Balanced leadership: what 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement

by Tim Waters, Robert J. Marzano, and Brian McNulty


This 2003 working paper provides a review and quantitative analysis of 30 years of research into the impact of leadership on schooling. It comes from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) in the US.

The authors focus on reporting which leadership behaviours make a difference, positive or negative, to what happens in schools. 

Balanced leadership framework

The review comes up with a framework for ‘balanced leadership’. It suggests concrete responsibilities, practices, knowledge, strategies, tools, and resources that principals and other educational leaders can use.

There are four different kinds of knowledge that school leaders need: experiential knowledge (why), declarative knowledge (what), procedural knowledge (how), and contextual knowledge (when).

Leadership decisions are always problematic, but balanced decisions based on deep broad-based ‘knowledges’ increase the likelihood of effective educational leadership.

Effective leadership will:

  • balance pushing for change with protecting the existing values and practices of the institution that work well
  • know how to align the diverse happenings within a school
  • recognise the magnitude of change and therefore monitor carefully how it is being implemented
  • understand and value the people within the school community.

The framework identifies 21 key leadership responsibilities that if carried out effectively will impact positively on student achievement. These responsibilities are listed on page 4 of the article.

They include organisational, professional and personal attributes of leadership such as flexibility, respect for procedures, direct and hands-on involvement with curriculum design and implementation, and the development of positive relationships and good communication within the school community.

Leading change

While all school leaders need to initiate change in various ways, not all change is of the same order.

  • First order changes are those which build on existing conditions, are focused and have support from experts.
  • Second order changes break with the past, are more complex and may create huge disturbances.

In the latter case the advantages of the changes may not be obvious to everyone.

Different stakeholders perceive changes differently, and what some believe are first order changes can be experienced by others as second order.

It is very important that school leaders are able to recognise the different ways that change might impact on their communities, and therefore to select practices and strategies to implement change very carefully.

The paper goes on to examine each of the 21 identified key leadership responsibilities in depth, and to demonstrate the differences between first order and second order changes. This draws attention to the care needed not only in making decisions but also in the processes of implementing them.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this paper:

  • Make a list of the most significant school changes you have made or plan to make within the recent past and future. Would you describe them as first or second order changes? By examining the changes you have already made can you see some warnings or guidelines for how you need to go about the changes you are planning for the future?
  • Consider the changes you are planning for the future in the light of the four different kinds of knowledge mentioned in the article (experiential, declarative, procedural, and contextual). How will use of each of these knowledges improve your planning and decisions about actual strategies for implementing change?
  • Identify specific ways in which your school leadership approach is positively affecting student outcomes (learning and social).

Further reading

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. See the McCREL website for information about this book, which was developed from the research discussed here.


Waters, T., Marzano, R.J. & McNulty, B. (2003). Balanced Leadership: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. [PDF added to Educational Leaders with permission].

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