“Distributed Leadership & Seagull Management”


Geoff Moss & Elizabeth Floyer 

Early on in our own CPD work with schools we quickly became aware that no matter how inspirational the INSET, how noble the goal, how important the task, getting people to actually implement the teaching skills and getting the organisation to set up procedures for the maintenance of its practice required a particular management focus. That focus is people development, and paradoxically it isn’t something that educators themselves always feel well equipped to address.  The recent PWC research into school leadership [1] found that many school leaders expressed real concerns about their capacity to develop both themselves and their staff in an effective and strategic manner, and in such a way as to equip teachers to deal with the challenges of the ‘new world’ of education. 

It is often the case that when we are not sure of our ability to perform a particular task or skill we tend to place a lower priority on it. This may explain the additional worrying finding that school leaders did not rate the people management aspect of their work as particularly significant.  “When head teachers were asked what their priorities should be going forward, as well as what their future skills needs were, staff management, recruitment and retention appeared quite far down the list. Whilst this is understandable given their other commitments, it nevertheless suggests that many school leaders may not have embraced the people agenda as fully as has been the case in other sectors (e.g. in the private sector where it is one of the bedrocks on which all current thinking on leadership is based)” 

Professional development within a rapidly changing cultural context is clearly a vital requirement for any organisation, whether it be within the private or public sector. The management of change within our schools has become too big a task for one head teacher or indeed a senior management team to cope with.  So, in order to face the increasing complexity of school organisation, the proliferation of management tasks, and the empowerment of professionals within the system, the PWC report, in common with many other commentators, places much emphasis on the merits of distributed leadership as an answer to many of these issues. As well as sharing the load, distributed leadership is proposed as a way of developing the leaders of the future, but it has got to be more than divvying up some of the leadership tasks and passing them further down the line. The outcome of that rough and ready approach will more often lead to seagull management – and many middle managers have been on the receiving end of that.  

Seagull Management

Seagull management is when your managers leave you all alone, then suddenly swoop in from afar, make a lot of noise, drop on you, then fly off again.  In other words you are given a task with little instruction on how to do it, and minimal supervision thereafter; you’re just left to get on with it. Then your boss decides to see how you are doing, doesn’t like what he sees, gripes about what you have or haven’t done, tells you in patronising terms what he does want and then departs again – until the next swoop. Some call this delegation.  Delegation is not much use as a leadership skill when, as the PWC report observes,  many middle managers don’t have the skills training to carry out their leadership roles effectively. 

When as a training organisation ourselves we looked at the many and varied leadership methods on offer we sought an approach that was transferable from the classroom to the staffroom (it would make sense educationally), that could be readily understood and applied (less abstract theory, more pragmatic), and that provided a common language for describing leadership styles and follower needs (no business jargon and management gobbledegook). We also wanted an approach that had stood the test of time and the approval of the business world (where as has been observed the people agenda is fundamental to all the current thinking on leadership). Our research brought us to Situational Leadership® II. 

Many school leaders have some idea about it but few have undertaken any systematic training in its methodology and practice.  It is a process for developing people at work based upon a relationship between an individual’s development level (various combinations of competence and commitment) on a specific goal or task, and the leadership style (various combinations of directive and supportive behaviour) that the leader provides. Ken Blanchard originally developed Situational Leadership® with Paul Hersey at Ohio University in 1968 [2]. Later, after finding that some critical aspects of the model were not being validated in practice, Blanchard developed Situational Leadership® II based on his further research and feedback from thousands of users [3].  

The philosophy that informs the use of Situational Leadership® II within the Blanchard approach is that leaders are there to meet the legitimate professional and developmental needs of those they lead. The prime activity of leadership within a professional organisation should be to develop and release the skills of others. That means identifying the professional skills that are needed, auditing their varied levels of development amongst followers, setting targets for achieving the skills and providing the means to acquire them.

Having identified the teacher’s tasks (e.g. through the skills listed on the Standards Site) the first leadership skill is that of diagnosing each persons’ development level on each task.

Development levels

The right leadership style will depend on the needs of the person being led – the follower. We first need to diagnose the ‘Development Level’ of the follower. We look at the level of  skill competence the follower has achieved for that task and the degree of commitment for learning or applying the skill that the follower possesses. There are four possible levels of development that a person may be at on any given task, these simply labelled from D1 to D4. 

D1: Low Competence, High Commitment – People at this early stage of learning will generally lack the specific skills required for the job in hand. However, they are eager to learn and are willing to take direction or receive instruction.

D2: Some Competence, Low Commitment – At this stage learners may have some relevant skills, but they won’t be able to do the job without help. The task or the situation will still be challenging. However at this stage the follower also has a low level of commitment to learn or practice the skill.  They may have attempted the task and found it harder than they thought or, because of previous experiences with similar situations, decided it is all a waste of time. As a result they display lower levels of motivation that people at D1.

D3: High Competence, Variable Commitment – At this level a person has a useful degree of experience and will be generally capable of performing the skill, but they may lack the confidence to go it alone, or not have the motivation to do it well or quickly.

D4: High Competence, High Commitment – The follower now is experienced at the job, and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. They might even be more skilled than the leader. They are motivated to undertake the tasks and confident of their skill to achieve a good outcome. 

An important point to make here is that Development Levels are situational. They describe a follower’s competence and commitment on a particular task or skill; they are not global descriptions of that person. Someone might be generally skilled, confident and motivated with all the tasks of their current job, but would still drop into Level D1 when faced with a new task requiring skills they don’t possess. For example, many managers are D4 when dealing with the day-to-day running of their department, but move to D1 or D2 when dealing with a sensitive follower “issue”. 

