Six Dimensions of Leadership

By Mike Bossi

Long ago and far, far away, I began my 20-plus year career as a school principal. As a new principal, I was ready to make some serious changes to improve and update instruction, to make kids feel like more valued independent learners, and to bring parents and community into the school as our partners in education.

By the end of my first year I was seeing a doctor for stress, taking heartburn medication and sleeping upright at night. My marriage was strained. The overwhelming majority of my staff wanted my head on a platter and to ride my tail out of town on a rail. But I just knew I was doing the “right” thing … for my teachers, my kids and my parents. Why was this so hard? Why was this work so damn lonely? Why was every road uphill?

My superintendent recommended that I attend an ACSA program, Project Leadership. There I met Bill Kipp. I remember Bill putting his hand on my shoulder after I had attended a few meetings and saying, “Son, you are bright, enthusiastic and energetic. You know what good teaching is. You’ve got a good heart and nothing but positive intentions. But son, you don’t know spit about leadership. If you are serious about being a leader, you need to study leadership. Leadership is your craft now.”

That was 1984, and I’ve been a student of leadership ever since. Today, as ACSA’s director of leadership coaching, supporting and developing California’s educational leaders is my job.

Recently, we were challenged to develop a new coaching-based approach for the AB 430 practicum. Most of the state’s AB 430 training has come a long way since the early days of its parent program, AB 75. Most of California’s providers, including ACSA, have worked to develop trainers and content and to make meaningful connections between the modules. But we agree with the 2006 research findings of Stanford’s Darling-Hammond and Orphanos: “AB 75 (reauthorized AB 430) has certainly been helpful…criticisms are directed at the brevity and one-size-fits-all nature of the training and the fact that it generally does not include mentoring or coaching of principals.”

What AB 430 coaching should look like

Coupled with AB 430 training, we think coaching will support AB 430’s Administrator Training Program to better fulfill its charge. The question is, what would an AB 430 coaching program look like? An ACSA/NTC coaching program would surely revolve around “Blended Coaching” developed by Bloom, Moir, Castagna and Warren (2005) at the New Teacher Center. Wouldn’t an AB 430 coaching program have to be based upon the objectives of AB 430? At first glance, a reasonable assumption. But we felt  there were so many objectives in the three modules of AB 430 that we could be in danger of having no focus at all.

Ron Taylor, AB 430 coordinator at the California Department of Education, encouraged us to think “thematically.” Jeanie Cash urged that our coaching program needed to focus upon bigger ideas that encompassed the AB 30 objectives. Then, it all came together rather neatly into six overriding themes or “dimensions” of an educational leadership model:

• Visionary/cultural leadership

• Operational leadership

• Instructional leadership

• Learning leadership

• Collaborative leadership

• Strategic leadership

We can anticipate your first reaction: “Do we really need a new list? Come on, we’ve got the CPSELs and their friend the DOPs (Descriptions of Practice), the ISLLC standards, McREL’s 21 leadership behaviors most associated with student achievement, and Kathleen Cotton’s list of 25 categories related to principals and student achievement. Enough, already! Surely one of these well-researched lists could be used!”

To be honest, we tried. It would be a lot less work to just use existing research and resources to focus our leadership coaching efforts rather than to develop something new. Yet, we found the CPSELs to be somewhat static and incomplete, especially as related to collaborative and strategic leadership. The new draft of the ISLLC standards was a significant improvement, but it was too focused, in our view, upon student achievement and not focused enough upon the collaborative leadership and strategic leadership behaviors needed to promote and sustain continuous growth in our schools.

The lists from McREL and Cotton are great and quite comprehensive, but many of us just can’t get our brains around 21 or 25 leadership traits to guide us in our work as leaders. Too many spinning plates. But we can, however, handle six.

Further work led to the discovery that not only could all AB 430 objectives be addressed by focusing upon the Six Dimensions, but all CPSELs, all ISLLC, all of McREL’s 21 and Cotton’s 25 could easily fit within the Six Dimensions. Moreover, CPSEL, DOPs, ISLLC and McREL “indicators” could help enormously in providing many of the “exemplars” we hope to use to flesh out each dimension.

While we offer the somewhat extended definitions below, we hope that one of the advantages of the Six Dimensions over these other lists is that individually, each dimension speaks for itself, and collectively, they function as a concise but comprehensive definition of effective site leadership. The dimensions are intended to serve as simple but rigorous, research-based resources for leadership coaches and coachees to use in guiding the development of leadership capacity at the school site. They should promote reflection and support coaches and coachees in self-assessment and goal-setting, with an eye to leadership development. Finally, the Six Dimensions are not new. We offer them as a means to simplify, clarify, integrate and focus the growing expanse of leadership research and standards. 

