Research-Based Publications That Foster Educator Expertise

Joseph Murphy

Joseph Murphy is the Frank W. Mayborn Chair of Education at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. He also has been a faculty member at the University of Illinois and The Ohio State University, where he was the William Ray Flesher Professor of Education.

In public schools, he has served as an administrator at the school, district, and state levels. His most recent appointment was as the founding president of the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy.

He is a past vice president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and an AERA Fellow.

Murphy directed the development of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards for School Leaders and chaired the research panel that produced the revisions to those standards. He led the team that developed the specifications with Educational Testing Service (ETS) for the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA). He is also one of the four cocreators of the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education.

Resources by Joseph Murphy

Interviews by Joseph Murphy

Q&A with Joseph Murphy on
Leading School Improvement: A Framework for Action

In his new book Leading School Improvement: A Framework for Action, Joseph Murphy emphasizes the significance of behavioral traits in excellent school leaders and how those characteristics impact school improvement. Here he discusses why this is important.

You speak of how much research has been conducted on the actions of good leaders, but there’s been little focus on their behavioral traits. You contend that actions and personal characteristics are equally important. Why do you believe there’s been less interest in the behavioral aspect of leadership?

Discussing behavioral aspects of leadership was very popular when people talked about leadership a long time ago, but then it became discredited. We need to get back to a balance between these two. Issues like persistence, passion, and high energy are significantly associated with good leadership, so schools would do much better if they looked for people with these qualities and trained current leaders to the extent that we can.

You wrote that all of your research over the last 40 years leads to the conclusion that the “backstage view” of leadership is at least as important as more traditional perspectives—and often more significant. What is the backstage view and why is it important?

The backstage view, for me, includes the characteristics, traits, and norms of leadership. We train and prepare leaders to accept micro-intervention packages like charter schools, team teaching, or high school academies, or we train them to do micro-level activities, such as walk into a classroom and look for X and write it down. I don’t think this is where the center of gravity is for school leaders. It has to be around these powerful norms. Macro-intervention won’t change anything if they don’t figure out what is they are trying to achieve. And the micro-level is so tiny that those activities consume all of their energy. A leader’s primary job is to keep an eye on these norms and see if they are taking root in their schools. They aren’t complex—they are things like care for children. So if a school says taking care of kids is as important as academic achievement, they’ve now got that norm in their head. And they will honor that and figure out how to deal with that. There are a dozen of these things that principals need to have front and center when they go about their business.

You say that the first law of school improvement is that structural changes do not predict school performance. What if the structural change that is implemented has resulted in incredibly positive things in another school district?

That’s the fundamental problem. When you take the box from another school and bring it to your school, all you end up with is an empty box. The stuff that made it work over there doesn’t come along with the box. You have these schools with all of these macro-level interventions and they say, “It worked at Smith, so why doesn’t it work here at Jones?” Most of the times, the goods that made it work are still at Smith. The real job of school leaders is not to import these structural changes because we know that doesn’t work. They need to think of the DNA of what they really want.

You call school principals “gluing agents.” Why is this?

Because the definition of a school is 32 cubicles surrounded by a common parking lot. Things in education are disparate by the way they’re set up. The systems create separateness and people working alone. Budgets are being set up unconnected to curriculum and all of that. This is the way the game is, so if principals are going to be successful, they’re going to have to hold all these things in a center of gravity so they’re all moving in the same way with the same effect, instead of working against each other. They need to be “gluing agents.”

You speak of optimism being a necessary trait for leaders. Is this a more urgent need in schools that are deemed troubled or can all schools see a marked shift toward success because of an optimistic principal or superintendent?

It’s a general trait, so it should help all schools. Schools deal with a lot of problems, and these things can be overwhelming after a while. Educators can get on a downward slide because of the ferocious challenges they face. One of the things a great leader does is instill hope throughout the organization on a continual basis. When things don’t look bright at a school and everyone is struggling, principals should be the conveyor of hope and possibilities. And they need to continually engage in that. It’s an uphill struggle for many schools.

Your four defining characteristics of leadership are passion, persistence, optimism, and authenticity. If a school leader is reading your book and thinking, I had those characteristics, but over the years my passion or my persistence has waned, can those characteristics be rekindled?

That’s a good question. I don’t have empirical evidence on it. I’d say that principals need to ask themselves that question. A lot of people say, “I’m worn out and I just can’t do it anymore.” They need to acknowledge that. Sometimes it’s about shifting their focus to doing something that will bring about change. But if they take that route, they need to measure it to be sure change is actually occurring.

The second half of your book dives into the bigger picture of what has to be taken into account in order to improve schools, and in some cases completely alter how we approach teaching and learning. You expound on politics, history, culture, and how we think now as a society. How can school leaders incorporate this information into their daily work of improving their school without feeling like it’s a daunting task?

If you try to eat the whole elephant, it’s not going to work. You have to ask, “What three things would I do differently next semester?” It can’t be 500 things. Then the question is, “What evidence will I accept that these changes have actually occurred?” They have to get down to a level that they can grapple with. Principals make 1,200 decisions a day. They aren’t going to get more time in the day. They need to ask their staff which three things will work and are powerful. And then do those things and don’t worry if another school chooses three different things to work on. You also have to make sure the things you choose have meaning. You could say, “Greet the kids at the door.” Well, that’s fine, but it has to have meaning. If you said, we want to be able to prove that every student at this school is well known by adults and then you said one of the things your school’s staff can do is greet each student at the door, then it has meaning and purpose.

Finally, you share that a school leader’s consistent, unwavering commitment to providing a positive and uplifting learning environment to all students is absolutely paramount. How?

So true. Optimism breeds hope. Hope breeds efficacy. And from all this, schools become places veiled not in gloom but rather the joy of community, engaged work, and accomplishment.


Leading School Improvement is inspiring and thought provoking. It made me look at leadership, student success, and what we do/don’t do as leaders, through a lens I had not used before.
Ann Caine, 2014 Oklahoma Superintendent Of The Year
Leading School Improvement will be useful to administrators, as well as individuals in administrative preparation programs, because it identifies models of leadership that they can apply directly to their work.
Jared C. Wastler, 2014 Maryland Assistant Principal of the Year
Leading School Improvement shares excellent leadership concepts and explains their significance in a concise manner. It is a quick but effective read for busy school leaders.
Darren T. Guido, 2012 Delaware Middle School Principal of the Year

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