Supervisory Styles of Instructional Leaders

Researchers find a range, from collaborative to despotic, in use in schools by Rita Dunn and Robert Brasco

Here we are at the beginning of a new school year. Young teachers arrive anxious they have not had adequate training to implement new instructional programs. Seasoned teachers are irritated they must adapt their teaching style yet again to meet administrators’ expectations. And many administrators are daunted by the responsibility of motivating staff members, ensuring new programs are effective and ultimately improving student test scores.

How have successful school leaders risen to these challenges? How have they selected the instructional programs they’ve implemented and how did they garner necessary faculty support for the adopted innovations? What instructional leadership styles lead to higher standardized achievement test scores for struggling students?

The federal and state governments’ implementation of No Child Left Behind certainly isn’t an example of instructional leadership. As soon as the legislation was released, state education departments met with local school district representatives to implement its mandates. Teachers were told they were responsible for increasing student achievement, but they were not told how. Neither the Bush administration, which initiated the program, nor the state education departments that ritualistically supported it, provided definitive, proven strategies for increasing the achievement of poorly performing students. In that sense, both federal and state autocracies exhibited a severe lack of instructional leadership.

Our search of the literature revealed many examples of school leaders who adopted new programs that actually improved low-achieving students’ stand­ardized achievement test scores. Reaching that goal represented successful instructional leadership; however, after extensive interviews with these supervisors, we realized their leadership styles differed dramatically.

A Style Rundown
In The Managerial Grid, co-authors Robert Rogers Blake and Jane Srygley Mouton, professors of management at the University of Western Ontario, define supervisory styles in terms of being collaborative, cooperative, participative, bureaucratic, laissez-faire, benevolent despotic and autocratic. They generally support collaborative, cooperative and participative leaders and disparage bureaucrats, benevolent despots, autocrats and laissez-faire types. However, despite the negative perceptions associated with these latter supervisory styles, we both have known staffs that adored and worked hard for their benevolently despotic superintendents or principals and teachers who were productive only with autocratic principals. And we know of staff members who rose to the occasion with laissez-faire leaders.

Which of these leadership styles, if any, is most effective in improving student achievement? Our research into successful instructional leadership styles included reviews of Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Secondary Schools by Rita Dunn and Shirley Griggs, which described the leadership styles of 10 secondary school educators who improved instruction; Rita Dunn and Thomas C. DeBello’s Improved Test Scores, Attitudes and Behaviors in America’s Schools: Supervisors’ Success Stories, offering case studies of elementary, middle and secondary school supervisors who had increased poorly performing students’ standardized achievement test scores in urban, suburban and rural schools; and Lois Favre’s 2003 Impact of Learning-Style Strategies on Urban, Poverty Minority Students: Debunking the City Kid Myth, which detailed the impact of learning style strategies on low-income minority students in a New Orleans elementary school as a direct result of its principal’s leadership.

These compilations helped us identify our subjects for our research. We superimposed selected case studies from the literature onto Blake and Mouton’s classifications and extrapolated to what we believed were the instructional leadership styles of those effective school leaders. Let’s take a look at each style.


  • Collaborative Leadership.A collaborative leadership style suggests that the supervisor involves the staff in setting the direction of the school. None of the successful leaders in the studies by Dunn and DeBello or Dunn and Griggs solicited teachers’ perceptions of the instructional direction that should be taken. Rather, most of them determined the best direction for their school and then persuaded their staffs to adopt approaches to move in that direction.


    One effective collaborative leader is Julia Kron, who in 1993 was appointed by the governor of North Carolina to oversee the design of a Teacher Academy that would provide staff development for teachers and administrators. First Kron visited a variety of diverse schools throughout the state and asked teachers what they needed to improve student achievement substantially. She attended several national conventions to broaden her perspective of effective programs for increasing student achievement and visited two North Carolina schools that had increased the achievement of low-income minority students.

    Despite her own personal biases about instructional approaches, Kron invited advocates of the then-most popular instructional movements — cooperative learning, learning styles, multiple intelligences and technology integration — to provide seminars for the staff and lead teachers at the Teacher Academy. She and the practitioners then discussed the programs and decided together which ones they believed might be most practical and effective for improving achievement in their schools. The Teacher Academy provided in-depth training based on their decisions.

    Supervisors who use cooperative leadership styles help their staff members move in the direction the majority wishes to move. Few of the successful leaders we identified actually permitted their staff members to choose that direction. One of those exceptions was an outstanding principal in Missouri, Mary Laffey. She, too, researched many strategies and then provided opportunities for her teachers at Oakland Junior High School to explore the innovations that appealed to them based on a list of those Laffey approved. Laffey rarely imposed new strategies, always encouraged exploration of new ideas and supported teachers with the materials each required to implement the strategies.


  • Participative Leadership.Participative leaders work with their staff members to guide the school and its programs. Roland Andrews, principal of Brightwood Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., exemplifies participative leadership. He first learns everything he can about a concept or program, decides whether it will benefit the students and then personally conducts staff development sessions around its philosophy and implementation. Andrews works with teachers, parents and students to create resources, experiment with classroom implementation and share suggestions for continuing improvement throughout the process.



  • Bureaucratic Leadership.Bureaucrats generally prioritize according to established rules and regulations, some of which can inhibit innovation. Because ensuring that all students achieve may require at least some departure from established practices, bureaucratic leaders may not enable more than gradual movement toward new, effective instructional strategies.


    It seems unlikely that many bureaucrats gain the degree of staff approval that motivates people to voluntarily follow them. We did not identify any bureaucratic school leaders who met our definition of a successful instructional leader.


