The CEO Refresher Websites for Professionals
Take control of your online presence
with your own professional website!

The Principal as Chief Learning Officer:
The New Work of Formative Leadership

by Dr. Ruth Ash and Dr. Maurice Persall



In the information economy, most successful organizations must be knowledge-based, value-added enterprises. Such an environment requires schools to be true learning organizations where students are engaged in challenging and interesting academic work and where teachers and administrators are collaboratively involved in learning about the most effective instructional strategies and technologies.

In this world of knowledge-based organizations, leaders will do their work by enhancing the quality of thinking of those within the organization rather than by issuing edicts or directives. In order to do that, they will have to create learning opportunities that enable the faculty and staff to become leaders capable of anticipating and leading productive change.

Creating an organizational culture and infrastructure that supports leadership possibilities for everyone - a "leader-full" organization - requires an altogether different and new set of leadership skills. The traditional leadership mindset, still prevalent in many schools, centers around control and top-down direction. "Doing things right," is often more highly valued than "doing the right thing." Maintaining the status quo, however, even when performed efficiently, is of little benefit when faced with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and change faced by today's schools.

In the twenty-first century, with the continuing development of the information-based global economy and industry's increasing need for high-performance employees, intellectual capital will be the most critical resource in our state and in our nation. This means that those states that do the best job of educating all children are likely to enjoy the highest levels of economic success. Our challenge, therefore, is to ensure that all children reach the levels of academic achievement once expected of only a few. Our problem, however, is that we are entering the twenty-first century with schools and instructional methods designed in the nineteenth century.

Many of today's schools are not organized to effectively support and encourage learning. Our existing administrative structures (often organized in a bureaucratic and hierarchical configuration), our value systems, and our professional training programs are often in conflict with the kind of systemic change that the times demand. Teachers are isolated, without opportunities to collaboratively solve problems, share information, learn together, and plan for improving student achievement. Too often, children are not provided with work that is engaging, that meets high academic standards, and that is challenging and satisfying. Time is not always utilized effectively, and technologies that could enhance teaching and learning are either not available or not fully utilized. And our educational leadership preparation programs have not prepared their graduates to identify, address, and resolve these issues.

Under our current paradigm, some students learn successfully, some make varying degrees of progress, and some fail. Now, however, it is crucial that all children acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. This requires a transformation in our thinking about teaching and learning. Student learning must now become the focus of our educational efforts, and school leaders must have the ability to create systemic change and pursue ever-higher levels of student achievement. To be effective instructional leaders, school administrators and faculty must think in new patterns and act within new models.

The schools of yesterday and today are not the kind of schools we need for tomorrow. We need new strategies, new processes, and a new mindset. In effect, we need a new paradigm of instructional leadership. Schools need to be organized around, and focus on, the work of students rather than the work of the adults in the school. All rules, regulations, roles, and work processes in the school should be designed to support and enhance the faculty's ability to design quality learning experiences for all students.

Joel Barker has defined a paradigm as "a set of rules and regulations that establish boundaries and tell us what to do to be successful within those boundaries." A paradigm is also a set of shared assumptions that control the way we see the world. A new paradigm then requires a new set of assumptions, a new way of thinking about instructional leadership.

Formative Leadership

Formative Leadership Theory, developed by Ash and Persall, is based on the belief that there are numerous leadership possibilities and many leaders within the school. Leadership is not role-specific, reserved only for administrators; rather the job of the school leader is to fashion learning opportunities for the faculty and staff in order that they might develop into productive leaders. This theory of leadership supports our view of the teacher as leader and the principal as the leader of leaders. It is grounded in the belief that educators should enhance not only student learning but also the learning of the adults within the school.

The formative leader must possess a high level of facilitation skills because team inquiry and learning and collaborative problem solving are essential ingredients of this leadership approach. Imagining future possibilities; examining shared beliefs; asking questions; collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data; and engaging the faculty in meaningful conversation about teaching and learning are all formative leadership behaviors. Ten new Formative Leadership principles support a new paradigm for quality leadership.

Formative Leadership Principles

1. Team learning, productive thinking, and collaborative problem solving should replace control mechanisms, top-down decision making, and enforcement of conformity.

2. Teachers should be viewed as leaders and school principals as leaders of leaders. Leaders must be viewed as asking the right kinds of questions rather than knowing all the answers.

3. Trust should drive our working relationships. Leaders must not assume that the faculty, staff, and students will try their best to do their worst. The leader's job is to drive out fear.

4. Leaders should move from demanding conformity and compliance to encouraging and supporting innovation and creativity.

5. Leaders should focus on people and processes, rather than on paper work and administrative minutia. Time should be spent on value-added activities.