Flexible leadership

The second skill of the Situational Leader is flexibility. Having identified with the follower her apparent Development Level on a given task, the leader then needs to select the required leadership style.  Effective leaders need to be flexible, and must adapt themselves according to the situation.  Situational Leadership® II describes leadership style in terms of the amount of direction and support that the leader provides to their followers.  Direction is mostly task-focussed. It is akin to instruction – it is when the leader explains what needs to be done, sets goals, establishes time lines, demonstrates good practice, checks for understanding – the sort of thing that teachers do at the presentation phase of the lesson. Support is mostly person-focussed. It is how the leader gives encouragement, delivers praise, explains the rationale for the task, puts it into context, asks for the follower’s input about how the task can be tackled etc. It is what teachers do when they move onto the operational phase of the lesson.  In Situational Leadership® II the various combinations ofleadership styles are categorised into four behaviour types, simply designated S1 to S4:

 S1: Directing Leaders define the roles and tasks of the ‘follower‘, give instruction, and supervise them closely. Decisions about the best course of action are made by the leader, so the communication is largely one-way. The leader does most of the telling. The leader therefore provides high levels of direction, but because at this stage follower commitment is high, the leader need use only low levels of supportive behaviours.

S2: Coaching Leaders still define roles and tasks, but seek ideas and suggestions from the follower. Decisions remain the leader’s prerogative, but communication is much moretwo-way. The leader is concerned to overcome emotional resistance and build up motivation as well. Now the leader not only provides high levels of directive behaviours but also high levels of support.

S3: Supporting Leaders pass more of the day-to-day decisions, such as task allocation and processes, to the follower. There is little instructing at this stage as the follower mostly knows well enough what needs to be done and how to do it. The barrier to development is more to do with the confidence of the follower to rely on their own abilities to cope.  So now the leader facilitates and takes part in decisions, but tries to shift more control over to the follower. The leader provides low levels of direction but still uses a high level of supportive behaviours.

S4: Delegating Leaders will still set goals, and are still involved in decisions andproblem-solving, but control is now with the follower, who is quite capable of performing the task without help and is committed to doing a good job. The follower mostly decides when and how the leader will be involved. The leader need now only apply low levels of both direction and support. 

The chosen leadership style must match the needs of the follower as expressed in their Development Level.  Too much direction when the follower is already highly competent will lead to over-supervision; not enough, when the follower lacks either competence or commitment will lead to under-supervision. Our experience auditing the prevailing leadership practice in schools is that there is more mismatch than match. There is time wasted unnecessarily, going through the routines of ‘supervision’ just because it has been prescribed that way by the time-tabling of meetings. Then, on the other hand, there are teachers cast adrift struggling to cope with tasks that they have barely understood and cannot see the reason for doing.                    

Partnering for Performance

But if we have gone through the process of properly diagnosing the development level and agreed the required style of leadership, the leader and follower can now make arrangements about how often they need to meet in order to move forward with any particular task. This third skill of a Situational Leader is ‘partnering for performance’.  In the case of the follower at D4 on the task, then the  leader can confidently delegate, and re-allocate time elsewhere. In the case of someone at D1 or D2 on a task then the leader needs to spend more time either directly instructing or identifying sources of support for that person elsewhere within the school. 

What Situational Leadership® II provides teachers with is a common leadership framework that can be readily shared across the whole staff. Thus a consequence of this is that teachers also need to take on a shared responsibility for operating the framework.  Its philosophy makes clear that it is not just to identify how I should lead others in any given situation but it is also to identify the leadership I need of others for me to progress further. Everyone needs to examine their own levels of professional development and from that analysis to identify the sort of leadership (in terms of amount of direction or support) they need of their immediate line manager.                             

So we can show that ‘Distributed Leadership’ just doesn’t mean sharing out the leadership tasks – the jobs to be done – but also how we will distribute the support and the direction we give each other for those tasks. It becomes a shared leadership methodology – how we will lead others and how we need to be led. So now in our work with schools we train senior leaders, middle managers, classroom teachers and teaching assistants in the basics of the framework. Taking people through the principles of the framework is no great intellectual challenge – the model is simple without being simplistic. But what teachers see is that the principles also apply in their own classrooms where they are the leaders and their students are the followers.

They begin to see how, in the course of learning new knowledge or acquiring new skills, their students go through the same developmental progression – at first needing high levels of  directional behaviour, then, should students falter with the application, bringing in high levels of supportive behaviours. Later, when the teacher knows that her students know something or have the skill to perform it but they don’t, she drops the high level of direction but maintains high levels of support – encouraging, prompting, asking probe questions – we might call this style of teaching akin to ‘scaffolding’.  Her goal is to get them to Development Level 4 where they will be confident and competent practitioners of the skill.   

Hopefully, by now the classroom teacher begins to realise that she is also a Situational Leader, and that we can take out of the classroom the best of our practice and apply it to our work with each other in the staffroom.     



Geoff Moss & Elizabeth Floyer are accredited by the Blanchard Organisation to provide training in Situational Leadership® II  Behaviour & Learning Management  tel: 0870 241 8262  


[1] Price Waterhouse Coopers Independent Study into School Leadership DfES 2007

[2] Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K. Management of Organizational Behaviour 8th edition (Prentice Hall, 1996).

[3] Blanchard Organisation Situational Leadership® II  San Diego, USA . Accredited training with Behaviour & Learning Management www.behaviour-learning.com