1. Visionary/cultural leadership

Effective visionary/cultural leadership is defined in three parts:

• The principal’s core/essential values.

• Defining and securing ownership, and implementing and sustaining a school community vision.

• Building and maintaining a culture and daily practice to support the vision.

The visionary leader knows what she stands for, where “true north” is on the compass, and what she is dedicated to implementing and protecting. These core/essential values are likely not very complicated. In fact, the simpler the better. And, we find that with most effective leaders, there are likely only three to five items in this category. Leadership’s core values form the foundation of moral leadership and provide the security to “do the right thing.”

A school vision must be a collaborative school community vision. It must emerge from the interaction of all community members: principal, teachers, classified staff, parents, the larger community and the district. The vision provides purpose, identity, direction, priorities, inspiration, a sense of community and guidance for assessment of strategies, policies, practices and progress for all stakeholders.

Effective visionary leadership ensures that there is a clear picture of both “where we are” and “where we want to go.” Invested members of the school community need to have a clear image of what achievement of the vision will “look like.” Then, there must be systems constructed to ensure the school stays true to the vision, to measure progress toward the vision, and to make course adjustments as necessary. It is also valuable to install rituals to highlight the vision and celebrate positive contributions.

Way back in 1985, Saphier and King wrote an article (“Good Seeds Grow in Strong Cultures”) contending that there were 12 norms that, if present, would positively impact school effectiveness. And in the 12th chapter of his landmark book, “Improving Schools from Within” (1991), Roland Barth shared his concept of the components of a healthy school culture. Whether leadership focuses upon Saphier’s norms, Barth’s cultural components or other identifiers, it is essential that the daily interactions between people at the school, formal and incidental, are guided and monitored to ensure they reflect and support the school’s vision. How people work with one another, how they treat each other — every day — will go a long way to determining whether the vision is truly being implemented.

2. Operational leadership

Administration and management of operations has always been and will always be an essential part of effective school leadership. The effective school leader cannot function as The Manager of all operations: financial, facilities, equipment, technology, books and supplies, attendance, student behavior, cafeteria, student ingress and egress.

But leadership must establish and maintain systems within the school to ensure that operations support and sustain the very best instructional practices and complement student learning. Effective operational leadership employs financial, human, time, physical and technology resources to provide for a safe, efficient and effective learning environment. There will always be interruptions to our focus on instruction and learning, but effective operational leadership provides systems that ensure that factors impeding learning are minimized while human, physical and fiscal resources to support learning are maximized.

3. Instructional leadership

Instructional leadership must ensure the school’s educators teach children, not just curriculum. Culture, expectations, training, coaching, monitoring, supervision and evaluation must be in place to make sure that teachers truly know their students and understand, respect and demonstrate the ability to effectively implement research-based differentiation strategies.

Instructional leadership must create the expectations and maintain the conditions for the very best instructional practices to be identified, trained, supported and sustained. Certainly, first among these is what Marzano (2003) refers to as a “guaranteed and viable curriculum.” Respect for ethnic, racial, cultural and linguistic difference must be nurtured, and instructional staff must be skilled in their abilities to provide needed supports for ensuring that all learners are successful. Instructional leadership must also call upon teachers to make student engagement a focal priority in planning and in delivery of instruction.

While instructional leadership certainly provides for rigorous and thoughtful evaluation of practice, its energies are primarily focused upon development of instructional practice. As adults, we must model and practice an unrelenting passion for learning. As educators, we must recognize that we are all in the “growing” business, and that we will never “arrive” or “know it all” as professionals, but will be engaged in the life-long pursuit of learning.

Given the demands and accountability for standards-based student achievement, it is the responsibility of strong instructional leadership to remind staff and parents that academic standards only define the floor of life-long learning.

4. Learning leadership

Leadership’s charge is not to ensure that all students are taught; it is to ensure that all students learn. As educators, our focus has taken a dramatic shift, from a focus upon teaching, materials and curriculum to a focus upon learning — for everyone.  Data on learning, gathered from common performance standards and assessments, is viewed as a tool to help educators grow, to get better, and to help them reach more students. Indeed, without data, we engage in “random acts of teaching,” uninformed by learning outcomes.

