Administration & Leadership

Linda Lambert

Leadership for Lasting School Improvement

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Dr. Linda Lambert

“Leadership is a form of learning that moves the community towards their shared purpose.”

Linda Lambert explores shared purpose and the crucial link between teaching, leading and learning in this interview. Dr. Lambert is the author of several important books on Leadership Capacity, which, she says, is dependent on understanding the connection between participation and skillfulness. Dr. Lambert’s vision of leadership focuses on an organizational approach that reflects the importance of engaging all constituent voices — principal, student, teacher, and parent in improving schools. The following is an abridged version of our interview with Linda Lambert.

Q: How do you define leadership and how is it connected to learning?

Linda Lambert: Leadership is about learning together toward a shared purpose. Traditional notions of leadership that attach it to, let’s say, just the principal, really shut out everyone else, specifically the teachers, parents and students.

When an approach to learning is toward a shared purpose, individuals are constructing knowledge and meaning together through inquiry, through dialogue, through coaching, through action. They are investing in each other as well in the vision of the school, and this is fundamental to my definition of leadership capacity. Leadership is a form of learning that moves the community towards their shared purpose.

Leadership Capacity

Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement

By Linda Lambert
Paperback, 128 pages
Published by ASCD
Purchase a copy of the book

Q: Can you define Leadership Capacity for us?

Linda Lambert: Let me start by saying that Leadership Capacity as I have tended to define it is an organizational concept. We are talking about the leadership capacity of the school, of the district, of the organization.

We also think of leadership capacity of the individual and that’s important too, but as I speak of it today, I’m talking about leadership capacity of the whole. And we’ve learned that it is the basis for sustainability, for several reasons, but perhaps the number one reason is that when a principal leaves, it’s essential that a web or fabric of leadership remain behind if we’re to sustain the work of the school.

There are probably three evolutionary stages to getting there. We know what a poor school looks like and we tend to know what a good school looks like, but getting from here to there is really the issue. The three stages we’ve discovered — that have to do with principal behaviors and teacher behaviors — are the instructive phase, the transitional phase and the high leadership capacity phase.

There are a number of other things we’ve learned from the studies: for instance, the roles of everyone involved change and blend. By the time schools get to high leadership capacity, teachers and principals are more alike than different. They are performing together similar tasks: asking tough questions, solving problems together.

Q: Can you describe the four quadrants you categorize schools in?

Linda Lambert: What I’ve called “the quadrants,” I sometimes refer to as archetypes or tendencies to cluster in four areas, but they are not frozen images. I really want to stress that they often blend.

Quadrant one would be a school with low participation and low skillfulness in the work of leadership. The tendency there is for the principal to take charge, to make most of the decisions. The teachers may engage in a lot of blaming and redirecting responsibility because they are not engaged in the process as full participants.

In a quadrant two there may be a lot of participation, but it’s not very skillful. I think of a couple of high schools that do some marvelous things for a number of kids, but they are very individualistic and fragmented. The teachers and other staff rarely talk to each other, and the biggest result of this is that students often fall between the cracks. If they dis-aggregate student data, they find that there are a lot of students who are not doing well.

Quadrant three is moving forward and being much more successful in developing leadership capacity. There aren’t as many people involved in leadership as we’d like, but those who are involved are fairly skillful. This is a school where you may have a cooperative principal, you may have a leadership team that’s working with the school, you may be doing some very good things, but there may still be polarized staff members who see themselves on the outside, who have not been invited in and have not been engaged.

A quadrant four school, of course, is the high leadership capacity school where you find almost everyone involved in a skillful way. You have the structures and the infrastructure for participation. You have teams, study groups, inquiry and reflection, tremendous coaching going on, teachers relate to each other laterally, teacher-to-teacher as well as to the principal, parents and students are engaged in a process and you have either high or a steadily improving student achievement. This is our goal. And when we get there, our challenge is to sustain ourselves, to reinvent ourselves, to keep up the energy flow that will keep that school on track.

Q: What are the different types of principals associated with these quadrants?

Linda Lambert: The quadrant one school tends to have a more directive principal, because very few people are included in leadership. The approach of that principal is to tell people what to do and in the process they often build what I think of as co-dependent relationships. That is, the people who are involved have to ask permission and are sort of cowed and demeaned by the whole structure of not being able to participate fully.

The effect of the principal’s behavior in a quadrant two school tends to be that the school is scattered, fragmented and individualistic. So that principal is laissez-faire, not pulling the school together, not building teams that cross over disciplines, not having a joint vision for the school.

The quadrant three principal is more of a collaborative principal. She or he is very involved in getting the smaller group like the leadership team included, but often is at a loss to deal with those who feel outside or feel polarized by the process.

The high leadership capacity principal is one who can learn to let go over time, can initially set up the structures, the teams, the processes for participation. But then as the process grows, as teachers grow into leadership, to let go of some authority, so that teacher leaders have more authority. He or she is able to stay true to the vision of the school, but engage parents, students and community in the process as well. When a principal reaches the high leadership capacity place, they then can leave the school and know that the capacity of the school is such that it won’t devolve.

