Distributed Leadership From the Top

Google search analytics show that people search for “principal” 50 times more often than “assistant principal” and 100 times more often than “co-principal.” There is 10 times the interest in searching for “president” than “vice president.” Research shows we live in a country that values individual leadership. The American dream is anyone can make it; I can make it. But in education, it takes a whole team, village, and community to make a difference.

If we put the weight of a system’s failure on an individual student, superintendent, or principal—and don’t look for root causes and more nuanced areas of growth—then we will find ourselves trying to fix issues that only make more problems. Echoes of “He doesn’t want to learn” come to mind, instead of “We aren’t empowering him to learn.” The “we” includes the student, but he is not alone. A co-​leadership model creates the “we” from the very top. There are many reasons to employ this model.

At Highline School District, we have multiple co-principals and a pair of co-directors at the central office. Take time to consider both the practical and philosophical reasons why your community may want to consider co-leadership models.

Deconstructing Historically Inequitable Models

Individualism and vertical hierarchies in modern history stem from a white, male, wealthy, and Western structure. According to data from Fortune and a report titled “The One Percent” by Lisa Keister, the majority of CEOs in the United States (72 percent) and the richest 1 percent of people in America (over 90 percent) are white men. The trend is clear that America values hierarchy and individualism, while communities of color and those outside the Western world are more collectivist and communal.

Some people argue that America means individualism, winner-take-all, and exceptionalism. We argue that what makes us great is our diversity, and our systems should be as diverse as our communities. Should every single system be horizontal and communal? No. Should every system be responsive to its community and create systems that represent them? Yes.

Modeling Distributive Leadership From the Top

If co-leaders are collaborating, norming, and collectively synergizing as a group, those mindsets and actions will transfer down to every system below them. We can’t ask our teachers to collaborate, our students to share power, or our community to come together when we don’t model that from the top. The leader becomes a team that includes multiple facets to its identity and a model for how to work together.

First of all, a co-leadership role allows you to pull from a deeper talent pool. When a job posts, you get more people applying who have varied experience—both principals and assistant principals—as opposed to a job posting for an assistant principal role that is unlikely to attract current assistant principals or principals. If you need two talented leaders with proven track records, you’re more likely to find what you need if you post for a co-​principal role. The same holds true for a co-director or co-superintendent job.

To keep talent at a school or district, if you have a strong assistant principal or assistant superintendent who is clearly ready for more responsibility and scope of role but you want to keep them at their current location, moving to a co-leadership model can retain them while giving them new responsibilities and the added step along their career trajectory. You can also keep talent because there is more sustainability. When only one of you attends an event, you bring the top leader to that event. You can split events and never get whispers of “Why did she just send the assistant principal?”

Intentional work is needed to break down those biases with an assistant principal, but the co-principal model pushes that bias out of the position from the start. Sometimes you need a “head decision maker” to attend meetings; with co-leaders you can split up these must-attend meetings because the co-principals have agreed upon the collective needs and culture of the school ahead of time. Both principals have the same vision and mission for the school.

Big Needs, More Capacity

If your school has a large change you are undertaking, you can distribute the focus of two top leaders. For example, if you are in the middle of a facility transition, one principal can focus on the facility needs of the new building and capital projects while the other continues to focus on day-to-day operations of the current building, creating more “leadership capacity.”

If you have a large school or school in need of transition, having two principals allows for more collaboration because they can each go to events, meet with the community, and attend meetings. Decision makers with strong leadership experience can be in multiple places at once. When you have a co-principalship, you walk side by side with your partner. You are not evaluating each other or judging each other—you are intentionally collaborating on your job.

If there is a need for community involvement, engaging families and community partners, you can have one principal focused more on outward-facing relationships such as meetings with community partners, nonprofit organizations, and local government organizations, and one principal facing inward to focus on school initiatives, instruction, and teacher retention. In these situations, by having co-principals, you have twice the time for a leader with the highest decision-making power to attend meetings and have the capacity to focus on grants, RFIs, community relationship building, or initiative planning.

Humility and Taking the Target off Your Back

Co-leaders create a more diverse leadership “head” with two people of different backgrounds and experiences—each leader can push on the other and check biases. When people are angry with a decision, they can’t place blame on just one person. When there is an attack on a decision, we as co-principals have already discussed the issue together at length and have explanations for why those specific decisions were made.

Co-principalship also creates humility within the leadership space because each leader has to share power and be collaborative 24/7 by design. This portrays a better image to staff and models collaboration for them. There is not a single person at the top dropping down edicts; it is a team working together to do what’s best for everyone.

Not Just Two Principals

Distributive leadership is really a balance of keeping cohesion between the co-leaders. You have to actually check each other, set a shared vision, and be unified. A co-leader model can produce larger output with two leaders at the top, but it can also hamper forward movement. Slower movement happens when each leader is waiting until there is consensus for every decision, expecting both leaders to be present in every situation, or if roles aren’t fully defined.

In order to produce synergistic and more output than an assistant principal/principal role, co-leaders need to create a shared leadership vision, school vision, and shared values, define each person’s roles/responsibilities, and coalesce on desired metrics. With this shared understanding, each leader can separately make decisions that work off each other and support the other’s decisions, even when they aren’t there to help make the decision. When the two leaders at the top align like this, it pushes everyone to distribute leadership, take ownership, and work to be aligned in vision.

Reflections

Hypothetically, you could create the co-leader synergy and increased output with an assistant principal and principal, but it is harder to do because of some people’s inherent biases and traditional hierarchies. Some believe that these “assistants” don’t have the same decision-making power or leadership gravitas as the principal—and in many situations they don’t. Assistant principals, assistant directors, or assistant superintendents may be earlier in their careers and have less experience. It can be a case of nuance and semantics, but nuance and semantics are important in leadership, as is perception. The title of co-leader allows each person to make real movement separately, which—if they have created a shared vision and plan—builds the school in a cohesive manner.

A co-leader model can work poorly or strongly, just like the assistant principal/principal arrangement. We believe that you can create a much stronger leadership team with fewer hurdles to jump over if you implement a co-leader structure. The assistant principal/principal structure can work, but it takes longer to get the same outcomes. Additionally, the assistant principal, assistant director, or assistant superintendent may leave before you accomplish your goals because they are looking to advance in their career.

This article, written by two co-​principals, is a microcosm of the role itself. It’s unimportant who wrote it, who had the best ideas, or who spent more time on the article. All you see is an article written by collaborators. You see a diverse viewpoint that has been debated and vetted by multiple people. We put out the work. We are happy with it and believe in it. We hope it does good in the world and are ready to support those who want to make it happen. But you don’t have to worry about which one of us to call. If you contact one of us, you contact both.


Tremain Holloway is co-principal at Highline High School in Des Moines, WA. Marcello Sgambelluri is co-principal at White Center Heights Elementary School in Seattle.