Visionary Leadership. ERIC Digest.
by Lashway, Larry
When some future historian tallies up buzzwords of the 1990s, "vision"
will be high on the list. Schools everywhere want leaders who have it,
and even modest incremental plans are routinely billed as "visions for
the 21st century." Unfortunately, the exaltation of vision often leaves
one question unanswered: Once you're done praising it, what do you do about
David Conley (1996) has found that many school leaders have become ambivalent--sometimes
even cynical--about the usefulness of vision. Yet experts continue to regard
it as a make-or-break task for the leader.
WHAT'S IN A VISION?
Conley says that vision exists when people in an organization share
an explicit agreement on the values, beliefs, purposes, and goals that
should guide their behavior. More simply, he calls it "an internal compass."
Thomas Sergiovanni (1994) characterizes vision as an "educational platform"
that incorporates the school's beliefs about the preferred aims, methods,
and climate, thereby creating a "community of mind" that establishes behavioral
Kathryn Whitaker and Monte Moses (1994) call it "an inspiring declaration
of a compelling dream, accompanied by a clear scenario of how it will be
accomplished." A good vision not only has worthy goals, but also challenges
and stretches everyone in the school.
WHY DOES VISION MATTER?
Robert Fritz (1996) says that organizations advance when a clear, widely
understood vision creates tension between the real and the ideal, pushing
people to work together to reduce the gap.
This unifying effect is especially important in school settings known
for their "isolationist culture." Because teachers typically regard methodology
as a matter of individual preference, empowerment strategies do not quickly
lead to schoolwide changes in classroom practices (Carol Weiss 1995).
By contrast, schools with a clear vision have a standard by which teachers
can gauge their own efforts. According to one teacher in a school that
had recently developed a vision, "People are speaking the same language,
they have the same kinds of informal expectations for one another, more
common ground" (Conley and colleagues 1992).
David Mathews (1996) sees vision as a way of reconnecting schools to
an increasingly alienated public. He says communities no longer see the
schools as their schools. A vision that reflects the needs and purposes
of the surrounding community not only improves education, it rebuilds the
relationship between the school and its public.
HOW DO VISIONS DEVELOP?
Many leaders believe vision development is a straightforward task of
articulating a statement of beliefs and then implementing it. However,
some studies suggest that vision is more of an evolutionary process than
a one-time event, a process that requires continuous reflection, action,
and reevaluation. Laraine Hong (1996) describes it as "purposeful tinkering."
Through dozens of little experiments, "each day is an opportunity to come
closer to your perceived ideal."
Written statements are a logical first step, but Fritz warns that they
often turn into political compromises that trivialize the vision through
"weak, watered-down, simplistic declarations." Moreover, the immediacy
of student needs gives K-12 educators a strong bias toward action; extended
discussions of philosophy create impatience. Conley and colleagues found
a number of schools that began acting on their vision several years before
articulating it in writing.
Both talk and action are necessary. Marie Wincek describes a school
where the vision faltered because of too little discussion. The experienced
and competent staff eagerly jumped into the "nuts and bolts" of implementation
without examining whether they interpreted the vision the same way. Thus,
they were unprepared for the inevitable disagreements and ambiguities that
On the other hand, Conley says that some schools become mired in "analysis
paralysis," recycling the same old discussions and hesitating to commit
themselves to action. Not every detail and every anxiety can be resolved
beforehand, and the vision can be modified as the school learns from experience.
IS VISION TOP-DOWN OR BOTTOM-UP?
Many people assume vision springs from the mind of a strong leader with
the imagination, energy, and charisma to jump-start the organization into
a major transformation. Others advocate a shared process in which everyone
is a co-author. However, "either/or" thinking may be counterproductive.
Clearly, the principal plays a pivotal role in shaping the vision--sometimes
single-handedly. In the hands of an articulate, persuasive leader, a distinctive
personal vision may be far more attractive than a something-for-everyone
group product. As long as the vision is one that people in the organization
can embrace, authorship is irrelevant (Fritz). However, principals with
"heroic" inclinations must be willing to release personal ownership when
the time comes for implementation, or teachers will not commit to it (Conley).
