By Joseph F. Murphy and Karen Seashore Louis

9780807759035 blog

In our recent book, we argue that a grounded and practical educational leadership theory must not be diverted by today’s policy preference for a narrow range of school outcomes.  Tested student achievement is important, but leadership studies that look for particular behaviors that are associated with test scores miss an essential point:  To have a  positive influence on any other person or group, actors must ground their observable behaviors in moral and ethical principles.

Our examination of both empirical and theoretical writing that links positive psychology to leadership in schools yields nine foundational principles.  We derived these from a deep dive into hundreds of articles in education, social work, nursing, business, public administration and other fields.  We searched for articles that mentioned a wide variety of terms like “transformational”, “servant”, “distributed”, “team”, and “authentic”.  They are not associated with any particular author or leadership position, but represent a wide swath of thinking about the ethical basis of deliberate efforts by one person to influence another.  Below, we’ve listed out the the foundational principles of positive leadership:


Positive school leadership rallies confidence and optimism that supports individual and group performance. Recent approaches to school improvement often pay more attention to the problems that need solving or deficits in skills than on designing new futures that are consistent with the moral compass and values that drew most educators to their profession.


Many of these values are part-and-parcel of preparation programs that reflect newer standards for teachers and educational administrators.  A review of any major textbook used in principal preparation programs reveals a greater emphasis on values than is apparent in similar text in other management fields.  When school members see their leaders as value-based, they respond to the often-difficult daily choices encountered in every school.


Virtues are what we see when there is consistent value-based action and behavior, and are a visible expression of underlying values. Positively anchored schools become a source of hope, forgiveness, justice and gratitude.  In other words, when they act in a consistently virtuous manner, leaders elicit the best in others and contribute to positive school cultures.


Transcendence is an experience that goes beyond the ordinary.  In leadership, it means guidance beyond self-interest and consistent expression of concern for the needs of others.  It also requires forging a morally compelling vision that is associated with the common interests of the community.


Relationship-based leadership promotes trust, a sense of justice, and a consistent voice in promoting the common good. Relationships between formal leaders and others promote a wide variety of ethically desirable outcomes, such as an equitable distribution of resources inside the school, and more positive relationships among others.


Focusing on means tells members that meeting the immediate needs of others is important, and is a necessary part of achieving larger collective goals.  A sustained commitment to the professional ideal of putting the needs of others (an element of all professional ethical standards) first requires that all leaders – not just those with formal positions – model it on a regular basis.


Positive school leaders consistently attend to the adult school members’ personal and collective needs for growth and development.  Development is more than increasing skills.  Instead, it requires leaders to treat teachers as individuals, supporting specific opportunities for learning, growth, and professional stimulation. Enhancing continuous growth may result in unexpected but virtually always enriching outcomes for a school.


Authentic behavior requires a leader to be self-aware, transparent in relationships, and self-regulated rather than reactive.  Consistency between a leadership espoused orientations and their actions is a bedrock, without which influence and impact on others erodes.


The writers we reviewed almost invariably redefine leadership in terms of service and stewardship.  Some speak of public-service motivation; others focus on creating a strong collective commitment in which all members see themselves as leaders for the greater good.  A service-grounded leader links humane practices to the day-to-day functioning of the school, without which trust and meaningful relationships among others cannot form.

*This blog post was adapted from Chapter 3 of Murphy & Louis (2018), Positive School Leadership, Building Capacity and Sustaining Relationships, New York: Teachers College Press.

Joseph F. Murphy is the Frank W. Mayborn Chair of Education and associate dean at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, and has served in public schools as an administrator at the school, district, and state levels.

Karen Seashore Louis is Regents Professor and Robert H. Beck Chair of the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

Featured Image: Principal’s office sign, public domain via Flickr