6. Leaders should be customer-focused and servant-based. Faculty and staff are the direct customers of the principal, and the most important function of the principal is to serve his or her customers.

7. Leaders should create networks that foster two-way communication rather than channels that direct the flow of information in only one direction.

8. Formative Leadership requires proximity, visibility, and being close to the customer. Leaders should wander about the school and the surrounding community, listening and learning, asking questions, building relationships, and identifying possibilities.

9. Formative Leadership is empowering the people within the school to do the work and then protecting them from unwarranted outside interference.

10. Formative Leadership requires the ability to operate in an environment of uncertainty, constantly learning how to exploit systemic change, rather than maintaining the status quo.

The Principal as Chief Learning Officer of the School

Business organizations have a chief executive officer (CEO), a chief financial officer (CFO), and a chief information officer (CIO), among other titles. In the school of the future, we need a chief learning officer (CLO). Instructional leaders of the future must be open to new learning even when that learning challenges their strongly held beliefs. They must model the behaviors they want to see in others - talking about teaching and learning, attending seminars, reading constantly, and encouraging the faculty to do the same. Being the chief learning officer requires building a culture of innovation, where everyone is involved in action research and constantly collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data for continuous improvement.

As the new work of the formative leaders is different, so too are the required skills. The chief learning officer must help the faculty and staff overcome their fear of failure and grapple with the difficult problems, rather than only with the easy issues. Ironically, it is in school where we initially learn to avoid difficult learning. It is part of the reward system of the classroom. Those students who know the answer are rewarded by good grades and by the teacher's approval and praise. Those who do not know the answer stay silent, avoid the teacher, and hope that no one notices that they do not know the answer. This lesson, learned early in life, stays with us into adulthood, where we are rewarded for what we know rather than for being open to what we have yet to learn.

New models of instructional leadership are more important now than ever before in Alabama. With some schools already classified as "alert" or "caution" due to academic deficiencies, with more stringent graduation requirements, and with a more difficult graduation exam coming on line, school principals no longer have the luxury of leaving instructional matters to others.

Asking the Right Questions

Instructional leadership needs to focus more on the learning opportunities provided students and on the work students do, and less on the teaching process and the work teachers do. By shifting the focus, we can also change the leadership dynamics. Direct supervision of the work of the teacher, although still a necessary part of the instructional improvement process, is of less importance than working collaboratively with teachers in planning, scheduling, and leading students in academic work. The skills of observing, evaluating, and directing need to be supplemented with the skills of listening, questioning, probing, and guiding; a leadership style that might be characterized as interrogative rather than declarative.

To be successful, the instructional leader must become adept at managing by wandering around (MBWA), which is really the art and practice of listening and learning. It is the quintessential practice for building relationships and establishing trust. MBWA gets the leader out of the office, increasing visibility and contact with the people doing the work, the students and the staff. Leaders can begin the process by implementing the following four MBWA steps:

1. Engage in face to face contact with your customers. The principal's direct customer is the faculty. Instructional leadership begins with spending time - lots of it - with teachers, in and out of classrooms, engaged in conversation about teaching and learning.

2. Create opportunities to solicit undistorted opinions. Tom Peters refers to naive listening, that is listening with an open mind rather than entering a conversation with a predetermined position.

3. Act quickly on what you hear. Quick responses and prompt action will encourage trust and provide broader opportunities for future listening and learning.

4. Probe under the surface by asking penetrating questions. To really understand, you must penetrate the natural reluctance of people to "really level" with you. This is the only way to bring the unmentionables found in every organization to the surface. What kinds of questions should the instructional leader ask? How do you lead conversations with faculty that focus on creating better learning opportunities for students? The following suggestions offer a point of departure.

  • What do we really believe about how students learn?
  • How well are we providing challenging, interesting work for students?
  • How many of our students are actively engaged on a regular basis?
  • What evidence, other than standardized test data, do we have about how well our students are learning what we want them to learn?
  • What are the major barriers to learning that are most difficult for us to deal with?
  • What do we need, that we do not currently have, to be more effective teachers?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do when they leave our school?
  • How can we better integrate existing technology into the curriculum?
  • How can we better protect teaching and learning time?
  • How can we reduce non-teaching duties?
  • What additional data do we need in order to more effectively understand our students?

Asking these, and similar questions, should lead to broader conversations with individuals and small groups, as well as with the entire faculty. The ultimate objective is to improve the level and degree of productive thinking of the adults in the school. The effective instructional leader must get out of the office, mix and mingle with staff, students, parents, and other community members; and lead or participate in conversations about improving the learning opportunities provided students.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

School improvement efforts are most successful when they are based on research and when the decision-making process is data driven. The quality education process is only effective when teams find the root cause of problems. It is the responsibility of the Leadership Team to collect and analyze data in order to identify trends. This trend data is then used to assist with the identification of problems and support the need for improvement.

