Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  2

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Leadership Preparation in Dangerous Times

Nancy B. Mansberger, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo


Nancy B. Mansberger, is an assistant professor in the Teaching Learning and Leadership Department in the College of Education, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.



In this article it is argued that contemporary models of leadership such as shared or distributed leadership, or even discussions of transformational methodologies are based on a compromised vision of the nature of leadership. Specifically, this article calls for the education of administrative leaders to move beyond the currently technical focus on learning how to organize people and resources to accomplish mandated outcomes, to one that builds the capacity for administrators to act with moral purpose and engage in the mediation of values.



U.S. education has been battered by increasingly heavy waves of controversy and conflict during the past decade as politicians have sought to reform and retool the public education system. The No Child Left Behind legislation, promoted by a strongly bi-partisan coalition as a potent prescription for equity and increased quality in student achievement, is denounced by others as a “plot” to destroy public education.  High stakes tests intended to measure improvement in student achievement instead document the all-too-common failure of students in many districts.  Schools are struggling to provide “high quality teachers” in all classrooms, while laboring under the increasing pressure of severe reductions in state and local funding.  It would be difficult to name any other single era in U.S. education marked by such a pervasive sense of urgency and crisis; it is also likely that there has never been a greater need for competent leaders to guide U.S. education through the storm it now faces.


What kind of leadership is being called for by researchers of education? The current educational policy environment demands that leaders focus on instructional improvement (Spillane, 2003).  This focus calls for a specialized, in depth skill set in curriculum; instructional supervision and support.  The great number of demands mandated by legislators, has led to the call for more leaders to engage broad groups of  “others” (such as parents, faculty, staff, community) in the work of “shared leadership” (Lambert, 2003).


In fact, the scope of administrative responsibilities has grown so greatly that there is somewhat of a trend to divide the administrative role.  Some states have created new positions that separate school administrators into managers and instructional leaders. More commonly, many researchers of educational leadership are advocating a model called “distributed leadership” wherein specific leadership functions are spun off onto teacher-leaders, team leaders, curriculum supervisors, or student management personnel (Camburn, Rowan & Taylor, 2003; Goldstein, 2004; Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2001; Elmore, 2000).


Limitations of current models of leadership

These models of leadership are rooted in a technical-rational view of schooling and definition of education that has grown in its influence on educational policy and practice.  For the past decade the discourse of educational reform in the United States has been increasingly controlled by a hierarchical, top-down world view of education, which has resulted in very specific and authoritative definitions of learning being enacted in legislation (Heilman, 2003).  These laws imply that what is most valuable to learn can be readily translated to easily-measured learning standards.  Educational problems have thus been defined and framed as issues of technical compliance and content (Goldstein, 2004; Elmore, 2000).


Therefore, the work of educational leaders, though highly complex, is treated as largely technical and rational in nature.  In this new era of standards-based accountability, administrators have been assigned the role of civil servant or mid-level bureaucrat, charged with utilizing the tools of leadership to engage and motivate people and organize work processes in order to achieve outcomes determined authoritatively by others. Leader preparation programs have typically been based on the study of management theories and organizational change models, and promote transformational leadership methodologies to provide prospective leaders with the tools they need to do this complicated work.  However, this time-honored body of knowledge and its related skills and strategies is inadequate for successful leadership in today’s educational environment. The nearly-universal consideration of educational leadership (whether or not it is distributed, shared, or exercised transformationally as an individual) as a set of technical skills and knowledge of rational operations leads to a lack of capacity to respond to the actual needs of the students, communities, and staff in an authentic way.


The educational enterprise is values-based

All human organizations, whether they are simple or complex, exist to achieve purposes.  These purposes in turn are rooted in human desires or values. (Hodgekinson, 1991).  

Despite the pervasiveness of dominant ideologies regarding the enterprise of education, the needs of our communities, students, and staff are not in the largest sense rooted in technical issues of learning and teaching, and the training of a workforce.  Transformational methodologies are based on the understanding that people are motivated to act in order to accomplish personally meaningful goals.  What is meaningful is highly personal, and divination of important, meaningful goals cannot readily be derived through rational or technical means.  Scientific, technological methodologies are mostly incapable of representing key operational constructs of teaching and learning, such as motivation, belief, circumstance, and intention, and the complexity of their interactions (Heilman, 2004).


