Constructivist Leadership

Liberating Leadership Capacity in the age of Trumpism

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

This is the opening paragraph of my next text, written with Diane Zimmerman and Mary Gardner, and entitled, Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways toward Educational Wisdom. How timely in the days of Trumpism. We are confident that the lessons in this text democratize schools and societies. Is there still time??
“Ask a thousand random individuals about one of the most persistent problems in schools, organizations, and countries today and you are likely to hear: leadership. Yet there is little understanding about this elusive concept. Many hold a belief that in times of distress people often look for someone to be in control, a directive leader who can tell them what to do. School boards seek out dominant superintendents who can “take charge”; schools are assigned principals to guide or push teachers into current reforms and fads. We challenge the contention that directive leadership is justified. Schools and organizations are rich with talented, thoughtful individuals who, when given the opportunity to work in open, engaging, and democratic cultures, consistently emerge as leaders and innovators. Adults learn; children learn. Creating these learning, leading schools and organizations is the mission of this text, Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways toward Educational Wisdom.”
With the election of Trump, our country is turning away from democracy. Frightening times. A failure of history, culture and education. An awakening of painful ramifications. Yet, this time we know to protect our neighbors and also turn to strangers.
Next: Leadership Capacity is an essential antidote in cultures where peoples feel lost, alone, forsaken.

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Liberating Leadership Capacity…Proud to Share a Great Review

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom
reviewed by Hollie J. Mackey — August 09, 2016
Title: Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom
Author(s): Linda Lambert, Diane P. Zimmerman, & Mary E. Gardner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757519, Pages: 148, Year: 2016
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Liberating Leadership Capacity

Linda Lambert, Diane P. Zimmerman, and Mary E. Gardner’s book Liberating Leadership Capacity: Pathways to Educational Wisdom presents a new concept of leadership based on establishing democratic interactions, engaging constructivist learning, and developing leadership capacity in school communities. The authors propose liberating leadership capacity as the foundation for effective school reform. This is the process of schools as organizations fully developing into constructivist learning organizations where: participation in professional reciprocal learning is high, healthy collaboration is a normative component of work, professional knowledge is generated from within, and school leaders develop site level strategies for systemic change that arise from practice. The authors believe leadership paradigms that structure leadership through top down models characterized by solo authoritarian type leaders are ineffective in nested sociopolitical organizations like schools where complex challenges require more than traditional forms of leadership can deliver. This volume suggests coupling constructivist leadership focusing on critical thinking and problem solving with developing leadership capacity to provide the necessary components for school leadership aligned with the goals of a democratic education system.

Lambert, Zimmerman, and Gardner neither disregard the complex challenges school leaders face nor dismiss the contributions of other leadership scholars. They instead submit that these challenges have not been thoroughly addressed through previous scholarship. As Andy Hargreaves states in the foreword:

Our school systems are not being challenged to address these more complex needs and sophisticated goals . . . More sophisticated learning requires more sophisticated teaching and leadership. Complex professional judgments cannot be prescribed, standardized, or driven by data . . . Linear top-down leadership may work for a short time for simple outcomes, but more sophisticated learning needs to be accompanied by more sophisticated leadership. (p. x)

Chapter One, “Leadership Redesigned,” provides an overview of leadership traditions in educational administration over the past 25 years and “offers a new definition of the concept” (p. 1) of leadership. The primary difference between the traditional model and the authors’ concept is that the former tends to rely on a few authoritarian figures within a building. The authors note the problems with this authoritarian style of leadership by stating, “[t]he uses of authority present a dangerous dilemma: a codependency, or dominance, sure to steer in unhelpful directions, away from a complex notion of leadership capable of more fully democratizing and building community capacities” (p. 5). The chapter outlines the evolution of thought regarding the effectiveness of authoritarian leadership and the shift to a more democratic school leadership approach. The authors conclude the chapter by building on their original work regarding constructivist leadership and redefining it as “fostering capacity through the complex, dynamic processes of purposeful, reciprocal learning” (p. 10) and claiming “how leadership is defined makes all the difference in how people participate” (p. 17).

Chapter Two, “Fostering Leadership Capacity,” introduces the social dynamic of capacity building on the premise that this type of building allows “a group of people to engage in and solve their own problems” (p. 21) and is a “function of leadership” (p. 22). The authors assess leadership capacity based on the skillfulness of leading and breadth of participation within a school resulting in four archetypes. They describe the typical skill and participation in each of these archetypes and present images depicting both the archetype matrix and authority distribution. They also discuss challenges arising with implementing interventions in each of the archetype locations and provide recommendations for overcoming them. The chapter concludes with the authors advocating for developing reciprocal and collaborative student and parent leadership capacities to work in partnership with schools.

