Coaching Educational Leadership: Building Leadership Capacity Through Partnership


Jan Robertson

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Part One: Theory

    Part Two: Practice

  • Series Information

    Published in association with the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society.

    This series of books published for BELMAS aims to be directly relevant to the concerns and professional development needs of emergent leaders and experienced leaders in schools.

    Titles include:

    Managing Special and Inclusive Education

    By Steve Rayner (2007)

    How Very Effective Primary Schools Work (2006)

    By Chris James, Michael Connolly and Gerald Dunning

    Educational Leadership: Personal Growth for Professional Development (2004)

    By Harry Tomlinson

    Developing Educational Leadership: Using Evidence for Policy and Practice (2003)

    By Lesley Anderson and Nigel Bennett

    Performance Management in Education: Improving Practice (2002)

    By Jenny Reeves, Pauline Smith, Harry Tomlinson and Christine Ford

    Strategic Management for School Development: Leading Your School's Improvement Strategy (2002)

    By Brian Fidler

    Subject Leadership and School Improvement (2000)

    By Hugh Busher and Alma Harris with Christine Wise


    View Copyright Page


    To my daughter, my sister and my mother—my coaches, my heroes, my friends.


    “An accessible read with insights for all leaders who want to continue to grow professionally.”

    Lorna M. Earl, PhD, Aporia Consulting

    “This is a welcome and timely contribution for leaders every where.”

    Louise Stoll, Visiting Professor, Institute of Education, University of London

    “Your leadership [coaching] programme has firstly had me reflect on my current beliefs and practice, then challenge me through research and debate to develop further as a leader … The whole process has got me away from an emphasis on management and a far better appreciation of the potential growth influence I can generate from being the school's educational leader. Thank you.”

    Garry De Thierry, Principal, Rotorua Intermediate School, New Zealand


    Whenever I have to arrange an appointment with an educational leader I am meeting for the first time, the leader will typically caution me that he or she is very busy and can only spare a few minutes; that there isn't much time. The recurring and paradoxical experience is that once through the door of the leader's office, I then find myself trapped, a captive audience, unable to escape. Over the course of an hour, an hour-and-a-half, or more, leader after leader insists on regaling me with stories of their achievements and setbacks, their hopes and plans for the future, their reminiscences and regrets about the past, their long lists of frustrations with the system, and their poignant portrayals of breakthroughs with the students and adults who matter to them most.

    Sometimes, after an age of agonizing and complaining about the frustrations of the job – the overwork, the bureaucracy, the lack of appreciation, the imperious superiors with their unreasonable demands, and the “blockers” in their staff who repeatedly sabotage their best efforts – I will then ask the leader I am with whether, if given the chance, they would choose to lead all over again. The response is almost always immediate and emphatic – “Oh yes. It's wonderful work. I wouldn't dream of doing anything else!”

    Educational leadership is one of the most rewarding and also frustrating jobs there is. The rewards keep leaders going. The frustrations drive them out. What typically tips the balance is whether educational leaders face the challenges together or alone.

    Leaders are surrounded by other adults and in the best communities, they can face the challenges of change together, as colleagues, almost as equals. But even here, so many of the most difficult problems, worries, and doubts in leadership are hard to share with or disclose to those leaders whom you are charged to lead. You can't vent your frustration about “resisters” or “blockers” without descending into tittle-tattle and gossip. You can't air your uncertainties about your next career step, or about who might succeed you, without spreading anxiety throughout your community. And sometimes, in the darkest moments that afflict all leaders, when you doubt your very capacity to lead, it's hard to imagine, outside your own family, anyone with whom you can share any of these feelings at all.