It is common for education workers to assume, on a day to day basis, that public schools are, or should be, morally benign, objective, neutral places.  They aren’t.  Schools and school-related issues are rife with moral and ideological complexity.  Indeed, it is important for school leaders to understand that the very stuff schooling and school culture is created from and exists within, is human beliefs and values, and that all educational work has a moral dimension (Henderson & Hawthorne, 2000; Hodgekinson, 1991). 


Needed: a new focus in leadership preparation

Understanding education as a value-based enterprise suggests a very different orientation and training for an administrator.  Training in transformational, distributed, or shared leadership methodologies has a nearly-exclusive focus on the “how” of mobilizing resources to attain organizational goals; such preparation does not seek to develop the vital capacity of leaders to determine for what to strive.  Preparation programs should help educational leaders to be aware of the deep aesthetic, ideological, as well as economic purposes, which underlie the educational enterprise. Yes, administrators will continue to have a responsibility to administer mandated policies, but this responsibility needs to be mediated by a strong sense of the broader role of education in the enablement of individual agency and the realization of cultural values in our society.  Leadership preparation needs to provide leaders with a deep sense of what a worthwhile and valuable education ought to look like (Apple & Beane, 1995).


Preparation to lead in a values-based enterprise is needed in order to counteract the potentially dangerous impact of current educational policy and practices on the health of our diverse culture. As stated earlier, the discourse of the national reform agenda has been strongly informed by a particular world view that promotes a selective tradition of hierarchically established knowledge and meaning. The domination of this voice has led to an ideologically narrow vision of teaching, learning, education, schooling and research, particularly as articulated and exemplified by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.  This situation “has resulted in the silencing of other discourses on how the socio-political and cultural contexts of education actually shape equity in education and society” (Cross, 2003).  This compromised view of teaching and learning imposes a monolithic standard for student learning and experiences and denies individual meaning-making. 


As educational policy-making has become increasingly centralized in the past decade, the role of teachers has also been seriously eroded.  The notion of professionals working in a democratic workplace has been replaced by the “deskilling” of the teaching profession through the redefinition of teaching as the implementation of the ideas of others (Apple & Beane, 1995).  Educational leaders need to have developed a broad vision of education in order to understand how the acceptance of such narrow mandated perspectives can compromise educators’ professionalism (Heilman, 2004).


Educational leaders can help their organizations to move beyond this selective tradition toward the recognition of a wider range of views and voices. Leaders must know how to foster school environments that accommodate the realization of multiple cultural and ideological values.  What is needed is a heightened understanding of the importance and complexity of this work. Those who would educate future administrators must provide a preparation that moves beyond current limited conceptions of leadership as technical skill in motivation and supervision, to one that is built on broader, more deeply grounded knowledge and insight.  Such preparation will enable educational leaders to build strong moral centers from which identify worthwhile and valuable goals, to mediate the impact of possibly short-sighted mandates and policies, and to resist the pressure to conform to serve the interests of a powerful few while seeking to affirm a wider range of views and voices.


Capacities to prepare today’s leaders

Drawing on the writings of many others, a tentative list of the capacities a foundational course in leadership preparation should foster is described below.  First and foremost, to avoid being buffeted by the pressure of inconsistent, contradictory, or insufficient popular agendas, future leaders need to develop a sense of the “big picture” and the “long view” in which to ground their moral center.  The development of a deep and grounded foundation for the values-based work of educational leadership is informed by the following five attributes.


Systemic perspective:  Educational leaders must have a strong sense of the systemic nature of the educational enterprise.  They need to understand the interconnectedness of all the components of the educational system.  They must be able to realize how change in one system function or level impacts on or interacts with the others, and be able to identify at what points in the system they can leverage positive action.


Knowledge of educational foundations:  An understanding of fundamental missions and functions that have been assigned to contemporary education, as well as an understanding of how our current social/cultural assumptions and values about education are derived from past ideals and practices would be very important for the development of a grounded philosophical foundation. This knowledge should also include how the ideological or social mission of education intersects with the needs and goals of individuals.  It is recommended that interested readers consult texts by Gutek (2004) and Cuban (2000).