The following is a representative listing of some of the data elements that Leadership Teams should collect, analyze, and disseminate to all stakeholders in the form of a school profile.

  • Standardized test scores
  • Attendance and tardies
  • Discipline referrals
  • Percentage of failing grades
  • Percentage of students on A/B honor roll
  • Percentage of students in extra-curricular activities
  • Number of students receiving awards
  • Social worker contacts
  • Library circulation rate
  • Number in advanced diploma and advanced placement classes
  • Number and percent retained
  • Number and percent in remediation/summer school
  • Number and percent suspended
  • Counselor contacts
  • Graduation rate
  • Percent of graduates with specific post high school plans
  • Graduate follow-ups
  • Drop-out rate
  • Percent involved in academic competition

The Leadership team uses the school profile in identifying the school's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Input from the grade level/departmental teams is used extensively in this process.

Creating scenarios, examining the school's belief system, and asking the right questions, must be augmented by the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. School faculties are flooded with data. Instructional leaders must assist faculty teams in turning data into information and disseminating the information to everyone throughout the school.

Data provides the rationale for making decisions. To learn something, you must first have enough information to understand it. In the quality education process, quality tools provide a mechanism for collecting and analyzing data to provide valid information. That information, then, is used for working on the system, which, according to Deming, is the most important function of leadership. To achieve the status of a learning organization, individuals and teams must constantly examine every operating process. Data collection must be systematic and ongoing to support learning and continuous improvement.

Faculty teams should adhere to the following criteria when collecting and analyzing data:

  • The data must be timely and useful. Avoid collecting information that has little or no bearing on the problem.
  • Focus on the critical success elements that are measurable, such as the key performance indicators.
  • Summarize data in a form that is useful and useable by the team.
  • Share data with everyone in the school.
  • Use data only to improve school processes. Information should never be used to threaten or blame.
  • Establish data collection and utilization ground rules before undertaking the task of data collection.
  • Collect and use data that answer questions that are important to the team.

Leading the Faculty in Conversations

Emerging leadership theory places considerable emphasis on the power of conversation in driving improvement. School faculties typically engage in numerous daily conversations, in small groups and one-on-one, about all kinds of issues and concerns. The challenge for the instructional leader is to provide new information, to provide opportunities for collaborative planning and problem solving, and to lead the faculty in seeking to understand each other and in making sense of what schooling is all about. Leading faculty talk about beliefs, vision, mission, student work, and student outcome is a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning in the school. Ideas and information are the basic tools for creating a school full of leaders who elicit the best from their colleagues and students alike.

Schools face enormous social and economic problems. Many students come to school bringing the accumulated baggage of a society that does not provide nearly well enough for its children. The demand to do better with less in an unfriendly political climate requires that school faculty and staff work smarter. Working smarter simply means that the individual talents of everyone in the school must be maximized for the collective benefit of the school and its customers. Productive teams engaged in collaborative, data-driven problem solving may provide the needed impetus for working smarter and, thereby, improving the teaching and learning process in the school.

Strategies for Promoting Innovation

Positive school change is neither top down nor bottom up. It is, instead, interactive and participative at every grade and departmental level. It involves both leadership and followership operating at a high degree of effectiveness and working within the school's shared belief system. Innovative practice does not just happen. It requires creation of a climate of trust, support, and encouragement along with sensitivity to the fact that change is most often accompanied by fear. According to Deming, the enemy of innovation and improvement is fear and must be eliminated by building self-confidence through training and empowerment.

Time and attention should be devoted to the following strategies designed to create both a climate of support, and a capacity for implementation of innovative practice:

  • Challenge grade/departmental level teams to study, plan, and implement at least one innovative practice each year. Provide numerous opportunities for the teams to share with the entire faculty.
  • Provide in-service training in the area of understanding and managing the change process.
  • Create an action team to explore the feasibility of implementing an innovation.
  • Remove barriers that might serve to stifle creativity. Review rules and regulations that may hinder rather than help innovative practice.
  • Reduce isolation of the staff members in the school and improve communication. Listening and talking are two of the most powerful tools available for building a learning organization.
  • Seek out, recognize, and celebrate the innovators.
  • Recognize, reward, and celebrate the failures as well as the successes. In the learning organization, failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn, not an occasion to place blame.
  • Benchmark "best practices" in organizations other than schools. Some of the most effective learning occurs when we observe, question, and inquire about the successes of business, religious, civic, and governmental organizations.
  • Create an expectation that all innovations will be evaluated. Establish measurable key performance indicators for each innovative project.
  • Encourage individual teachers to "try" something new and different, to engage in action research in their classrooms.

