I’ve been lucky in recent months to have time to reflect on school leadership at some remove from its practice. While on sabbatical, which includes an MA in Leadership (Innovation and Change) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my own leadership, and leadership in general, helped by time away from daily interactions with colleagues and informed by an extension of my readings in the area.
All of our discussions have been grounded in the moral purpose of leadership: as John West-Burnham explains, this moral leadership asks us to consider what the ‘right things’ are to pursue. His ‘3E’ model – Equity, Excellence, Effectiveness – no doubt deliberately places ‘Equity’ in prime position. It is not uncommon to find leadership in schools pursuing ‘excellence’ for some, or ‘effectiveness’ under tight budget constraints, where the issue of ‘equity’ remains tacitly ignored. His practical examples include the pursuit of excellent results for some pupils through streaming, which has been shown to disadvantage pupils in lower groups, or timetabling the most effective teachers with the high achievers instead of the most vulnerable. We’re exhorted to remember that every decision has a consequence – who wins, who loses? – even within a school, let alone when schools are in competition with each other, an issue explored by Hargeaves and Fink (2006) in a paper about the ‘ripple effect’ of making decisions in one school that affect others.
My own thinking about leadership turns next to questions about the personal dispositions of effective leaders. Advertisements for leadership roles usually carry a ‘person description’ as well as a ‘role description’, although sometimes these are more about skills than dispositions. What kind of a person makes an effective leader is the kind of context/ situationally-bound question that plagues those seeking to offer ‘top x number of the most effective leadership traits’ like this one and this one and this one, where admirable qualities divorced from their context can offer little in the way of meaningful analysis. But that difficulty in identifying the traits of the ubiquitously successful leader doesn’t excuse us from the task of considering, firstly, what makes an effective leader in our own context and, secondly, how that kind of leadership might be developed – if it’s possible to develop it. For this post I’ll be addressing the first of these.
Much is written about different leadership styles in schools, with the ‘heroic leader’ taking a particular battering these days, in contrast to the hunger for them not so many years ago, when they were thought to be the solution to everything wrong in education. In its place are various others labels for leadership performance, the gist of which is that the focus has turned from the leader to the led – that is, not so much about what the leader does for others to follow, but what s/he does to enable others to lead. Such a leader puts ‘others’ at the centre of the project of leadership, rather than ‘self’. It focuses on nurturing, supporting, coaching and affirming, while holding accountable, those ‘others’ who have roles to play in leading, collaboratively, increasingly more complex organisations. The list of traits that one might expect from this kind of leader include being humble, being able to let others lead while maintaining organisational accountability, encouraging responsible risk and pushing for innovation based on reliable research, being open to criticism and being willing to admit – and learn from – mistakes. There are other traits, or other names for these same traits, that you may wish to add, but the central tenet remains. It seems to me that these traits stand up in most modern educational contexts.
Adopting such an approach, some argue, can’t be faked. It requires a leader who knows herself/himself, starting with an ethical core; who takes the time to know others and the context in which they operate together; and who promotes strong, resilient connections within a community. The authentic leader is not a new paradigm by any means, but continues to enjoy currency, perhaps because it doesn’t prescribe a particular way of ‘doing’ leadership, rather of ‘being’ a person others trust to lead an organisation. Importantly, to me, authentic leadership doesn’t preclude the need for robust organisational accountability as central to the project of leadership, rather puts it within the frame of ethical, collaborative leadership practice. It is having a keen sense of the role accountability plays in effective leadership that completes the picture, for me, of school leadership.
We are in a time when trust in traditional positions of authority – police, politicians, doctors, and teachers – is low, often because of genuine cases where those positions have, through act or omission, compromised the wellbeing and/or achievement of those they are meant to protect and, in the case of pupils, nurture. The lack of accountability in those cases has undermined trust, so it seems logical to ensure that accountability is an essential focus of contemporary school leadership. While there are questions to be addressed, again in context, about to whom those in education are accountable, and the criteria against which they need to be held to account for their work, as well as the consequences for less than perfect performance against accountability measures, no-one seriously believes these days that accountability beyond simply ‘producing the results’ is a complex matter for educational leaders to be able to address.