Chapter Three, “Designing Professional Learning Cultures,” describes “designs, frameworks, and components for professional learning in high leadership capacity organizations” (p. 42). The chapter begins by advocating new professional learning designs when professional development is a reciprocal and continuous process for all members of the school community. The authors discuss the importance of including organized structural frameworks for learning cultures and stress: increasing levels of participation, developing skills, engaging in reflection, and holding meaningful dialogue. The chapter identifies specific leadership skills and actions “central to the movement from one archetype to another on the road to high leadership capacity” (p. 54) and advises leaders to look to and learn from exemplary programs.

Chapter Four, “Collaborative Dimensions of Leadership,” builds on the previous chapter by offering “four collaborative dimensions of leadership” (p. 65) and provides structure for facilitating the work of sustainable and collaborative learning communities. This includes: “(1) structuring efficient protocols for participation; (2) setting standards and working agreements for collaboration; (3) embedding the linguistics for listening into conversations; and (4) facilitating conversational flows” (p. 65). The authors discuss the importance of including this structure and note effective meetings that “create a sense of well-being and collective efficacy” (p. 82).

Chapter Five, “Democratization of Knowledge,” discusses the concept of knowledge and suggests that, “[r]econceptualizing knowledge flattens the hierarchy of knowledge production” (p. 88). The authors share three types of knowledge: knowledge-for-practice, knowledge-in-practice, and knowledge-of-practice and discuss their value as they apply to democratic learning communities. This chapter illustrates the differences in hierarchical structures between low and high leadership capacity schools where high capacity ones tend to have “flatter hierarchies [where] communities engage in systematic reflection in which knowledge is constructed, organized, and networked” (p. 100).

Chapter Six, “Creating Capacity for Systems Change,” considers why change is so difficult in schools. The authors believe that schools are nested within other systems and “[c]onstructivist change processes arise from practice, rather than being imposed on practice” (p. 103). Several U.S. examples illustrate how different schools use the concepts from Chapters Two through Five to move from low to high leadership capacity organizations. The authors also provide international examples where the same concepts are successfully applied and conclude “[a]n array of designs and principles awaits those who are committed to building democratic societies, thus liberating leadership capacity in every learner and learning community” (p. 122).


What sets Liberating Leadership Capacity apart from similar books is that it builds on constructivist leadership by adding developing leadership capacity including effective aspects of multiple leadership models such as transformational leadership, distributed leadership, sustainable leadership, and leadership for social justice. It suggests incorporating some of the most effective research based strategies for improving the learning climate at the school level and provides a strong rationale for how all of the components fit together. These two elements combined make it a relatively non-controversial book for use in leadership preparation programs. The authors’ key strength is that they write the book in easily accessible language and acknowledge a range of skills from which each school leader would start coupled with a range of participation across school sites. They also provide specific guidance for school leaders at all levels so no one would be left questioning how to begin liberating leadership capacity within their own schools once they finish reading the book.

School leaders might find the proposed strategies unrealistic given the policy constraints of unchallenged systems that are also nested within their own schools. The authors provide examples of schools that have realized success using these strategies, however these continue to be the exception and not the rule. The success stories within Liberating Leadership Capacity often involve other factors and conditions allowing for leadership to engage in an overhaul as a last step before closure.

Despite being well written, Liberating Leadership Capacity also requires more than one reading. At first glance it is a straightforward guide for improving educational organizations through developing leadership capacity. The authors also ask much deeper questions that cannot be ignored by educational scholars, policymakers, or practitioners. The epilogue speaks of pathways to educational wisdom and cues the reader to the bigger picture: scholarship does not affect organizational change that has meaningful consequence on the lived experiences of children and communities, it is instead achieved through practice. Lambert, Zimmerman, and Gardner illustrate the ways in which leadership theory might be translated into practice for the purpose of facilitating human flourishing.

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Liberating Leadership Capacity-Released!

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

My colleagues and I will be signing our new text at the American Educational
Research Association in Washington, D. C., Sunday, April 10. The subtitle, Pathways
to Educational Wisdom captures those notions about leadership that transcend
usual practice to answer this question: What insights and epiphanies lead us
beyond the horizon of ordinary into the realm of wisdom?

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