    If leadership has always been lonely work, it is becoming lonelier still. The administration who were once teachers' colleagues have now been forcibly separated by many governments into separate unions and associations, and converted into supervisors and managers as a result. Economic cutbacks and moves towards site-based management have removed the layer of support and mentoring that many educational leaders were once able to turn to. My own research on educational change over thirty years in eight Canadian and US high schools reveals that whereas leaders were once seen as being larger than life characters who were visibly attached to their schools, that they made their mark upon, and stayed in for a long time, school leaders now are seen as being interchangeable managers who turn over regularly and serve the government or themselves rather than the schools in which they work (Hargreaves & Fink, 2005).

    In my own school improvement work, one of the greatest benefits repeatedly cited by leaders is the opportunity that has been created for them to meet once a month with their colleagues and discuss openly, without fear and in an environment of complete trust, their recent achievements, their difficulties in dealing with imposed reform agendas, and their responses to research findings that cast light upon their work. These peer support groups of committed and concerned colleagues are invaluable assets to leadership development and retention. They keep leaders going.

    In addition to their form of group support, my colleague Irwin Blumer advises that all school or school system leaders should be provided with a mentor and a coach. The mentor knows your school and its people. The coach is not swayed by their knowledge and experience of the individuals concerned, but understands the job and how people experience it.

    This book, by Jan Robertson, is the first of its kind to deal with the theory and practice of leadership coaching. Drawing on years of researching leadership as well as leading herself, Robertson draws on an impressive range of theory and research in psychology, sociology, business management, and organizational development to get to grips with the essence of coaching, the benefits it can provide, and the difficulties of conducting it. Using her extensive contact with leaders and leadership around the world, Robertson puts the theory to work in real life examples of leaders coaching leaders–elucidating how professional development, career development, leaders' motivation, lifelong learning, and organizational improvement all benefit as a result.

    Robertson is a realist. Neither a Pollyanna professor nor a critical prophet of doom, Robertson deals with leadership and leadership coaching as it is, bringing it to life in ways that will give hope to and also make sense to all these leaders who read her work. Practical strategies and guided reflection take the coaches and the coached far beyond the old rudiments of clinical supervision into the complexities and possibilities of leadership coaching today – embedded in rather than separate from organizational improvement and professional development.

    Whatever our work, all of us can benefit from the perspective of a critical friend, a coach and advocate, who stands by our side, gives us pause to reflect, and helps us to eventually move forward. Even nine-year-old soccer players get a coach. It's time that all our educational leaders on the front line are provided with one as well. Jan Robertson's splendid book not only advocates articulately for the necessity of leadership coaching, but sets out practically what really good coaching can and should look like.

    AndyHargreavesBoston College
    Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2005) Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.


    This book is about coaching leadership, and it has been written for anyone who is interested and involved in improving educational leadership and learning—their own and others. Although my focus is the field of education, the principles and practices outlined can be, and have been, used effectively in other contexts, such as learning organisations in the corporate world.

    Coaching Educational Leadership will assist individual leaders1 wanting to reflect on their own leadership, the adviser working with educational leaders in the field, educational leaders in an institution who are responsible for leading others and for developing teaching and learning, and classroom teachers wanting to reflect more effectively on the way they facilitate learning. It can help boards of trustee members and other leaders conduct appraisal more effectively, and challenge those involved in the professional development of educational leaders to critique their programmes and the way they work. Most importantly, it will assist those leaders who are interested in establishing coaching relationships for leadership development.

    Although there are many “how to” coaching books on the market, this book highlights, and builds on, 15 years of research and development in the field of leadership coaching. I first took up academic research when I was in a principalship. The work I did was on effective schools. It whetted my appetite and led me to ask why I had not previously been acquainted with all this theory and research. During my career I have held many leadership roles in education—senior teacher, principal, assistant dean, head of department, director—and within each there was little specific leadership development, formal professional feedback or critique of my practice available. These experiences and roles taught me much about leadership and allowed me to work with leaders of incredible talent, but I became concerned, and particularly so at the time of my principalship, at the lack of specific job-related professional opportunities for leadership development. The dearth of professional dialogue, particularly within the rural principals' group, alarmed me even more. Sports' days, busing issues and other organisational and managerial issues always took precedence over any discussion and debate on leading learning in the school and community. When I moved into the higher education environment in 1989, my study of and research about leadership development began in earnest.

