In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theories of Educational Leadership

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Educational Leadership Styles and Related Theories
  • Textbooks and Handbooks
  • Journals and Professional Organizations
  • Historical and Philosophical Foundations
  • Conceptual Approaches and Frameworks Exemplars
  • Large Data Sets and Empirical Evidence
  • Complementary, Diverse, and Alternative Perspectives
  • Critical, Global, and International Applications

Education Theories of Educational Leadership
Lorri Michelle Johnson Santamaría
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0153


Prior to understanding theories of educational leadership, it is important to begin with a comprehensive definition of educational leadership. In this article, educational leadership is the professional practice of a leader (or leaders) in an administrative role(s) working with, guiding, and influencing educators in a particular context toward improving learning and other educational processes in early childhood education centers and in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions. These people are most often individuals or small teams employed as school site leaders, principals, and assistant or associate administrators. In early childhood, higher education, or other educational settings these individuals may serve as center director, head of school, department chair, academic dean, provost, or president. Theories of educational leadership have origins in the United States, where frameworks have been drawn largely from industry and commerce management principles. Leadership theories and practices drawn from business-oriented frames of reference have been adopted and adapted for use in educational settings in the United States and similarly developed nations. Therefore, theories of educational leadership have been derived from a diversity of interdisciplinary conceptualizations and models over time. As a result, theories of leadership can be considered emergent, dynamic, and subject to further evolution. In fact, every theory of educational leadership is subject to investigation by researchers in educational centers, schools, and university settings who seek to better understand the dynamics of leadership in a variety of educational contexts. Beyond seminal notions and ideations of educational leadership, developing and sometimes groundbreaking theories contribute to the existing canonical literature in the field. Nonetheless, most theories of educational leadership comprise key elements, which often include capabilities, approaches, and practices. A closer look at these elements further reveals theoretical types of educational leadership (e.g., styles, traits, behaviors), characteristics of educational leadership (e.g., management versus leadership, power, coercion, conceptual frameworks), or the activities or practices educational leaders engage in as expressions of their leadership in action (e.g., approaches, ways of leading). Each element is dependent on the educational context within which it occurs and warrants the consideration of multiple and international perspectives for relevance in diverse and global societies in the 21st century. Therefore, this article includes a representative sampling of influential textbooks, handbooks, journals, and relevant literature as exemplars of sources to explain, illuminate, introduce, interrogate, and evaluate a variety of educational leadership theories. Additionally, this article provides historical and philosophical foundations, general overviews, conceptual frameworks, supporting literature on large data sets, and multiple complementary international perspectives of the theories considered. Pertinent examples are provided from each area for further exploration, consideration, and study by readers.

General Overview of Educational Leadership Styles and Related Theories

While literature on educational leadership styles and related leadership theories has been contested by scholars in works such as Spillane, et al. 2004, representative research discusses leadership styles as relevant to the field. Contributions on educational leadership styles provide reference points from which to begin a deeper consideration of theories of educational leadership. Familiarity with these works (e.g., servant, authentic, instructional/ pedagogical, distributed, transactional, transformational, etc.) is relevant for students, aspiring leaders, practitioners, and academics interested in the discipline to understand ways in which the theories have been developed, are manifested, and are sometimes contested in educational settings. Following the general to specific, business, commerce, management to education progression, and cross-disciplinary nature of educational leadership theories, servant leadership emerges as one of the oldest if not the first leadership style. Many researchers have studied servant leadership, however, Greenleaf and Spears 2002 (originally published in 1977) provide the most thorough presentation of the type. The authors of these works present philosophical underpinnings of servant leadership in educational and other contexts with clear connections to authentic, transactional, and transformational conceptualizations of leadership in education. Evidence of the dynamic nature of educational leadership is provided in the varied opinions on particular leadership styles. For example, scholars, in works such as Avolio and Gardner 2005, present authentic leadership in schools, while Southworth 2012 and West-Burnham 2013 present understandings of and counter-perspectives to instructional and pedagogical leadership. Similarly, Harris 2004 features the pros and cons of distributed leadership specific to educational contexts. Building on multiple voices in educational leadership, an intriguing juxtaposition is found to exist between transactional and transformational leadership. To learn about it, new students and practitioners should consult Bass 1999. Complementing this work, the contributors to Leithwood, et al. 2009 write about and assert the benefits of transformational leadership, whereas Fink 2005 and Day 2003 offer critiques of this style. In a further departure of transactional leadership, Shields 2010 pushes beyond the theory by introducing transformative leadership as a style more inclusive of leadership for social justice and more appropriate for culturally and linguistically diverse contexts. This work is similar to those of Bogotch 2002 and Brown 2004. Further demonstrating the multiple ways in which educational leadership styles can be conceptualized by scholars and researchers in the field, Fehr, et al. 2015 and Frick 2009 investigate moral leadership. Readers are reminded that this comprehensive general overview is open to additional exploration and, as such, it is not exhaustive. It is designed to set the stage for conceptual framing of educational leadership theories through a deeper consideration of the theme. Selected handbooks and textbooks serve to bring together all of the aspects covered in this entry in single volumes from a variety of worldviews and perspectives.

