Principal delegating to a staff member
Leadership Insights

PD for Principals: Defining the Difference Between Delegation and Shared Leadership

By Terry Wilhelm November 24, 2015

Among the many complex behaviors in leadership, the concepts of shared leadership and delegation may be the most misunderstood. The two terms are often used interchangeably, yet they are significantly different. In this post, I’ll focus on appropriate delegation.

Delegation & shared leadership

Effective delegation is an essential skill set for any principal’s efficiency — and even survival. Highly controlling principals who are unable to delegate find themselves increasingly buried by operational issues that others on staff could handle with competence and ease. However, even once a principal is somewhat free from managing the school’s operation and putting out fires, solo leadership in the areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment is an outdated and ineffective model for 21st-century schools.

Shared leadership in these areas is perhaps the most powerful and underused strategy for the continuous improvement of outcomes for all students. Developing shared leadership is predicated upon a principal’s orientation toward a democratic style of leading. It requires time, patience, and intentional, well-planned strategies for developing classroom teachers as peer leaders. In contrast, delegation is relatively simple. Even tyrants can use delegation to a high level (and some do).

Ingredients for effective delegation

Delegation can be thought of as, essentially, a handoff. However, to prevent frustration, the delegator (principal) must first be sure that the delegate (another administrator, a teacher leader, or a classified staff member) has sufficient skills, background, and operational information to complete the task successfully.

Secondly, it is critical for the delegator to be comfortable with the product or performance that the delegate is likely to produce, which may differ from what the delegator would produce. Undoing or redoing the work will destroy trust, create resentment, and undermine the principal’s future ability to find willing delegates.

Tasks principals can delegate

What kinds of responsibilities lend themselves to delegation, and which are more appropriate for sharing leadership? Basically, operational duties are optimal for delegation, including:

  • Schedules
  • Logistics
  • Ordering and handling materials
  • Reports
  • Record keeping
  • Discipline referrals

Areas for shared leadership in schools

On the other hand, potentially major payoffs for student learning result by sharing leadership in areas including:

  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Assessment (instructional assessment leadership as opposed to managing state testing materials, which can be delegated)

Most public relations duties — working with PTA and booster club groups, for example — should not be delegated. The principal should fulfill these because of the implied message to stakeholder groups about the importance of their involvement in the school.

Coaching questions to encourage delegation

If you are working with a principal who seems unable to delegate, some possible coaching questions might include:

  • What are the kinds of things you delegate now, and to whom?
  • What are two or three new areas for which you might consider delegation?
  • How can you set your delegate up for success if you decide to hand off a specific task?
  • What benefits might result from delegating this task?
  • How can you build in a feedback loop early in the process to ensure that the delegate is on the right track?
  • What is the worst that can happen if your delegate does not produce a result that approximates the result you would get by doing it yourself?

Providing examples of successful delegation

Finally, be prepared with some “back pocket” examples of effective delegation to share, either from your own experience or that you have observed at other sites. You can do this with or without mentioning the names of the principals.

It may be that the leader you are coaching is fearful of possible consequences of delegation gone awry. If so, this conversation may reassure him or her that you are supportive of his or her growth in becoming a more effective leader through appropriate delegation.

Additional resources

Concordia’s EdD in Administrative Leadership

“We only have 180 days a year per kid to make a difference”: Q&A with John Paul Sanchez, EdD’17

Wow-Factor Schools: 8 Ways to Build an Awesome School Culture

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