Leadership builds and maintains a “culture of professional collaboration” focused on learning. Professional, systematic processes are in place for teachers to work together to analyze and improve practice through an ongoing cycle of data-based inquiry. The focus is upon results for ALL students. Teachers are consumed by a “spirit of inquiry,” looking for the most successful instructional practices and willingly sharing and replicating what works.

Effective learning leadership skillfully walks a fine line. Leadership creates a discomfort with the status quo, and promotes disequilibrium as something essential to sustain the growth of educators at the school. However, leadership acknowledges that the most important determiner of success may not be what educators believe about their kids, but what they believe about their own abilities to be successful with those kids. Leadership builds and constantly reinforces a strong sense of efficacy everywhere, with every staff member.

5. Collaborative leadership

Leadership is not just an attribute or the responsibility of the principal. Effective school leadership, in our view, describes the interaction between the principal and staff, students and the parent community. Leadership is a function of the interaction of real people with the unique history, culture and resources of a school site.

Leadership does not fall completely within the realm of the principal alone. Leadership, to be effective in today’s and tomorrow’s schools, must be shared, collaborative and interactive. Leadership must also be constantly evolving and adjusting to circumstance. The effective principal, then, charged with the responsibility for the school’s effectiveness and with sustaining and building upon success, must be willing and able to share leadership, develop leadership in others, and be very, very adaptable.

Collaborative leadership leads to collective ownership of student learning. Perhaps leadership’s most important responsibility is to develop what is commonly referred to as a “professional learning community.” Mike Schmoker states, “Professional learning communities have emerged as arguably the best, most agreed-upon means by which to continuously improve instruction and student performance” (2006).

Collaborative leadership must, thus, be a builder and sustainer of community. The culture and highly skilled group dynamics upon which open, deep and meaningful collaboration is founded don’t come from mandates and wishful thinking. The collaborative leader must be skilled in facilitating and developing groups, and truly teaching and supporting everyone to become more skillful, contributing group members.

Collaborative leadership recognizes that student success will be fostered by working productively as engaged participants within much larger systems of district, community and family. School leaders must contribute to and complement the work of their districts. Collaborative leaders must use the community as a resource, engaging members as partners. Families must understand how to support their children’s learning, and have opportunities to let school staff know about the background, capabilities and needs of their children.

6. Strategic leadership

John Maxwell (1998) rightly asserts that leadership is not a function of power or position, but of influence. Power and position can buy one some time to develop influence, but influence truly comes from strategic leadership consciously focused upon:

• intentional and consistent modeling;

• building relationships;

• navigation and a sense of timing; and

• maintaining focus.

Strategic leaders think about what they do and say to “walk their talk,” everywhere, every day. Words and actions of leaders are guided by a clear moral/ethical sense. Such leaders do what they believe is the “right thing” regardless of the audience or difficulty. Such leaders are trustworthy, competent and prepared; they consciously keep commitments, openly acknowledge errors and model how they learn from mistakes.

Strategic leadership works to build relationships. Leadership must know and honestly respect everyone in the organization: their styles, strengths and weaknesses. Only armed with such knowledge can leadership anticipate for whom any change will be “first order” or “second order” (Marzano, Waters, McNulty, 2005) so that leadership can adjust its individualized attention, expectations and development support.

If, as educators, we are in the “growing business,” then we must also be in the “change business.” Only in the simplest, most non-threatening change initiatives can leaders proceed in a straight line from point A (where we are) to point B (where we want to be). More impactful changes, which Marzano, Waters and McNulty (2005) refer to as “second order,” call for more “strategic” leadership skills. Effective strategic leaders understand the change process and can navigate the course. Strategic leadership exhibits the courage to go against the prevailing wind when necessary, the persistence to stay focused on moving forward, and the resilience to recover and adjust to misfortune.

There is still much work to be done. Exemplars of each of the Six Dimensions are being developed, and evidence pieces, both tangible and through observations, are being developed by our coaches. We invite you to send your comments, reactions, suggestions and questions to We plan to share more information about our progress with you in the future.


Barth, R. (1991). Improving Schools from Within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Bloom, G., Castagna, C., Moir, E. & Warren, B. (2005). Blended Coaching: Skills and Strategies to Support Principal Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. & Orphanos, S. (2006). Leadership Development in California. Stanford University.

Marzano, R. (2003). What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R., Waters, T. & McNulty, B. (2005). School Leadership That Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Saphier, J. & King, M. (March 1985). “Good Seeds Grow in Strong Cultures.” Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (1996). Results Now: How Can We Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mike Bossi is director of Leadership Coaching for ACSA.


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