  • Avolio, Bruce J., and William L. Gardner. 2005. Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. Leadership Quarterly 16.3: 315–338.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.001

    Excellent read. Leading scholars in the field provide readers with diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives, including discourse on definitions for the constructs of authenticity, authentic leaders, authentic leadership, and authentic leadership development, including a detailed description of the components of authentic leadership theory.

  • Bass, Bernard M. 1999. Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 8.1: 9–32.

    DOI: 10.1080/135943299398410

    Peer-reviewed article is significant because it offers a review of the research to the date of publication on transformational leadership considering application in interdisciplinary contexts (business, military, industrial, hospital, and educational). A key contribution because it states research findings that indicate women leaders tend to be more transformational than their male counterparts.

  • Bogotch, Ira E. 2002. Educational leadership and social justice: Practice into theory. Journal of School Leadership 12.2: 138–156.

    Expert author in the field explores and defines social justice leadership in educational contexts and concludes its creation is dependent on community context and players with pluralistic or individual means and ends. Important foundational reading for understanding other theorists who include social justice aspects in their scholarly contributions on educational leadership.

  • Brown, Kathleen M. 2004. Leadership for social justice and equity weaving a transformative framework and pedagogy. Educational Administration Quarterly 40.1: 79–110.

    DOI: 10.1177/0013161X03259147

    Features strategies to help pre-service leaders develop as transformative, reflective scholars and practitioners actively engaged in political, emancipatory interests by way of examination of ontological and epistemological assumptions, values and beliefs, context and experience, and competing worldviews.

  • Day, Christopher. 2003. What successful leadership in schools looks like: Implications for policy and practice. In Handbook of educational leadership and management. Edited by Brent Davies and John West-Burnham, 87–204. London: Pearson Education.

    Book chapter in edited handbook. Offers a balanced critique of transformational leadership from an international perspective.

  • Fehr, Ryan, Kai Chi Sam Yam, and Carolyn Dang. 2015. Moralized leadership: The construction and consequences of ethical leader perceptions. Academy of Management Review 40.2: 182–209.

    DOI: 10.5465/amr.2013.0358

    Current research provides an overview of moral leadership and features the construction and consequences of ethical leader perceptions. It also reveals ways in which values underlying the moralized behaviors of leaders determine specific types of follower behavior.

  • Fink, Dean. 2005. Developing leaders for their future not our past. In Developing leadership: Creating the schools of tomorrow. Edited by Martin J. Coles and Geoff Southworth, 1–20. Maidenhead, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    Book chapter in edited handbook. Offers a balanced critique of transformational leadership from an international perspective.

  • Frick, William C. 2009. Principals’ value-informed decision making, intrapersonal moral discord, and pathways to resolution: The complexities of moral leadership praxis. Journal of Educational Administration 47.1: 50–74.

    DOI: 10.1108/09578230910928089

    Good article for understanding the nuances of what is meant by moral leadership. The research featured explores internal struggles experienced by school leaders when making ethically informed judgments. Contains principals’ intimate reflections about professional decision making in response to personal versus organizational and/or professional value discrepancy.

  • Greenleaf, Robert K., and Larry C. Spears. 2002. Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist.

    The seminal book on servant leadership, this book is an interdisciplinary must-read for those interested in learning more about this enduring leadership style. Originally published in 1977.

  • Harris, Alma. 2004. Distributed leadership and school improvement: Leading or misleading? Educational Management Administration & Leadership 32.1: 11–24.

    DOI: 10.1177/1741143204039297

    Important article on the topic by a leading scholar who suggests further research is needed to confirm a relationship between distributed forms of leadership and improved student learning outcomes.

  • Leithwood, Ken, Doris Jantzi, and Rosanne Steinbach. 2009. Changing leadership for changing times. 2d ed. Maidenhead, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1998. Examines the types of leadership that are likely to be productive in creating and sustaining schools with records of improvement. It is based on a long term study of “transformational” leadership in school restructuring contexts and offers what the authors consider to be a highly readable account of leadership that is grounded in empirical evidence.

  • Shields, Carolyn M. 2010. Transformative leadership: Working for equity in diverse contexts. Educational Administration Quarterly 46.4: 558–589.

    DOI: 10.1177/0013161X10375609

    Author/scholar and leader in the field delineates a theory of transformative leadership, distinct from other theories (transformational or transactional leadership) to assess the utility of the theory for guiding the practice of educational leaders who want to effect both educational and broader social change.

  • Southworth, Geoff. 2012. Connecting leadership and learning. In Leadership and learning. Edited by Jan Robertson and Helen Timperley, 71–85. London: SAGE.

    The author in this edited book argues that leadership should be focused on teaching and learning and, in particular, pedagogical practices.

  • Spillane, James P., Richard Halverson, and John B. Diamond. 2004. Towards a theory of leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies 36.1: 3–34.

    DOI: 10.1080/0022027032000106726

    Widely read scholars of educational leadership suggest the term style offers a fixed approach to leadership and that more critique of this term is called for with regard to educational leadership.

  • West-Burnham, John. 2013. Contemporary issues in educational leadership. In Principles of school leadership. Edited by Mark Brundrett, 9–26. London: SAGE.

    West-Burnham offers a commentary on the evolution of school leadership and management theory.

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