    1. The use of the word “leaders”, rather than designated positions such as teacher, principal, head of department, lecturer, or CEO, in this book is deliberate. This book is about coaching leadership development and so focuses on the leadership responsibilities that all those in education should take up, whatever their position in the institution may be.

    Developing Ideas

    At this time, both nationally and internationally, there was little national policy relating to, or interest about, educational leadership and its development. With New Zealand's educational institutions moving into self-management as a result of changes in educational policy at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the impetus for management development increased. The government provided one year of professional development support to school principals and their boards, but after the first year of the reforms, individual institutions were generally left to look for leadership support and development from other sources. Much of the rhetoric at the time was managerial and isolated principals from their teaching profession, but, paradoxically, what they needed to be self-managing was a greater focus on educational leadership and the ability to build social and intellectual capacity in their institutions.

    This paradox created dilemmas for those in education management positions (Robertson, 1991a). Many failed to adapt to the new roles, responsibilities, and tensions, and left the profession. Some struggled and found ways of working within the new political context. Others were ready to try new ways of working that took up the intellectual independence offered through self-management, while finding ways to resist, contest or hijack the managerialist ideology that abounded (Strachan, 1999). It was evident that a new type of professional development was necessary for leaders in the new self-managing institutions.

    The work of Hallinger and Murphy (1985, 1991) on principalship at this time, along with later work on problem-based learning (Hallinger & Bridges, 1997), influenced my belief in the importance of developing an authentic model of leadership development, especially for use in university-based programmes. This belief led to the establishment of the first Educational Leadership Centre in New Zealand in 1990 at the University of Waikato, when elsewhere the focus was on establishing and maintaining centres for principals and developing educational administration and management qualifications rather than leadership qualifications.

    Debate also arose around this time as to whether leadership is a discipline in its own right, and it was with this debate in mind that I accepted a Fulbright Scholarship in 1992. The scholarship took me to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the Far West Laboratory in San Francisco, the Harvard Principals' Center in Boston, the Washington, DC Educational Leadership Center, and many other places where leadership development was both exciting and challenging. The Danforth Foundation was very influential in the USA at this time, impacting on at least 22 university programmes by 1992. Its work focused specifically on “changing the way we prepare educational leaders” (to use the title of a book by Milstein & Associates, 1993), with the aim of making programmes for the study of school leadership more relevant and contextually specific. My motivation for, and commitment to, centring my career on educational leadership development in New Zealand were cemented and ensured.

    At this time, too, scholars around the world were interested in New Zealand's full-scale move to site-based administration of education institutions. I was invited to speak at an international conference in Thailand, at Chiang Mai University's Center for Leadership Research and Development, and, later, at other international conferences exploring decentralisation, in Canada, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, and the USA. These engagements allowed me to exchange ideas on leadership development with international colleagues working in this exciting field. Today, there are many strong international networks of scholars working, increasingly collaboratively, to develop the field of educational leadership.

    This book encapsulates the ideas drawn from dialogue over many years among numerous educational leaders about professional development through coaching. The empirical data presented in these pages are drawn from my study of leaders coaching each other over a three-year period and my ongoing research and development programmes in this area. These data, the collection of which has been informed by the aforementioned ideas, form the basis of the model of leadership coaching documented in this book. My use of the theory and practice of action research throughout the model's development makes the model a continually developing entity. Many graduate students, all successful leaders themselves in education, health and business, have studied, researched and practised this model, and developed it further in a variety of contexts in the public and private sectors (see, for example, Sutton, 2005).

