Ash, former dean of the Samford University School of Education, and Dr. Persall, director of the school's graduate program and the Center for Quality Education, have written and spoken extensively about their theory of formative leadership. They discussed their work with Education World.

Education World: You see the principal as, in business terms, the chief learning officer (CLO) of the school organization. Is the dynamic of that organization much different from the old-style principal model?

Dr. Ruth Ash: Yes, significantly different! The old-style approach to leadership drastically impedes school improvement and creates an apprehensive and static environment in which teachers are isolated, without opportunities to collaboratively solve problems, share knowledge, or learn together. The dynamic of a school whose principal is a "chief learning officer," however, is characterized by an organizational structure that can meet the constantly changing needs of its customers. These CLOs encourage change and support organizational learning. They are in charge of knowledge transfer and can enhance the quality of collective thinking within their organizations.

EW: As you tour schools, do you see this new definition of leadership coming to life, or do you still see a preponderance of top-down school leaders?

Dr. Maurice Persall: Although there are still considerable numbers of top-down driven leadership behaviors, we do see more principals embracing this new role. I am thinking of principals I know who plan and implement collaboratively with their faculty and staff, who use data extensively, and who provide leadership opportunities for others. Those principals organize their schools to provide more and better staff development, and they encourage and support innovative practice. They promote the concept of the learning organization, and they are avid learners themselves.

EW: What kinds of questions might a principal ask to improve the level and degree of productive thinking on the part of the adults in the school?

Dr. Ash: First, principals must understand that the role of CLO does not require them to have all the answers. They need to be able, however, to ask the kinds of questions that will increase the level of understanding of faculty and staff about teaching and learning. A basic all-encompassing question that leaders should ask often is "Is there a better way?" More-specific questions, for example, are "How do children learn?" "What should students know and be able to do when they complete your course?" "How should instruction be delivered in your course?" and "How should student achievement be assessed in your course?"

EW: An effective school leader will use data to support school decisions, drive change, and measure effectiveness. Can you provide a couple of diverse examples of change driven by data?

Persall: Julie Hannah, principal of Gardendale Elementary School (Birmingham, Alabama), used data gathered from research, benchmarking at other schools, and examination of student achievement results to persuade her entire faculty to make a commitment to a reading professional-development improvement model.

Cathy Murphy, principal of Greenville Middle School (Greenville, Alabama), used a data-driven process to significantly decrease discipline problems and to forge a partnership with the juvenile justice system in Butler County.

There are many other examples that could be described. Change driven by data is often the most non-threatening and most sustainable; therefore, once its use is mastered, school personnel tend to continue to use data to make changes.

EW: To some teachers, the word change is a frightening word, even a fighting word. What can a school leader do to encourage staff to accept, even embrace, change?

Dr. Ash: There are many actions school leaders can take to encourage and support personnel as they make their way through the change process. Several principals we know who are CLOs have created teams with areas of expertise to which others can turn, developed systems and structures to collect and disseminate knowledge, benchmarked against other successful organizations, and developed a culture that subscribes to and rewards learning for all. Some of the other specific actions they have implemented include

  • creating leadership teams and action teams
  • tracking key performance indicators over time
  • implementing an open-door policy for all
  • soliciting parent and community input
  • implementing joint parent-student-teacher conferences
  • increasing release time for planning and collegial discussions
  • initiating focus groups and book studies of relevant issues
  • creating a professional-development library section
  • developing methods to recognize and reward innovation.

EW: Where might Education World readers go to learn more about your work on school leadership?

Dr. Ash: One resource is "The School Principal as Chief Learning Officer: Seven Exemplary Schools," a chapter in the book In Action: Leading Knowledge Management and Learning, published by the American Society of Training and Development. In addition, a journal article, "The Principal as Chief Learning Officer: Developing Teacher Leaders," was published in Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Gary Hopkins
Education World®Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2007 Education World


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Updated 04/24/2014