  • Charismatic Leadership.Charismatic individuals can exercise almost any leadership style and garner sufficient staff support to move the organization in the chosen direction. However, our interviews suggested that the innovations that charismatic leaders introduced rarely continued after that person left the school or changed jobs.

    As Edward Beglane described in the October 2001 issue of NASSP Bulletin, supervisors who succeed charismatic leaders tend to redirect faculty in different directions. Unless staff development is ongoing and consistent, the aspects of the successful program gradually dissipate. Too, charismatic leaders often engender envy among colleagues and superiors who then try to undermine or disparage their work.



  • Laissez-faire Leadership.Laissez-faire leaders allow staff members to determine the direction they wish to move individually or as a group. While few leaders embrace or endorse this style, it can elicit positive results.


    One laissez-faire principal of a large public high school in rural Pennsylvania told us he was unaware of the instructional program that permeated his building’s English, mathematics and science departments. It seems the program’s leadership had been thrust upon one young science teacher whose students so appreciated his instructional techniques that they beseeched their other teachers to use the same approaches. The science teacher helped his colleagues adapt his teaching strategies. As a result, instruction throughout the building gradually changed and what were good student grades became even better.


  • Benevolent Despot.Theoretically, benevolent despots use charm, good will and savoir faire to get exactly what they want. This particular leadership style did not elicit much positive reaction during our interviews with leaders, yet many of the educational administrators whose schools earned statistically higher standardized achievement test scores in reading and math after years of academic failure were masters of this style.


    One such leader was Mary Cecelia Giannitti, principal of Sacred Heart Seminary in Hempstead, N.Y. Students who attended this grades 6-8 school were bussed in from 34 different districts. Many were the children of mobile military personnel and transient professionals and, as Dunn and Griggs found, many shared several characteristics. They had failed in their previous schools; been subjected to military-type discipline meted out by fathers used to living in an essentially autocratic adult environment; come from divorced or separated families; or lived in a single-parent home barely surviving above the national poverty level.

    In the early 1980s, when most parochial schools were using traditional instructional pedagogy, Giannitti urged her teachers to individualize students’ activities based on the youngsters’ interests and academic needs. When some teachers remained reluctant despite the staff development she personally provided, including time spent in their classrooms showing them how to teach to students’ strengths, Giannitti offered to find them other positions in neighboring schools.

    The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills were administered to all Sacred Heart students. Eighty-five percent of those in 6th through 8th grades achieved at the middle of the 10th-grade level, well above their previous ITBS scores and at a time when other diocesan students’ test scores were declining.


  • Autocratic Leadership.Many people are drawn to, respect and gladly follow an autocrat — someone who possesses power and does not hesitate to use it to achieve goals. During our research, we uncovered several examples of autocratic instructional leaders who exerted enough positive influence on their staffs to improve standardized achievement test scores among students who had been failing.


    Most noteworthy among autocratic leaders was Bethel Cager, principal of New Orleans’ Parkview Academy. Her 1994 doctoral research at the University of Southern Mississippi had examined the learning styles of gifted versus non-gifted African-American students. She was so taken with the differences between the learning styles that she was determined to provide instruction tailored to the learning style of each child.

    Most of Cager’s teachers did the best they could to adapt to the new instructional strategies she implemented. Those who resisted were gently but firmly told that children were the reason they were employed in that school and that they needed to teach to students’ learning styles or work someplace else. No one left. Most experimented; others attempted the transition grudgingly. However, within just a few weeks, as the program really got under way, teachers expressed their pleasure with the increased student achievement, improved student behavior and increased positive energy among students and teachers throughout the school.

    Within one year of Cager’s insistence that Parkview Academy teachers completely embrace learning-style based instruction, 87 percent of its urban, low-income African-American students’ reading and math scores increased from the 30th to the 50th percentile; the scores approached the 70th percentile at the end of the second year. Referrals for significant infractions decreased from more than 200 to zero the first year and remained at zero throughout the first three years of Cager’s principalship. The attitudes of teachers, students and parents improved and teacher, parent and student questionnaires and interviews revealed an exuberant school climate, according to Favre.

    Combined Types
    Although some of the successful leaders we studied clearly favored specific instructional leadership styles, most seemed to adopt different strategies at different times. At least 80 percent of the supervisors we interviewed reported they specifically chose the instructional program their schools adopted, a decidedly autocratic style. At other times, they permitted teachers to determine how they would teach, a laissez-faire style. Some imposed a great deal of directed change at times, but treated teachers to special events to compensate, a benevolent despot style. When personally committed to a specific program, some reported working side by side with staff, a participative style.

    Most school leaders we studied were willing to consider any program that had proven successful with struggling students. Despite the varied leadership styles all the successful administrators respected experimental research and believed that students failed because they were not taught to their specific learning styles.

    Many of these leaders had themselves suffered as young learners with the “wrong” teacher. Most had grown impatient with staff members who admitted that children learn differently yet continued to teach all students using the same methods, lesson plans and resources. Some leaders encouraged their staffs. Others demanded, cajoled or implored. A few recruited or dismissed. Some threatened. All succeeded in establishing instuctional programs that made a difference in student achievement.

    Rita Dunn is a professor in the division of administrative and instructional leadership and director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles at St. John’s University, Jamaica, New York, NY 11349. E-mail: rdunn241@msn.com. Robert Brasco, former assistant superintendent of Community School District 32 in Brooklyn, N.Y., directs the professional development center at St. John’s University.