Ability in values-based problem solving: Each of the major purposes or missions of education are undergirded by a particular set of operational values (Hodgekinson, 1991).  Understanding first that educational leadership has a strongly moral dimension, a leader should be prepared to be able to identify the fundamental set of values inherent in different educational decision making situations. “The pervasive nature of education and its influence upon all citizens, endows it with profound value, moral, and ethical significance” (Hodgekinson, 1991, p.33).  The study of ethical decision making in education as described in Hodgekinson’s 1991 book “Educational Leadership: The Moral Art” and Noddings’ argument for an ethic of caring (2002, 1995) are recommended.


Knowledge of human motivation:  The foundation of our most common leadership preparation curricula covers the concepts of how power, authority, and the drive to strive for meaningful purposes are appropriately and positively used to mobilize human resources.  This knowledge, though not sufficient in itself for values-based leadership, is still an important and necessary leadership tool.


Commitment to be an advocate.  Persons who lead need to believe it is their responsibility to assume a public moral position.  “These individuals are so grounded in their moral centers that they are unable to be silenced; they are compelled to communicate their beliefs and values. . .They openly encourage challenges, questioning, and critical examination in hopes of creating something better for both children and adults in schools”  (Henderson & Hawthorne, 2000, p. 188). 



The current educational policy climate is promoting a dangerously narrow definition of learning, teaching, and the purpose of public education that threatens to silence the voices and divergent views of the non-majority and less-powerful.  In turn, contemporary models of leadership such as shared or distributed leadership, or even discussions of transformational methodologies are similarly based on a compromised vision of the nature of leadership.  Current research on educational reform discusses leadership as a set of technical skills, or a body of rational knowledge of techniques and processes to be utilized for the compliance with and accomplishment of politically-determined mandates and goals.  In this article, dominant influences on the preparation of school administrators are found to be conceptually inadequate for responding to the demands placed on educational leaders today.   Specifically, this article calls for the education of administrative leaders to move beyond the currently dominant focus on learning how to organize people and resources to accomplish mandated outcomes, to one that builds the capacity for administrators to address the question, “Leadership to what purpose, and in the service of what ideals?”


Our students and our communities need a broader, more inclusive and affirmative vision on which to base their education.  Our teachers deserve to work in a democratic workplace. We need educational leaders who not only know how to organize work processes and mobilize resources, but who also know what is important. Leadership preparation needs to provide leaders with a deep sense of what is worthwhile and valuable in education, and to develop leaders who are motivated by a desire to find meaning and purpose in their own and their staff and students’ work.



Apple, M.W. & Beane, J.A. (1995). Democratic schools.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Camburn, E., Rowan, B. & Taylor, J.E. (2003).  Distributed leadership in schools:  the case of elementary schools adopting comprehensive school reform models.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(4), 347-373.

Cross, B.  (2004). Reclaiming public and critical thought toward an educational movement.  Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 1(1), 49-52.

Cuban, L. (2000).  Why is it so hard to get “good” schools?  In D. Shipps and L. Cuban (Eds.), Reconstructing the common good in education, 148-172.  Palo Alto, CA:  Stanford University Press.

Elmore, R.F. (2000).  Building a new structure for school leadership.  Washington, DC:  Albert Shanker Institute.

Goldstein, J.  (2004). Making sense of distributed leadership:  the case of peer assistance and review.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(2), 173-197.

Gutek, G. (2004).  Philosophical and ideological voices in education.  Allyn & Bacon.

Heilman, E.E. (2004).  Reconsidering federal policy on school improvement and quality teaching:  debate and democratic resistance.  In Democratic Responses in an Era of Standardization, 89-102.  Troy, NY:  Educator’s International Press, Inc.

Henderson, J.G. & Hawthorne, R.D. (2000).  Transformative curriculum leadership, 2nd ed.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Merrill Prentice Hall

Hodgekinson, C.  (1991). Educational leadership:  the moral art.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York.

Lambert, L. (2003).  Leadership capacity for lasting school improvement.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Noddings, N. (2002).  Educating moral people:  a caring alternative to character education.  New York, NY:  Teachers College Press.

Noddings, N. (1995).  Philosophy of education.  Boulder, CO:  Westview Press.

Spillane, J.P. (2004).  Educational leadership.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(2), 169-172.

Spillane, J.P., Halverson, R. & Diamond, J.B. (2001).  Investigating school leadership practice:  a distributed perspective.  Educational Researcher, 30(3), 23-28.



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