One of the principals in the leadership high school in San Francisco said to me, “You know, I have to lead everyday for the day when I may no longer be here.”

Q: Can you talk about student leadership?

Linda Lambert: Voice is the genesis of leadership, and that’s true whether it’s for an adult or for a student. The earlier we can began to develop voice in children, the earlier we’ll see them be empowered by their own imagination, their own capacity. This means having choice in the classroom about how I am going to learn, choice in the school about what are the options for activities and the direction of the school, choice in the community about how I can contribute, and choice in the kinds of design for rules that affect them and others.

We need to move from non-involvement through “token involvement.” One of the things that concerns me about student leadership is often that the cheerleader or football star are in the leadership class, and there are so many students left out. They don’t attend school activities because the interest is around the small group of students who are already doing well in school.

My daughter teaches at the Athenian school and every Tuesday morning they have a school forum and they have officers they elect and they bring to the school major decisions. One decision that my granddaughter, Chloe, recently put to the forum was to hold a large musical fund-raiser for Darfur. And she had to design the program, state how it would operate, what it would cost, bring it to the students and have that approved and then took responsibility with others to design that activity and carry it out. That is really full participation from my point of view for students.

Q: You have written about the Ten Commandments for involving young people in the community. Can you explain?

Linda Lambert: These commandments are adapted from John Kretzmann. Let me highlight just a few. Essentially it’s important to build upon strengths, talents and knowledge of students.  I think we also need to see that the community is filled with so many opportunities that we’re never at a loss for having enough things for students to do to contribute to others.

Another is to have students work with each other vertically; for example, the eighth grader helping the first grader with reading. If you watch the faces of older students who work with younger students, you’ll see a sense of a meaning, a sense of sincerity, a sense of contribution that rarely do you see in regular classrooms.

Also important is cultivating opportunities for young people to teach as well as to lead. Sometimes we’ve been surprised by historical examples of how little education some, particularly outstanding writers, for instance, may have had. I was recently reading some letters by D.H. Lawrence in which he talked about going to school, where he was the student for two days and he was the teacher for two days.

When we link teaching, learning and leading together and make sure that students have opportunities for all three of those, then we’re really on the right track.

Q: What are the some specific behaviors of effective educational leaders who develop sustained leadership at the districts?

Linda Lambert: In order to really bring about leadership capacity, we must have the district on board. And superintendents must fully participate and do some of the things that we’ve talked about, which would include things like a shared vision and focus and building the infrastructure for the democratic practices and structures.

There needs to be a co-creation of accountability systems, the kind that include inquiry at all levels, including the district. You need to have policies, mandates and requirements that put in place the kind of vision that we developed in a shared way, and collaborate with any partners across the agencies and uphold communication and transparence. Modeling what we are talking about, educating Board members and hiring the right people and keeping them growing through professional development.

Q: Where do you recommend educational leaders start to develop leadership capacity?

Linda Lambert: The first thing that’s needed is to understand leadership capacity and understand that everyone is capable of involving themselves in leadership.

The second is to involve the principals, the leadership team which includes teachers, hopefully parents and students, and district personnel in training in leadership capacity, because it will be their task to engage the rest of the school community in the process of leadership.

Then they co-create a vision and a plan with all the staff. You’ve got a few people involved in leadership, some who understand the work very deeply, you’ve created a shared vision and plan, and now you need to assess. And you ask where you as a school and district are in terms of leadership capacity. That’s a good place to start an assessment, and then have a dialogue.

And then the fifth is that you need to develop strategies to enlarge the circles of skillful participation. You need to include opportunities for inquiry, coaching, dialogue, reflection and action. That would probably include some school-wide teams and some structures that would allow for skillful participation and learning some of the processes that enable us to create knowledge and meaning together.

So those five, that’s where I would start, and from there you’ll branch off in a number of different ways because every school is different and you are not going to find that there are cookie cutter ways to start this work.

Points to Remember

  • Leadership is a form of learning that moves the community towards their shared purpose.
  • The sign of a good leader is how many other leaders he or she has created.
  • See students as capable of teaching and leading as well as learning
  • Develop a voice in children, so they will be empowered by their own imagination, their own capacity.
  • A web or fabric of leadership must be in place to sustain the work of the school
Dr. Linda Lambert

Dr. Linda Lambert is a best-selling author of books on leadership and a novelist of historical fiction. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Building Leadership Capacity in Schools and Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement. An emeritus professor at California State University, East Bay, Dr. Lambert has served as a social worker, teacher, principal, district and county directors of adult learning programs, as well as university professor, state department envoy to Egypt, and international consultant.

Posted in Administration & Leadership, Classic Interviews, Education & Public Policy, Education Thought Leaders, January 2009, Main Interview | 1 Comment

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