    The coaching model has been used by teams in early childhood centres, with curriculum development and classroom management in mathematics in secondary schools (Winters, 1996), in higher education departments in New Zealand and Thailand and with teacher education advisers in Indonesia (Fadillah, 1997), and with teacher appraisal in higher education in the Solomon Islands (Houma, 1998). It has also been used in various national development contracts, in Information Communication Technology (ICT) development with secondary leaders in Hong Kong (SAR) (T. Lee, 2002), with groups of school leaders in England and Australia, and with over 300 school leaders in Singapore. In short, the model has been continually and consistently developed and researched, across education contexts and cultures, over the last decade.

    This sustained engagement with others studying the professional development of educational leaders, the many addresses, workshops, and dialogic encounters, both national and international, have all in some way informed the model and, therefore, this book. I would therefore like to thank people who have helped me to get it written. Lorna Earl, Louise Stoll, Alma Harris, and Andy Hargreaves provided continued professional and personal support and encouragement, and commentary on developing ideas. Pare Kana taught me the lived meanings of ako and aroha and their importance in coaching. It is an honour to be able to include cartoons by Donn Ratana, the resident artist at the University of Waikato. Mike Milstein warrants special thanks for his extensive feedback on the developing manuscript, as does Bev Webber, Publishing Manager of NZCER, for believing in the idea I had for this book, and giving critical, insightful feedback at key stages in the process. I sincerely thank Paula Wagemaker for so skilfully editing the final manuscript. A special thanks too, to Marianne Lagrange for bringing this book to the international audience. I must thank, too, the many educational leaders I have worked with in New Zealand, England, Canada and elsewhere overseas who have assisted in critiquing and developing the coaching model. I pay special tribute to Ginny Lee and Bruce Barnett for their work in peer-assisted leadership development and interest in my work in the early years, and also to Jane Strachan, a friend, professional colleague and “coach” in my own leadership journey as we worked together, using the skills presented in this book. Yvette Shore has also worked with me on the developing ideas since the inception of the Leadership Centre, and her encouragement and creativity have been immeasurable. Finally, I want to thank my family for the love they give me in life. This book would not have been written without their ongoing support.

    I have found my journey stimulating and challenging, and I hope that as you read this book you will become as committed as I am to a model of developing leadership through professional coaching. I believe that coaching is the main route to distributed, capacity-building leadership within any institution, and that it facilitates the development of a particular type of educational culture, one that is not only pervasive but also invitational (Stoll & Fink, 1996)—to innovation, to learning, to leadership sustainability (Fullan, 2005; Hargreaves, 2004; Hargreaves & Fink, 2004) and to continual renewal.

    The Structure of the Book

    This book is structured to assist you to understand leadership coaching. It has two main parts, followed by a concluding section framed as a “final note”. Part One, “Theory”, outlines the conceptual framework of the coaching model—the principles, the pedagogy, the methodology, and the research. “Practice” (Part Two) gives detailed examples of how to develop the skills and facilitate the process of coaching. It also identifies the challenges you need to consider during and beyond coaching. Ongoing critical reflection about leadership and its development is vital.

    Part One: Theory

    The first chapter of this section introduces coaching, providing a definition of it and the principles behind the model. It establishes the rationale for coaching and outlines the research and development that informs the model. Chapter 2 defines and emphasises the importance of educational leadership. It describes why coaching practices build leadership capacity and how leaders then become leaders of leaders. It looks at the reality of leaders' work, which, rather than being inimical to coaching occurring, can be the very reason why coaching is so necessary.

    Chapter 3 outlines research and theory on effective lifelong learning and professional development. It looks particularly at how coaching crosses the borders between theory and practice, and between professional leadership contexts, to provide authentic, vicarious learning situations. The fourth chapter presents the research findings from empirical studies on the model of leadership coaching presented in this book.

    Chapter 5 explores the theory behind action research and demonstrates how leadership coaching can lead to action research and establish a community of learners within and between institutions. It presents an action research case study of how a principal worked to develop a shared vision in her education community.

