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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Re-examining Management by Walking Around

Neil MacNeill
Ray Boyd

This article has been contributed by Ray Boyd, principal of West Beechboro Primary School, Western Australia and Neil MacNeill, principal of Ellenbrook Primary School, Western Australia. 

Francis Bacon wrote: Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est, which translates as 'knowledge is power'. Knowledge is the stuff of education, and power and knowledge are the tools of a principal’s role. How the principal chooses to use the skills, knowledge and power of his/her position is the essence of leadership, and separates great leaders from the plodders. An important strategy used by great leaders is Management by Walking Around.

Management by Walking Around (MBWA)

Management by Walking Around has been applied in school contexts for many years. It first came to public notice when Peters and Waterman published In Search of Excellence in 1982. The strength of MBWA lies in informal communications and '... getting management out of the office'.

The modern principal's job is a mix of leadership and management, in varying proportions for different activities. In revisiting MBWA for the modern school situation, the concept would thus be more appropriately re-badged as L&MBWA (Leadership and Management by Walking Around). ‘Walking Around’ implies a greater sense of purpose than the ‘Wandering Around’ used by some writers and presenters.

The two facets of a principal’s role can be understood in terms of the Baconian aphorism: knowledge is the driver of leadership, and power underwrites management. L&MBWA therefore moves away from the primarily supervisory philosophy promoted in MBWA’s early form to encompass both power and knowledge. MBWA affords organisational leaders a rare opportunity to learn about their organisation or school through informal interactions. These interactions work reciprocally, with principals learning from teachers and teachers learning from principals in a range of situations.

A major threat to L&MBWA is what Peter Gronn (2003, p. 64) has termed the ‘physically and emotionally draining’ and ‘cognitively highly demanding’ intensification of work that developed following the introduction of New Public Management in the 1990s. Even as workloads intensify, principals still make daily decisions about how to balance competing demands for their time.

L&MBWA in Schools

The schools selected for this paper were chosen after pedagogic tours for leaders were conducted in the district in 2002. During these tours the leadership model that was espoused and demonstrated, from initial observations, typified the principles of L&MBWA. Through informal observations over time and incidental conversations with staff within the schools selected as well as with the principals themselves, it was acutely apparent that L&MBWA played a role in the leadership styles practised. Each of the principals in the three examples below found ways of overcoming the pressure to remove informal interactions from their repertoire of activities.

Externally, all three schools in this study appeared very similar to surrounding schools, but with one key difference – if you wanted to find the principals that lead them, the office would not be your first port of call. All three principals were acutely aware of the intensification of work with regards to accountability in the current educational climate, and the paperwork this generates. However, each had made a leadership decision that supporting pedagogic development was the most important aspect of their role, not administrivia. To accomplish this, they needed to be in classrooms and the school grounds.

In the first, a large high school, the principal was focused on renewing and redefining the school’s culture. He had distributed leadership within the school to people whose expertise he could trust, and who shared a clear commitment to the school’s direction. This meant that the principal was freed from the day-to-day grind of school management and could focus his attention on school leadership. The principal saw L&MBWA as an essential component of the collaborative, reflective approach that would underpin the success of the school renewal process.

The principal moved through the grounds and classes, speaking to teachers in their classrooms and greeting students, many by name. Through discussions with students, he gained a better understanding of the effects that the learning programs were having on them. At the same time, discussions with teachers about their pedagogy gave him a better sense of the teachers’ understanding of new pedagogic practices aimed at developing a sense of empowerment in both teachers and students.

In the second school, a large primary school, the principal used L&MBWA in a similar way. It enabled him to greet students in classrooms and meet parents as he moved throughout the school, and to engage the staff in conversations relating to pedagogic changes being implemented in the school. As it was one of Western Australia’s merit select schools, there was a high number of innovative staff in the learning community. Through informal conversations with staff, he was able to reinforce existing positive philosophies at the same time as promoting the innovation and rich, diverse pedagogies that kept the school moving forward in curriculum delivery.

The principal's entry into classrooms had been resisted by staff in the first year of his appointment to the school. At that time, the L&MBWA process centred around entering classes to speak with the students. The situation improved over time as the principal won recognition as a teacher and principal who was looking for better ways to teach students. With a changing school climate, the principal developed a strong emphasis on distributed leadership. Through L&MBWA, he actively encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles within the school and also effectively managed his deputies to cover many day-to-day school operations.

The third example is a smaller primary school. Its principal was implementing a process of renewal involving a shift from a ‘top down’ to a ‘bottom up’ approach. He developed a distributed leadership model to move the school forward and build sustainability into the changes by embedding new practices into teachers’ and students’ consciousness. This could not be done from behind a desk and required a high degree of mobility and communication on the principal’s part. By having a presence in the schoolyard before and after school, he was also able to educate parents about the need to reculture the school and the benefits pedagogical change would deliver in increased student engagement and improved behaviour.

A second focus was to support the teachers in implementing collaborative strategies encountered through their professional learning. The principal believed that teachers should be able to discuss and ask questions as they trialled these new pedagogic approaches. Through L&MBWA, he was able to establish ‘lighthouse’ classrooms, identifying teachers who had successfully implemented the desired pedagogical approaches and directing other teachers to their colleagues as the need arose. As with the other two schools, L&MBWA became the critical leadership tool in moving the school towards the attainment of its core values: ongoing development of a distributed leadership model as well as establishment of relational pedagogies.


Being a principal is primarily a thinking, walking and talking job. It is about having credibility and a presence in classrooms and the school community. The temporal pressures of New Public Management can be resisted when principals ask what is important about their jobs, and act on what the learning community want and need. By inserting a leadership component into MBWA, Peters and Waterman’s concept is enlivened and given significant relevance in re-asserting the role for principals as leaders in the school learning community.


Gronn, P 2003, The New Work of Educational Leaders: Changing Leadership Practice in an Era of Reform, Paul Chapman, London.
Peters, TJ & Waterman, RH 1988, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, Harper & Row, Sydney.
Silcox, S & MacNeill, N 2005, Pedagogic Leadership: The key to whole-school renewal, Authors, Perth.


Subject Headings

School principals
School leadership
School administration