Leading Design

What’s the role of leadership in an instructional design setting? And how does it change from project-to-project?

While the skillsets of instructional designer are often varied—encompassing everything from storyboarding to project management—one little discussed aspect of instructional design (ID) might be leadership.

To get a better idea of what leadership looks like in an ID setting, I recently talked with Kristina McElroy, Senior Learning Technologies Designer for Lesley University’s Department of eLearning and Instructional Support.

Kristina discussed how leadership—much like the role of instructional designer itself—hugely varies from project to project.

Leadership in an ID context

Many “top-down,” hierarchical leadership philosophies just do not apply in an ID setting, where tasks are disperse and organizational structures flat.

A better framework ought to be more diffuse. In his 2002 book, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, noted leadership guru, Richard Hackman, talks of leadership as a shared activity.

“Leadership can be—and, at its best, often is—a shared activity. Anyone and everyone who clarifies a team’s direction, improves its strategy, secures organizational support for it, or provides coaching that improves its performance is providing leadership.”

Given the varied tasks of designers, Hackman’s idea succinctly captures the role of leadership in this field, where different projects dictate not who the leader is, but the direction in which leadership flows.

Leading from the center

At Lesley University, Kristina often takes the lead on projects that entail a great deal of departmental overlap.

For instance, Kristina is currently leading a team of people working to integrate an updated version of VoiceThread, a popular media-based collaboration tool, with Lesley University’s learning management system (LMS), Blackboard. In this capacity, Kristina works with faculty to gauge their familiarity with the technology and ameliorate their concerns. She gleans technical implementation details from the IT department staff. And she uses all of these and other experiences to coordinate the work of her staff, which is writing technical support documentation and providing trainings, workshops, and one-to-one consultations for Lesley faculty. Kristina’s staff is also publicizing VoiceThread’s new features to those faculty whom may not be aware of its expanded functionality.

Leading to the center

While leadership in an instructional design context often emanates from the center, leadership can flow the opposite way, too.

Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) is currently restructuring its ePortfolio tool, which measures students’ learning and progress against a set of well-defined competencies.

Kristina explains that one of the major challenges of the new system has been the standardization of professors’ evaluations of student work. As a result, the way in which Kristina provided leadership on this project changed.

“What determined leadership was the fact that the project hinged upon inter-grader reliability,” Kristina says. To fill such a leadership role, the GSE hired a professional whose expertise was rooted in formative assessment.

With assessment concerns at the center of this particular project, Kristina provided supplementary consulting support to the project coordinators tasked with restructuring the ePortfolio templates. When asked by these coordinators, Kristina provided guidance for integrating the ePortfolio templates with Lesley’s LMS. She and her colleagues also configured the new ePortfolio tool on a test server so faculty could experiment with it. They helped integrate the tool with the university’s grade book. And they provided technical support to students and faculty who needed assistance with navigation and usability.


As Kristina’s work illustrates, leadership in an ID context can be just as varied as the underlying technologies and systems on which instructional designers rely. And though their tasks may be varied, instructional design leaders need not be experts of it all: they need only to know how and when to lead.