Optimizing the Talents of All Personnel

"The need for involvement and flexibility has an obvious corollary: Train and retrain. We must train everyone in problem solving techniques to contribute to quality improvement." (Tom Peters, "Thriving on Chaos")

Creating a learning organization raises expectations for teacher and student performance. It involves changing the culture and increasing the individual and collective capability of the faculty and staff. This can best be achieved by rethinking the school's approach to professional staff development. Too often professional development activities are imposed by the central office with little regard for the individual needs and goals of the schools, with programs of questionable quality, and with little consideration of the learning styles of adults. Most programs also lack consistent follow-up and coaching. The importance of effective staff development is magnified substantially when schools embark on site-based, collaborative decision-making.

The need for increased expertise immediately expands from learning new concepts that improve teaching and learning to include learning how to be a productive "player" in team problem solving. To support these emerging needs, the National Staff Development Council recommends the following strategies for designing effective staff development programs:

  • Effective professional development needs commitment from all parties.
  • All improvement needs to be continuous, not a one-shot effort.
  • Structures must be aligned with professional development goals.
  • A variety of approaches must be used.
  • Planning must be participatory.
  • Professional development should be student focused, data driven, and results oriented.
  • The content of the staff development program must have proven value.
  • Professional development needs to be localized.
  • Content of staff development must be tailored to build upon earlier improvements.

"Imagine an organization in which everyone from top to bottom is either actually or potentially learning for the improvement of the organization." (Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders, "Ten Steps to a Learning Organization")

Few organizations isolate the adults from each other in the organization to the extent found in schools. This isolation is a major barrier to implementing the quality process and to achieving a learning organization. Adults talking together about professional issues is a powerful tool for learning. Reducing the isolation of faculty and staff becomes, then, a major concern of the administration and leadership teams. A second concern is to create opportunities for faculty and staff to engage in learning activities that are designed with a full understanding of, and an appreciation for, adult learning theory.

Anticipating the Future: Using Scenarios to Drive Strategic Thinking

"Many years ago I asked an executive responsible for the future development of a very large corporation, 'What do you worry about most on your job?'" His answer was startling. 'I worry most about what my people don't know they don't know. What they know they don't know, they're able to work on and find the answer to. But they can't do that if they don't know that they don't know.'" (Stanley Davis, "2001 Management")

We live in a world increasingly shaken by sudden change. Uncertainty threatens the future so that our plans are not consistent with, or useful within, the context of real events. Constant change requires a different approach to planning, something more flexible and fluid than the traditional strategic plan. It requires a new meaning for strategy, one that encompasses planning as learning, asking "what if" questions, and considering multiple futures. Predetermined answers and plans "set in stone" are of little value in the face of the unknown, but to simply wait for the unknown to happen is even more dangerous. Organizations have to move from strategy as a fixed plan to a learning process that leads to continuous improvement and develops the organization's ability to cope with changes in its environment. Scenarios are one way an organization can think about the future and anticipate both opportunities and threats.

Scenarios are distinctly structured views of the future that are plausible enough to cause teams to look outward and be more introspective - in other words, to learn. Through this process, multiple futures can be constructed, each one requiring a different approach and a different set of assumptions. In short, strategic thinking creates a vision that can be modified at every turn of events, yet still allows progress toward the organization's goals.

Constructing Alternative Futures

Constructing different views of the future and finding ways to make such work useful is more difficult than one might assume. It requires a new and different mindset. A mindset is the pattern of perceptions we hold about our environment, perceptions that are rooted in, and find strength from, our belief system. Thus prevailing mindsets are very hard to change. A wide variety of perspectives must be collected from outside the organization's culture as well as from within it. From these perspectives, logic must be combined with imagination to create "stories of the future." Two approaches are useful in producing such stories--predictions of the future and scenario planning.

Predicting the Future

The effective instructional leader must be aware of emerging trends in society in order to structure curricular and instructional strategies that will properly prepare students to live successfully in a highly complex, global information age. Instructional leaders need to draw upon wide-ranging information from many sources in order to avoid the "tunnel vision" that often occurs when we fail to see the interconnections with other fields of knowledge.

