6 Apr 2017

Pitfalls of Top-Down Leadership Models

Pitfalls of Top-Down Leadership Models

To understand distributive leadership, it is useful to first define and understand the pitfalls of top-down leadership models.. Traditional top-down leadership structures often consist of a few individuals with appointed titles as leaders.  Decision making authority and responsibility rests largely with these few individuals.  Most of the leadership activities are spent on task completion and little to no attention is spent on the interconnectivity of processes, people and resources necessary to complete the tasks.  While there can be pockets of success within traditional “top-down” leadership structures they tend to be less sustainable, systemic and repeatable.  The vast majority of the institutional knowledge rests with an individual or individuals and not the collective.

Traditional Top-Down Leadership:  A Focused Approach

  • Authority/leadership by title
  • Linear leadership model which is typically top-down
  • Decision making by a few
  • Function of what individual leaders know and do
  • Focus on the tasks of individual
  • Creates “informal leadership” subcultures that may not mirror the formal organization’s leadership structures
  • Less sustainable and repeatable

Unlike traditional “Top-Down” leadership structures, Distributive Leadership processes establish formal leadership positions, in addition to structures and processes for all members within the organization.  System-embedded learning is not just a matter of addressing leadership at the district level.  It also require coherence among all elements of the system (Fullan, M. 2009. Leadership development:  The larger context.  Educational Leadership, 67(2), 45-49).  The distributive process grants authority and not just responsibility, to each member of the organization by creating a broad leadership community. While task completion is a function of the Distributive Leadership model it is rooted in the interconnectivity between individuals, defining roles and articulating the responsibilities of the collective. The staff is empowered to be active participants in the process.

When Distributive Leadership practices are in place student learning improves.  There is a focus on Identifying leadership for learning strengths and high-leverage opportunities for refinement to improve student learning, identify current leadership for learning practices, use data to prioritize and inform actions, clarify practices that need to be in place, develop capacity to use practices effectively, gather evidence practices are improving, interpret evidence, act on evidence (Coaching/Professional Learning), identify core values and gather evidence of change and reflect deeply to make meaning and decide on next steps to sustain improvement.

Distributive Leadership:  A Focused Approach

  • Focus on interconnectivity of all actors- autonomy, authority and accountability
  • Leadership practices through collective knowledge and actions
  • Collaborative decision making processes
  • Increased transparency- who, what, why when and how
  • Identification of tasks, actors, actions and interactions
  • Connects school wide initiatives with associated tasks
  • Increases systemic and systematic continuous improvement that is repeatable
  • Equity for all students

The good news is there are resources available to move your organization towards a distributive leadership and in doing so, avoid the pitfalls of top-down leadership models. Strategic Education Collaborators are skilled and knowledgeable in not only the research behind distributive leadership but also in the application of the Comprehensive Assessment for Leadership for Learning (CALL) instrument.  CALL is a practice based and improvement focused on-line leadership assessment tool developed by the University of Wisconsin’s Leadership for Learning division.

CALL assesses educational leadership as a function, not just a single individual.  CALL surveys all educators in the school to measure critical leadership practices and suggest strategies for improvement.  Suitable for both elementary and secondary schools, CALL surveys all administrators, teachers, instructional support staff, and student support staff concerning leadership practices throughout the school.  Its purpose is improvement of student learning to support practitioners in their work, not performance of employees. To learn more, visit www.leadershipforlearning.org/page/learn_more

CALL provides for actionable formative feedback including customized strategies and action plans for school improvement.  Schools receive scores according to the five domains and 21 sub-domains, pointing to key leadership tasks that impact teaching and learning.  Educators can use these reports to improve school performance and professional learning that drives school improvement efforts.  With the WestEd School Wide Leadership for Learning contract the school has an annual subscription to the CALL assessment and resources.

For more information on how the staff from Strategic Education Collaborators can assist your organization change from a top-down culture to a highly functioning distributive leadership culture, thus avoiding the pitfalls of top-down leadership models please contact us at http://scottspringston.com/


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