Six of the best

Recently I attended the retirement function for Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson hosted by The University of Auckland Dean of Education and Social Work. Not that Viviane is exactly ‘retiring’. There are several projects ahead and she maintains her connection with the University as an Emeritus Distinguished Professor.

Teacher tribute

Viviane has been my teacher for 20 years. First, as a postgraduate student in the Master of Educational Leadership while I was Principal of Glendowie College; second, as Foundation Director of New Zealand’s First-time Principals Programme, of which Viviane was Academic Director; third, as Foundation Executive Director of The University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership, of which Viviane is Academic Director; fourth, through her research, writing, presentations and mentoring.

In these ways and roles Viviane has deeply influenced my work in leadership. I’d like to share with you what I’ll call my SIX LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP learnt from Viviane, each lesson being of critical importance to influential and effective educational leadership for the improvement of student outcomes, both academic and social.

Lesson 1: Leadership decisions are consistently student- centred

There’s a risk in schools and education systems that learning and teaching decisions get made according to adult wishes, rather than what’s best for the students. While consultation by leaders with other adults about their preferences is desirable, it’s insufficient for making the right decisions for the right outcomes. Better decisions are based on proven experience, demonstrated evidence and reliable research for a likely high-impact on student outcomes.

These learning and teaching decisions are explained by leaders to others, so that they understand the logic behind a decision, why and how each important instructional decision has the most likely potential to best meet the priority learning needs of students. Viviane calls this “the moral compass” of decision making, where student interests are always front and centre in decision making and the resulting decisions are thoughtfully articulated to others.

Reflection question:

Do you consistently make learning and teaching decisions based on what’s best for students or adult preferences?

Lesson 2: Particular leadership practices have a higher effect on student outcomes

You’re probably aware of Viviane’s outstanding book Student-Centered Leadership (2011), and like myself may have a well-thumbed copy! In it she identifies from quality assured empirical research five leadership dimensions that are more likely to positively impact on student learning and well-being. A key message is that to be a highly effective and influential educational leader requires having specific knowledge and particular skills in each dimension.

Leaders beware! Each leadership dimension is backed-up by empirical research, with its meaning and on-the-job application explained. This tests our assumptions about the meaning of each dimension and challenges our practice of how we currently lead in each dimension. When leaders have knowledge of and skill in the five dimensions it’s more likely student outcomes will improve. Leaders therefore should focus their professional learning and leadership practice on the five dimensions to improve student outcomes.

Reflection question:

To what extent are you knowledgeable of the five dimensions of educational leadership and their effects on student outcomes?

Lesson 3: Successful leaders deliver improved student outcomes

There’s a tendency in some schools and education systems to publicise success as having new building projects, multiple sporting achievements, flourishing cultural activities, the latest technologies and so on. Take a look at some school websites and newsletters to see what I mean. While these are desirable things to have in a school, on their own they’re an insufficient benchmark of educational success. A more valid benchmark or ruler to measure educational success is that a leader is able to demonstrate and communicate measurable learning gains for particular groups or cohorts of students in a given year. These should be high-impact gains for targeted students rather than normal expected growth in a year of learning.

Using this ruler of success means that leaders are held accountable to their students and community for their effective performance as instructional leaders. By ‘effective’ I mean respectfully guiding and directing others in the tough work of delivering high-impact student outcomes.

Reflection question:

What does your school website and newsletters mostly feature and promote as success?

Lesson 4: Effective leaders build and sustain trust

When we think and talk about relational trust in schools it’s more than likely we each hold a personal theory as to what ‘relational trust’ is. Viviane’s research and writing invites us to check the validity of our personal theories against empirical research on what counts as highly productive relationships in schools. Research findings identify four determinants of relational trust in schools that are strong predictors of student success. Click on image to hear Viviane on relationships

By implication, the findings suggest it’s a leader’s job to know, promote and nurture the determinants in the ways that adults in the school or system work together. In other words, you build and sustain trusting relationships by being mindful of the four determinants as you go about the daily work of school improvement with others. In turn, over time this becomes the professional culture of the school. It’s the way we do things around here to deliver high-impact student learning gains.

Reflection question:

How aware are you of the four determinants of relational trust and how strongly embedded in your leadership work are they?

Lesson 5: Leaders who engage with others get results

There are possible risks when we’re appointed to a leadership position. We can stick to our preferred way of doing things; believe we should have the answers to difficult dilemmas; think we should hold solutions to complex learning and teaching problems; be defensive about uninvited feedback; and more! Viviane refers to these behaviours as ‘closed-to-learning’ leadership, which can result in – I know what’s best; others are to blame for not getting the change I want to see; I don’t want or need feedback about my intentions and actions. This leadership is not conducive to building relational trust or improving student outcomes.

By way of contrast, when a leader holds an ‘open-to-learning’ disposition they invite others to critique their proposed strategies for addressing seemingly intractable learning and teaching problems; they look in the mirror and engage with others to find out why improvement implementers may not be motivated or committed; they establish systems to both receive and give respectful critical feedback about proposed learning and teaching improvement priorities and strategies. In these ways, highly effective leaders deeply ‘engage’ in the thinking and aspirations of others as a way to check and test the quality of their own thinking and aspirations about improvement initiatives. Less effective leaders ‘bypass’ others by neither inviting a critique of their own thinking and aspirations nor inquiring into the thinking and aspirations of others about school improvement.

Reflection question:

In your leading of a learning and teaching improvement this year, can you think of (i) an example when you have been ‘closed-to-learning’ or ‘bypassed’? (ii) an example when you have been ‘open-to-learning’ or ‘engaged’?

Lesson 6: Lead improvement initiatives rather than change initiatives

In her most recent book Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (2018) Viviane encourages educational leaders to be rigorous about innovation and to focus more on improvement. Leaders can feel pressured or enticed by politicians, system-level agencies and media to adopt the latest educational and technology fads and fashions, without sufficient evidence that these are more likely to improve outcomes for students. The schools deemed to be “innovative” are frequently publicised as the benchmark for other schools to aspire to.

What’s wrong with this is that a tantalising change won’t necessarily result in improved outcomes for students. Huge amounts of money, time and effort can be spent implementing an innovation in a school or system without it making a substantial difference to student outcomes. However, when leaders plan, implement and evaluate improvement strategies with their teachers to address learning and teaching priorities it is more likely that student outcomes will significantly improve.

Reflection question:

In your current leadership work are you predominantly a change agent or an improvement agent?

Recommended reading

Robinson, V. (2011). Student-Centered Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Robinson, V. (2018). Reduce change to increase improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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