In today's environment, however, producing effective change requires an altogether new and different set of skills. Listening, asking questions, engaging faculty and staff in conversation about teaching and learning, collecting and analyzing data, and benchmarking promising practice are replacing top-down driven directives, traditional models of supervision, and the expectation that the leader has all the answers. These new role expectations provide new opportunities for leadership to emerge from the teaching ranks. Changing demographics and the rigors of preparing students for the twenty-first century requires that we rethink what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess student and teacher performance. These changes will have to be made at the classroom level by teacher leaders capable of restructuring the educational process.

Embracing Change

True learning organizations support innovation and change. Change, however, depends on people, on the administrators, faculty, and staff of schools. Faculty and staff in the quality school take personal responsibility for making it easier for their school to improve and change and for communicating change effectively to others. In the quality school, personnel recognize and take advantage of the opportunities produced by change.

Leaders in the quality school must help personnel become comfortable with change. Without a high level of comfort and ease, resistance to change will significantly impede improvement efforts. But as the comfort level of personnel increases, improvements increase, the school's reputation grows, and change accelerates.

Promoting and Encouraging Change

"To meet the demands of the fast-changing competitive scene, we must simply learn to love change as much as we have hated it in the past." (Tom Peters, "Thriving on Chaos")

Nothing defines a school's ability to serve its customers quite like its propensity for innovation. The school's orientation to change is embedded in its culture and is reflected in the collective mindset of the faculty and staff. If the school aspires to become a learning organization, it must commit to continuous improvement through experimentation or action research. Action research involves implementation of innovative practices coupled with an assessment of those practices on student learning.

Establishing a climate of trust, eliminating the fear of failure, and encouraging innovation is a role that the administrative staff must assume. In the final analysis, it may well be the most important role impacting on the school's success. All organizations, and individuals as well, resist change. In order to overcome the natural barriers to the change process, leaders should concentrate on creating a culture that reduces the fear of change and designing the organizational processes that promote innovative practice.

Creating Opportunities for Team Learning

"There has never been a greater need for mastering team learning in organizations than there is today. Teams of people, who need one another to act, are becoming the key learning unit in organizations." (Peter M. Senge, "The Fifth Discipline")

The concept that groups of people working together can be more productive than individuals working alone is receiving recognition as a critical element in most enterprises. Businesses competing in a global, information-based economy measure success largely on the collective brain-power of their human resources. Team learning and collaborative problem solving provide the most effective and efficient vehicles for realizing maximum benefit from the people within the organization. Schools realize an additional benefit by utilizing the team concept to reduce the isolation of teachers from each other, a phenomenon that contributes to the dysfunctional organizational climate found in many schools.

Teams may be defined as groups of people who need or depend on each other to solve problems and/or accomplish results. Teams form the vehicle for successful implementation of the quality process, but in order for teams to function, the organizational culture must be receptive and supportive. All the basic tenets of the quality process are necessary to create a climate for effective teaming. Leading a school through a team configuration requires that the following elements exist.

Total involvement. Every person in the school, professional and support staff alike, must be involved and must view the team structure as the best way to solve problems, increase learning, and bring about continuous improvement.

Customer focus. Teams perform the important work of serving customers by identifying and breaking down barriers to successful performance.

Appreciation of the value of diversity. The school values creativity and understands that people with different skills, ways of thinking, and views toward solving problems add to the richness of the team's learning and ultimately to the efficiency of the problem solving.

Sharing information. An atmosphere of openness, candor, and trust is exhibited through the sharing of information with the team. Effective decisions are rarely made in the absence of relevant information.

Listening. Leaders who have accepted the new paradigm of organizational behaviors that revolve around listening, facilitating dialogue and discussion, and collaborative decision making are creating the kind of climate that allows teams to arrive at more creative solutions.

Scorekeeping. Measuring the team's success, as demonstrated by key performance indicators, helps keep the team focused, provides a higher level of individual satisfaction, and improves the overall performance of the team.

Continuous improvement. The quality mindset does not recognize an end to improvement. The concept requires the school to embrace a never-ending quest for improving service to the customer.

Empowerment. The quality school recognizes the value of people and trusts the staff to make good decisions if given the right information and the authority to make changes.

Adding value. In the school environment, this means working to improve the teaching and learning process. It involves identifying and removing barriers to learning, and improving opportunities for everyone, including students, faculty, and staff, to increase their success levels.

Recognition. Recognizing and rewarding behaviors that are valued throughout the school and community serves to motivate the team to better performance.


The Authors


Dr. Ruth Ash is the Dean and Dr. Maurice Persall is the Director of Graduate Programs, Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies, Samford University Birmingham, Alabama.

Visit the Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies .

Many more articles in Education in The CEO Refresher Archives
The CEO Refresher

Copyright 2001 by Dr. Ruth Ash and Dr. Maurice Persall. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading

Refresher Publications