    Part Two: Practice

    The first chapter of this section (Chapter 6) outlines how to select a partner, how to get coaching started, and how to develop coaching relationships. It sets out a typical coaching session and a year's coaching programme. It also presents some key ideas from a case study of two leaders getting started in their partnership and demonstrates how the coaching relationship develops over time. Chapter 7 describes the skills of listening, reflective interviewing, and context interviewing, all necessary for developing coaching as a professional development practice and for establishing trust and understanding.

    The continuing development of skills in the coaching process is set out in Chapter 8. Self-assessment, goal setting, observing, and describing practice, giving evaluative feedback and knowledge of the change process are outlined. In Chapter 9, we look at what happens when things do not go as smoothly as hoped. The focus here is on troubleshooting within coaching and exploring what leads to the success or failure of the developing relationships. This chapter also looks at the importance of continuously evaluating and carrying out meta-reflections of coaching practices; some reflective exercises are given for coaching partners to use for this purpose.

    Chapter 10 gives guidance on facilitating the process of coaching and the roles of the coach when establishing coaching relationships with and between leaders. The three case studies in Chapter 11 show first how leaders become qualified coaches through completing the year-long coaching programme and then how they can use the coaching model within their own institutions and professional organisations. Chapter 12 explores the development of agency and self-efficacy through leadership coaching. The case study presented in this chapter reveals how the experience of coaching gave a leader enough support and encouragement to deal with a leadership issue with the Education Review Office in New Zealand.

    “A Final Note”, the concluding section of the book, is subtitled “Beyond Coaching? Breaking the Boundaries”. While acting as a conclusion to the book, this section also posits where to go from here and stresses the importance of developing capable leaders, and leadership capacity in ourselves and in our institutions. It looks at the research on boundary-breaking leadership development and learning and considers how the principles of coaching, learning communities, and boundary-breaking leadership link together. Thinking about how coaching can be used as an agent of change and transformation within wider society is the final challenge put to readers.

    A Little More Explanation

    Direct quotations from leaders who participated in the research studies are highlighted throughout the book. These not only capture and portray the richness of these leaders' experiences, their frustrations, and their leadership learning along the way, but also remind you that the ideas in this book are based on empirical research. The case studies in four of the chapters describe how different leaders worked together, their leadership actions, and their subsequent critical reflection on those actions. They demonstrate how these people developed the conviction that they were educational leaders who could act in an alternative, transformative manner, and who, through this new learning, could make a positive difference in education. The activities included in some of the “Practice” chapters challenge you to reflect critically on leadership. Coaching facilitators (i.e., people who facilitate the coaching practice of others) can also use them to develop the coaching skills of those with whom they are working.

    The chapters are basically chronological in that they detail the evolving nature of the action research studies and the thinking behind the development of the model. I must emphasise here that the book does not signal the culmination of this thinking, but rather, within the framework of “grounded theory”, is always only the beginning—never the final word:

    The sociological perspective is never finished, not even when the last line of the monograph is written. Not even after it has been published, since therefore the researchers find themselves elaborating and amending their theory, knowing more now than when the research was formally concluded. (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 256)

    I consider that my learning in this area will never be complete, and so ideas will continue to develop. As the chapters show, the learning I have gained from how other leaders have applied this model in the field (for some examples, see Chapter 11) has helped me refine it, critique it and develop it in new ways. As the chapters also show, the leaders I have worked with developed their coaching partnerships uniquely, but had the shared experience of working in critically reflective ways with their colleagues. Their comments (and those of other leaders who have engaged with the model) at the end of their coaching experiences highlight the fulfilment that the more formal professional interaction achieved through the coaching model brought them. The following comments are typical:

    This has been one of the most—no, the most!—professionally supportive experiences of my 39 years in the job!

    I hope we keep up this coaching partnership. It is my best development undertaken! Even my staff comment on this.

    We feel we have gained substantially.

    I hope your experiences will be equally positive as you develop and practise the skills of coaching with a professional partner (and preferably with some external assistance with this process). I also hope that, after you have embedded the coaching experiences into your own practice, you will begin to work with others to develop the practices and principles of learning by exercising coaching in your and their institutions.

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