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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Academic Achievement
- Academic Audit for Universities
- Academic Freedom and Tenure in the United States
- Action Research in Education
- Adjuncts in Higher Education in the United States
- Administrator Preparation
- Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Courses
- African American Racial Identity and Learning
- Alternative Certification Programs for Educators
- Alternative Schools
- American Indian Education
- Art Education
- Assessing School Leader Effectiveness
- Assessment, Behavioral
- Assessment, Educational
- Assessment in Early Childhood Education
- Athletics, College
- Augmented Reality in Education
- Beginning-Teacher Induction
- Bilingual Education and Bilingualism
- Blended Learning
- Case Study in Education Research
- Changing Professional and Academic Identities
- Character Education
- Children’s and Young Adult Literature
- Children's Beliefs about Intelligence
- Children's Rights in Early Childhood Education
- Civic and Social Engagement of Higher Education
- Classroom Management
- College Admissions in the United States
- Community Relations
- Comparative Education
- Computer-Based Testing
- Counseling in Schools
- Critical Race Theory
- Crossborder and Transnational Higher Education
- Culturally Responsive Leadership
- Culturally Responsive Pedagogies
- Culturally Responsive Teacher Education in the United Stat...
- Curriculum Design
- Data Collection in Educational Research
- Data-driven Decision Making in the United States
- Deaf Education
- Desegregation and Integration
- Development, Moral
- Digital Age Teacher, The
- Digital Divides
- Distance Learning
- Distributed Leadership
- Doctoral Education and Training
- Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in Denmark
- Early Childhood Education and Development in Mexico
- Early Childhood Education in Australia
- Early Childhood Education in China
- Early Childhood Education in Europe
- Early Childhood Education in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Early Childhood Education in Sweden
- Early Childhood Education Pedagogy
- Early Childhood Education Policy
- Early Childhood Education, The Arts in
- Early Childhood Mathematics
- Early Childhood Science
- Early Childhood Teacher Education
- Early Childhood Teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand
- Early Years Professionalism and Professionalization Polici...
- Economics of Education
- Education For Children with Autism
- Education Leadership, Empirical Perspectives in
- Education Reform and School Change
- Educational Statistics for Longitudinal Research
- Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
- Epistemic Beliefs
- Equity, Ethnicity, Diversity, and Excellence in Education
- Ethics and Education
- Ethics of Teaching
- Ethnic Studies
- Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention
- Family and Community Partnerships in Education
- Family Day Care
- Federal Government Programs and Issues
- Finance, Education
- Financial Aid
- Formative Assessment
- Gender and Achievement
- Gifted Education
- Global Mindedness and Global Citizenship Education
- Global University Rankings
- Governance, Education
- Grounded Theory
- Growth of Effective Mental Health Services in Schools in t...
- Higher Education and Globalization
- Higher Education and the Developing World
- Higher Education Faculty Characteristics and Trends in the...
- Higher Education Governance
- Higher Education in China
- Higher Education in the United States, Historical Evolutio...
- Higher Education, International Issues in
- Higher Education Management
- Higher Education Policy
- Higher Education Research
- Higher Education Student Assessment
- High-stakes Testing
- History of Education in the United States
- Inclusive Education
- Indigenous Education in a Global Context
- Inservice Teacher Education
- Integrating Art across the Curriculum
- Intensive Interventions for Children and Adolescents with ...
- Intersectionality and Education
- Knowledge Development in Early Childhood
- Leadership Development, Coaching and Feedback for
- Leadership Training
- Learning Difficulties
- Learning, Lifelong
- Learning, Multimedia
- Learning Strategies
- Legal Matters and Education Law
- LGBT Youth in Schools
- Linguistic Diversity
- Linguistically Inclusive Pedagogy
- Literacy Development and Language Acquisition
- Literacy, Multiple Documents
- Literature Reviews
- Mathematics Instruction and Interventions for Students wit...
- Mathematics Teacher Education
- Measurement in Education in the United States
- Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis in Education
- Methodologies for Conducting Education Research
- Mindfulness, Learning, and Education
- Mixed Methods Research
- Multivariate Research Methodology
- Museums, Education, and Curriculum
- Music Education
- Narrative Research in Education
- Numeracy Education
- Online Education
- Pedagogy of Teacher Education, A
- Performance Objectives and Measurement
- Performance-based Research Assessment in Higher Education
- Performance-based Research Funding
- Phenomenology in Educational Research
- Philosophy of Education
- Physical Education
- Politics of Education
- Portable Technology for Special Education
- Pre-Service Teacher Education
- Problem Solving
- Productivity and Higher Education
- Professional Development
- Professional Learning Communities
- Program Evaluation
- Programs and Services for Students with Emotional or Behav...
- Psychology Learning and Teaching
- Psychometric Issues in the Assessment of English Language ...
- Qualitative Data Analysis Techniques
- Qualitative Research Design
- Quantitative Research Designs in Educational Research
- Race and Affirmative Action in Higher Education
- Reading Education
- Refugee and New Immigrant Learners
- Religion in Elementary and Secondary Education in the Unit...
- Researcher Development and Skills Training within the Cont...
- Response to Intervention
- Restorative Practices
- School Accreditation
- School Choice
- School Culture
- School Improvement through Inclusive Education
- School Reform
- Schools, Private and Independent
- School-Wide Positive Behavior Support
- Science Education
- Secondary to Postsecondary Transition Issues
- Self-Regulated Learning
- Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices
- Severe Disabilities
- Single Salary Schedule
- Single-sex Education
- Single-Subject Research Design
- Social Context of Education
- Social Justice
- Social Network Analysis
- Social Pedagogy
- Social Science and Education Research
- Social Studies Education
- Sociology of Education
- Standards-Based Education
- Statistical Assumptions
- Student Access, Equity, and Diversity in Higher Education
- Student Assignment Policy
- Student Engagement in Tertiary Education
- Student Participation
- Student Voice in Teacher Development
- Teacher Evaluation and Teacher Effectiveness
- Teacher Preparation
- Teacher Training and Development
- Teacher Unions and Associations
- Teaching Critical Thinking
- Technologies, Teaching, and Learning in Higher Education
- Technology Education in Early Childhood
- Technology, Educational
- Technology-based Assessment
- The Bologna Process
- The Regulation of Standards in Higher Education
- Theories of Educational Leadership
- Three Conceptions of Literacy: Media, Narrative, and Gamin...
- Tracking and Detracking
- Transitions in Early Childhood Education
- University Faculty Roles and Responsibilities in the Unite...
- Using Ethnography in Educational Research
- Value of Higher Education for Students and Other Stakehold...
- Vocational and Technical Education
- Wellness and Well-Being in Education
- Women's and Gender Studies