There are also good reasons to involve teachers at the outset, since
they are the ones who must ultimately translate abstract ideas into practical
classroom applications, and they can do this better when they are actively
involved in developing the vision (Conley and colleagues).
No matter who creates the vision, the principal is its chief instigator,
promoter, and guardian. In her study of shared decision-making, Weiss found
that little changed unless the principal took the lead and actively pushed.
Apparently, empowered teachers may act on individual visions, but they
do not spontaneously create shared visions.
In the end, many principals may follow the example of Hong's principal:
"Anne had to know when to suggest, when to nudge, when to wait. She had
to be assertive enough to push us a few steps forward, but indirect and
patient enough to let us find our own way."
HOW DO LEADERS FACILITATE VISION?
Even in schools that are deeply committed to shared vision, principals
remain the key players, both before and after the school adopts a new direction.
Creating readiness is crucial. Conley notes that principals who have
already adjusted to new ways of thinking often underestimate the time needed
for others to do the same. He says that all participants must have the
opportunity to examine their current thinking, develop a rationale for
change, and entertain new models. This can be done by forming study groups,
visiting schools or businesses that have already restructured, or collecting
data that challenge comfortable assumptions (such as test scores or surveys
of community satisfaction).
Robert Starratt (1995) emphasizes the importance of institutionalizing
the vision. No matter how inspiring it sounds on paper, the dream will
wither unless it takes concrete form in policies, programs, and procedures.
At some point, curriculum, staffing, evaluation, and budget must feel the
imprint of the vision, or it will gradually lose credibility.
At the same time, principals must remain focused on what the vision
means in classroom terms. Richard Elmore and colleagues, after an in-depth
study of restructuring schools, concluded that enthusiasm for new visions
does not automatically lead people to see the implications for teaching.
They found that it was "extraordinarily difficult" for teachers to attain
the deep, systematic knowledge of practice needed to make the vision a
reality. Without unrelenting assessment, analysis, and professional development,
the vision may remain a glossy facade rather than becoming a vital, living
presence in the life of the school.
Above all, principals must create a climate and a culture for change.
They do this by speaking about the vision often and enthusiastically; by
encouraging experiments; by celebrating successes and forgiving failures;
and by remaining steadfast in the face of the inevitable problems and missteps.
Experience has given advocates of vision a new appreciation for the
difficulties involved, removing any illusions about a magic bullet. Yet
they remain optimistic about its potential. As schools work through the
challenges of vision, says Hong, "they discover that they perhaps can make
the impossible possible."
Conley, David T. "Are You Ready to Restructure? A Guidebook for Educators,
Parents, and Community Members." Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press,
Conley, David T.; Diane M. Dunlap; and Paul Goldman. "The "Vision Thing"
and School Restructuring." OSSC Report 32, 2 (Winter 1992): 1-8. Eugene:
Oregon School Study Council. ED 343 246.
Elmore, Richard F.; Penelope L. Peterson; and Sarah J. McCarthey. "Restructuring
in the Classroom: Teaching, Learning, and School Organization." San Francisco:
Fritz, Robert. "Corporate Tides: The Inescapable Laws of Organizational
Structure." San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996.
Hong, Laraine K. "Surviving School Reform: A Year in the Life of One
School." New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.
Mathews, David. "Is There a Public for Public Schools?" Dayton, Ohio:
Kettering Foundation Press, 1996.
Sergiovanni, Thomas J. "Building Community in Schools." San Francisco:
Starratt, Robert J. "Leaders With Vision: The Quest for School Renewal."
Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 1995.
Weiss, Carol H. "The Four "I's" of School Reform: How Interests, Ideology,
Information and Institution Affect Teachers and Principals." "Harvard Educational
Review" 65, 4 (Winter 1995): 571-92.
Whitaker, Kathryn S., and Monte C. Moses. "The Restructuring Handbook:
A Guide to School Revitalization." Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994.
Wincek, Jean. "Negotiating the Maze of School Reform: How Metaphor Shapes
Culture in a New Magnet School." New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.