What Are Leadership Theories in Education?

Written by Scott Wilson

What are leadership theories in education? Leadership theories in education are the framework that scholars develop to analyze and understand the process of leading schools and teachers. They provide alternative ways to look at how goals are set and accomplished through different styles and systems of leadership and administration.

happy educator

Educators wouldn’t be educators if they weren’t exhaustively deconstructing and analyzing theories of education itself.

How do children best absorb information? What’s the most effective way to manage a classroom? How can principals set goals and support their staff in achieving them? What are the techniques that build community support and create a collective appreciation for education?

The process of studying all these questions, and more, leads to new thoughts and new theories of educational leadership.

As a future leader in education, you’ll dive into this process of analysis as part of your graduate studies in educational administration. But although it’s going to come at you as a series of assignments and research projects, there’s another level to explore in leadership theory: helping you develop your own unique style and approach to making your school amazing.

Why Leadership Theories Are Important to Educational Administrators

high fiving the kids

Everyone has heard of the natural leader. Someone who just seems to be born with the traits and skills to see the future, develop plans, and motivate followers to accomplish great things.

As it happens, that’s one of the first theories of leadership: the so-called Great Man theory, the idea that leaders are born with the unique characteristics required to attain greatness.

But it’s far from the only theory. Researchers in the 1940s and ‘50s, spurred by the experiences and data from World War II, built evidence for a behavioral theory of leadership. In their formula, leadership traits could be learned by anyone and applied in almost any circumstance.

Leadership studies and theory have only grown and accelerated. Today, theories come in all kinds of new flavors:

And some are unique to the field of education, like Instructional Leadership Theory or Teacher Leadership Theory.

Theories are a way to help process evidence. While they all review the same phenomena and often study the same cases, each has a different explanation for why leaders are effective. And each of those explanations can fuel your own ideas about what sort of leader you will become.

Separating the Theory of Leadership from the Practice

talking with students in class

It’s worth noting that leadership styles and leadership theories aren’t necessarily the same thing. A leadership theory seeks to understand the process and mechanisms of leadership. It can include an interpretation of the purpose of a leader, psychological mechanisms of influence, and ideas about social behavior. Leadership theory can lead to conclusions about different leadership styles or even the development of new ones.

A leadership style is all about how the lessons of leadership theory are applied in the real world. It may be used in service of one or more kinds of leadership theory. For example, a principal who buys into the theory of instructional leadership might apply that concept with any one of several different leadership styles:

And similarly, a charismatic leader might equally be a fan of the transformational theory of leadership rather than instructional. There’s no firm tie between style and theory.

You’ll need to develop a broad understanding of both leadership theory and style to take your own place in the top jobs. Fortunately, they are all part of the program when you study for an advanced degree in educational administration

Learning To Love Leadership Theory and Using It to up Your Principal Game

Learning about this catalog of theories and how they explain behaviors and accomplishments is all part of earning a degree in educational leadership.

That’s because the latest theory becomes part of the leadership landscape. Both the people who report to you and those you report to will expect you to understand and apply evidence-based practices to your own leadership skills. And to understand and unpack those practices, you’ll need strong grounding in the theories that came before, too.

But there is not, and will never be, a standard and exhaustive list of leadership theories in education. Each new graduate student pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in education is expected to conduct original research in the field. They’ll have to come up with a thesis, dissertation, or capstone project demonstrating their ideas and results. And it’s inevitable that some significant percentage of those will come with new theories and new evidence that alters the landscape of educational leadership theory.

Many graduate programs in educational leadership include classes that deal exclusively with education theories.

Theories of educational leadership mirror various investigations of leadership itself. Scholars have long been interested in uncovering what it is that makes some leaders successful and others fall flat. That’s true across a range of fields and contexts.

Leadership theory starts off with a definition of what leadership is. Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, called leadership the “…most studied and least understood topic of any in the social sciences.” But his definition of leadership may be the most salient for educators today: “The capacity to translate vision into reality.”

What Are the Different Leadership Styles in Education?

educator using tablet

How you choose to translate your vision into reality is your leadership style.

Leadership styles aren’t exclusive to educational leadership. There’s no set answer about how many styles there are. You will find websites that confidently proclaim that there are four, six, eight, eleven, or more fixed styles of leadership.

Some of the most cited leadership styles include:

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is a give-and-take style, where you negotiate directly with staff over job requirements and methods. It revolves around the rewards and punishments for well-defined expectations. In turn, it requires that you be able to successfully set and communicate those expectations—tough work in the modern school environment.

This leadership style is all about opportunity for improvement and change. Transformational leaders offer big vision and compel school communities to make big changes. Although this can be an inspirational style, it’s also a tough one to execute in a conservative and rule-bound education community.

Servant leaders focus on getting their teams what they need and getting out of the way so they can do the things they do best. A servant leader recognizes expertise within their team and pushes those individuals to the front, taking care of resource and bureaucratic obstacles that impede them. Servant leaders are often popular in education, taking the heat from outside influences while empowering staff to accomplish the jobs they set out to do.

If you are constantly asking your team for a show of hands, you might just be a democratic leader. Also known as shared, or distributed leadership, this style values consensus and building agreement. It can mean that decisions are taken slowly and maybe not in line with your personal preferences. But it is a sure way to build support among your staff.

Autocratic Leadership

On the opposite side, there are autocratic leaders. These individuals dictate the goals and steps to achieve them. They may listen to and incorporate information from their staff, but all direction comes from the top. Although unpopular, this is a very traditional style and may suit tough environments where establishing your vision is otherwise impossible.

Bureaucratic Leadership

Relying on rules, policies, and processes for leadership is the MO of the bureaucratic leader. They believe in systems and may not engage closely or personally with their team. Although non-traditional in education, this style can be a good fit for the expanding world of remote education. Without extensive face-to-face contact,

Adaptive Leadership

This flexible style of leadership is a bit like servant leadership without the support. Adaptive leaders also trust their team and get out of the way to allow them to do what they do best. But it does rely on a good team of resourceful and motivated individuals.

Charismatic Leadership

It’s always easier to get the most out of your team if you can get them fired up about their goals and potential. This is what a charismatic leader does best. Sharing an inspiring big picture vision is exciting even when facing the biggest challenges. With a knack for drawing admiration and respect, motivation is easy. But without guardrails and guidance, this style can leave excited people spinning their wheels.

From the theory perspective, some styles might be more appropriate than others. But it’s largely up to individual leaders to decide how to apply the lessons of the framework. It’s the element of style that allows the personal touch the great leaders need. A style has to fit the abilities and the personality of the leader who adopts it.

Finding Your Own Style Through Educational Leadership Studies

In reality, there are as many leadership styles in education as there are educational leaders. While any principal or superintendent may lean toward a book definition of style, all come up with their own unique blend. No one is entirely autocratic or completely democratic. Almost everyone throws in a little charisma, a few transactions.

What an advanced degree in educational leadership lets you do is make those choices informed ones. By studying the overall theories and how others have applied styles, you can find the blend that suits your personality and goals.

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