The language of leadership: principal rhetoric in everyday practice

Rebecca J. Lowenhaupt (Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Publication date: 1 July 2014



The purpose of this paper is to call for a rhetorical turn in the study of school leadership and discusses how principals use language to enact school improvement. The key purpose is to explore how talk is action in leading and managing school reform.


This paper presents a rhetorical framework and methodology for interpreting principal practice through language. As a model, the language use of one urban school principal is examined through a rhetorical analysis of 650 instances of principal talk in 14 administrative meetings. The paper reports on the form and content of principal rhetoric, including analysis of logos, pathos, and ethos, and comparative analysis across meeting contexts.


The paper demonstrates the importance of rhetorical form and content and highlights the role of audience in principal talk. In the present example, each of three rhetorical forms was used to transform school practice. Logos was used most frequently; emotional and ethical arguments were also integral to principal talk. Comparative analysis showed that the principal's rhetoric varied by audience. The principal's use of language did not just explain practice, but also defined and shaped ongoing practices.

Research limitations/implications

The author proposes future cross-case research to develop an understanding of how leadership language varies across individuals and contexts, as well as interaction analyses of the co-performance of discourse and rhetoric in schools.

Practical implications

The author argues that principal preparation would benefit from the incorporation of the linguistic concepts and forms of rhetoric, particularly in the context of school improvement.


While many have turned to principal practice as an area of research, few have focussed on the underlying linguistic structures. This paper emphasizes the importance of language in principal practice and offers a specific methodology with which to study it.



Rebecca J. Lowenhaupt (2014) "The language of leadership: principal rhetoric in everyday practice", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 52 No. 4, pp. 446-468

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