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Sustainable Leadership

A shared responsibility and a long-term vision

Dr Éadaoin McGovern
Director, Navan Education and Support Centre

It is hard to be a successful leader. It is harder still to be a sustainable one. Sustainable leaders promote a long-term vision of improvement. They sustain themselves and others as they pursue deep learning as the central moral purpose in their schools. This article presents a brief synopsis of two pillars of sustainable leadership in education.


This article presents a brief synopsis of two pillars of sustainable leadership in education proposed by Hargreaves and Fink (2006): instructional leadership and distributed leadership. Their fundamental principles are framed in the Irish context using the lens of sustainability. The sustainable leadership approach advocates for reconfiguring models of instructional and distributed leadership to ameliorate rather than exacerbate the role of the principal. The sustainable model also augments leadership pools by broadening the scope for leadership practice at all levels in schools.

Leadership in context

Leadership is at the nucleus of public sector reform and the challenge of a hopeful future, because change, according to Osborn et al. (2002), cannot progress without effective leaders. Leadership capacity has become a keen concern in the pervasive climate of change and reform in the Irish education sector. The increased workloads and the constant change cycle are cited as the most prevalent challenges for leaders of learning in Ireland (IPPN, 2006; O’Hanlon, 2008).

The complex role of the school principal is well documented (Darmody and Smyth, 2011; Fullan, 2014; OECD, 2007). The perception that the demands of the role are ‘untenable’ does much to cultivate a poor image of the principalship and increase the likelihood ‘that significant numbers of schools will not be able to recruit principals’ into the future (IPPN, 2006, pp. 5, 26). It can be argued that increased teacher involvement in leadership and collaborative agency is a necessity in Irish schools. The sustainable leadership approach advances a vision of participative leadership for learning in the long term.

Leadership renewal and reform

School leadership has been elevated to a position of high status in Ireland in recent years. The IPPN Conference in 2019, titled ‘Sustainable Leadership’, was an endorsement of a contemporary shift towards more holistic views of primary school leadership. This shift has occurred in response to increased demands for improvement and reform and the relentless challenges in schools and classrooms in an ever-changing educational landscape.

A renewed focus on leadership aligns with the drive for excellence in schools outlined in the Action Plan for Education, 2016. Positive inroads have been made which have advanced the idea that leadership should be promoted at all levels in schools. The Centre for School Leadership (CSL) and the Department of Education and Skills have progressed numerous leadership initiatives and supports to help steward school leadership teams in setting priority goals for learning and improvement.

The growing emphasis on broader models of leadership may go some way towards addressing some of the challenges of leadership succession and recruitment, as teacher leadership is a mainstay feature of this new leadership drive. Teacher leaders are supported through aspiring leadership programmes and school partnership initiatives.

Two of the core strands of sustainable leadership, instructional leadership and distributed leadership, support this broad view of leadership at organisational level. The onus is placed on schools themselves to create cultures and climates which adopt instructional leadership and distributed leadership in sustainable ways. In pursuing improved learning as a central moral prerogative, the principal is the lead agent, buoyed and supported by partners in the organisation through co-learning and co-leadership (Fullan, 2006).

Sustaining instructional leadership

Research confirms that school leaders face significant limitations in trying to fulfil the collaborative aspect of instructional leadership in Irish primary school settings (OECD, 2007). A recent study of sustainable leadership capacity in Irish primary schools corroborates this, reporting that 89.3% of principals say there is not enough time to engage with leading learning in their schools (McGovern, 2015). These findings are mirrored in international research, which finds that principals are increasingly described as overburdened and ill-equipped to provide positive instructional leadership to teachers in their organisations (Copland, 2001; Goldstein, 2004).

The sustainable leadership frame applied to instructional leadership repositions the principal as the orchestrator of shared learning rather than the instigator. The principal in this role does much to establish a collegial climate, where leadership talent is acknowledged and supported. Leader, teacher, and student development are reciprocally related. Leaders who foster organisational learning are catalysts for change and can empower school communities to apply expert knowledge for collective improvement.

Sustainable leaders acknowledge the fact that the teachers in their organisations are pedagogical experts. Accessing the talents and expertise of this readily accessible pool of leaders is a critical element of the instructional approach. By involving all those directly engaged with student learning in decision-making, it seems logical that a genuine commitment to changing education for the ‘good’ becomes more probable.

Sustaining distributed leadership

It is signposted in contemporary leadership discourse that leaders should no longer be orchestrating their roles in ‘sole’ ways, and that a move beyond the ‘Superman’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ guises of leadership is an absolute necessity if we are to sustain improvement in schools in the long term (Spillane, 2006, p. 3). With renewed focus on shared vision and shared culture in schools, it is accepted that all community members – principals, teachers, parents, and students – possess leadership capacity and therefore can positively affect the performance of their schools. In today’s schoolhouses, principals need the help of every leader they can get (Spillane et al., 2001).

Various models of distributed leadership have been discussed and developed in a wide range of educational settings in recent decades (Goldstein, 2004; Helterbran, 2010; Ghamrawi, 2011). There is much divergence in the discourse on the characteristics of distributed models, and the tensions between informal and formal leadership approaches are well documented (Fink and Brayman, 2006). The common feature of all models, however, is a mode of leadership which views all teachers as leaders, that ‘everyone is born to lead in the same way as everyone is born to learn’ (Harris and Lambert, 2003, p. 422).

Authentic distribution of leadership at practice level does not amount to a delegation of duties on the part of the principal leader. It proposes a participative model that employs a collective approach to learning in a school, which is supported by a culture of collegial respect and mutual trust. Sustainable leaders are resourceful, as they use the talents of the personnel in their organisations, and, in doing so, access the most readily available resource in their schools: human capital. Sustainable leaders are also witnessed as lead learners themselves.


Sustainability in education, like environmental sustainability, is a moral imperative. The quality of educators’ lives and the future of our students’ learning depend on it (Fullan, 2002). Making leadership sustainable is an enormously difficult proposal and is ‘built upon the necessity of taking the long view’ (Hargreaves and Fink, 2006, p. 4). It respects the past but also regards the future by seeking action that is urgent but allows time for results to ferment. It requires drive and mutual commitment. It depends on the cultivation of shared visions. It endures in cultures that support ‘slow knowing’ and slow growing (Fullan, 2014). It relies on resourceful principal leaders.

In education, a treadmill approach to change and improvement produces what Elkind (1993, p. 9) refers to as ‘the hurried child’. Looking at the wider perspective of rapid change and reform, the hurried child is a by-product of the hurried teacher. The hurried teacher is formed in the hurried school. The hurried school answers to the hurried system. The system reflects the hurried society. Too much change does not mean that learning has improved: it means that learning has gotten fast. The premise that underscores every sustainability model, in all fields of practice, is that deep change takes time.


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