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What is leadership?

Professor Karen Starr argues that education leadership goes well beyond the capability of an individual to run a school.

It is now commonly accepted that education leadership is so complex and broad in scope that that it goes well beyond the capacity of any individual leader to run a school successfully. As a result, notions of ‘distributed’ leadership are commonly referred to in education. Distributed leadership rejects notions of the heroic, charismatic, all-knowing individual leader – the ‘White Knight in Shining Armour’ - because it does not reflect how schools operate in reality. ‘Traditional’ hierarchical conceptions of leadership perpetuate the status quo, typically involving:

Centralised, top-down decision making and control structures

  • ‘individualised’ responsibilities

  • externally assessed performance management

  • standardised policy prescriptions and practices.

Distributed leadership acknowledges that individual leaders cannot possess the skills, knowledge, dispositions or time required to achieve optimal school performance. Teams are the safest bet, making the notion of ‘followers’ redundant. Leadership is best exercised everywhere, by everyone, with professionals undertaking diverse roles and co-operating in different ways to achieve educational goals. Distributed leadership depends on a shared vision and cooperative culture, using everyone’s talents and interests for the common good, including:

  • democratic decision-making

  • team work distributed according to skills and interests

  • shared responsibilities, accountabilities and acknowledgement.

Goals are more likely to be achieved when stakeholders have involvement in their development - participants feel more committed, motivated, and a sense of belonging. Greater involvement influences employee effectiveness, retention, morale and attracts recruits. Distributed leadership reinforces transparency and trust, and uses available talents for the benefit of the school. Professional learning and leadership is learnt on the job – in practice and in context. Formal leaders still hold ultimate authority, are spokespeople and on occasions must make tough decisions (like dealing with confidential matters) – but these are the exception, not the norm.

However, when I asked Australian education leaders to define ‘leadership’, I was surprised by the responses, some of which were:

“having a vision, modelling behaviours to achieve that vision, having others willingly follow”

  • “convincing followers”

  • “the ability to influence and inspire colleagues to achieve goals”

  • “the capacity to take others on a journey of change and improvement”

  • “inspiring people to change and follow you”

  • “guiding and influencing the conversation.”

These responses suggest that leadership is about inspiring, motivating, influencing, facilitating, and gaining and supporting ‘followers’. The definitions are imbued with notions of the visionary, persuasive individual who possesses infinite wisdom and encourages others to realise their vision. Similar conceptions dominate popular leadership literature and leadership rhetoric amongst politicians and the Fourth Estate.

I found job descriptions for education leaders to be the same. A ‘leader’ must:

  • possess a compelling character and high communication skills to inspire the school community to the highest standards of excellence

  • proactively identify and rectify problems

  • build and maintain staff of the highest standard to work towards a vision

  • develop and implement short, medium and long-term strategies

  • ensure the effective, efficient and timely realisation of goals, targets and accountabilities.

Further, job descriptions suggested that education leaders must:

  • promote the school locally, nationally and internationally

  • participate in educational debates across the nation

  • play an active role in the wider educational community.

Surprisingly, only one job description required:

  • a genuine interest in, and understanding of, young people and their education.

What schools are looking for is a super-capable, multi-skilled, inspirational role model who has all the answers and influence within and beyond the school - a very tall order. The leader must be an arbiter, a capacity-builder, compliant, accountable, and develop and implement strategic plans and policies. The leader is the legal authority, chief incumbent - a courageous, intrepid, trail-blazing frontrunner who secures dedication from others to achieve his/her vision. What they describe is not distributed leadership.

Further, distributed leadership isn’t evidenced at systemic levels where power is concentrated centrally. School leaders dare not challenge or contravene centrally-imposed policy or major decisions, they cannot appraise the performance of systemic leaders, and often cannot comment publicly on education matters. In reality, a centre-periphery power model operates that is hierarchical, one-way, with huge decision-making authority and power differentials between systemic leaders and school-based ‘followers’. The same occurs with politicians who impose their policy wishes on the education profession, creating enormous policy changes as new governments assume office.

What is clear is that in education, contradictory leadership conceptions are circulating concurrently. Traditional leadership perceptions perpetuate - embedded in formal texts and policies. While the heroic leadership paradigm is flawed, it is entrenched. And this is occurring despite distributed leadership being generally accepted in education research.

Pervasive traditional leadership conceptions perpetuate the myth that the solution to complex problems and school improvement rests with finding the right leader. Such conceptions are unrealistic in their expectations and the reality they encompass. Traditional hierarchies bottleneck too many problems through to one individual, impeding success. People are deterred from becoming ‘leaders’ because the role is too demanding, extremely time-consuming and stressful. Existing incumbents are discouraged from further leadership assignments.

Leadership is about power: who has it, how it is used, for what purposes and in whose interests. Traditional leadership conceptions place all bets on an individual who has ultimate authority. Distributed leadership endorses collective wisdom and respects diversity in skills, perspectives, experiences, and decision-making. It counters risk and heightens reliability, like a court jury or board of directors.

Leadership is also about relationships and actions - not individuals or formal positions. It is a verb, not a noun. Distributed leadership supports notions of democracy, ethics and equity and is more appropriate for education and its changing circumstances. It is the form of leadership that supports and recognises school business leaders, and should, therefore, be encouraged and adopted by professional associations such as the Institute of Education Business Leaders.

The way we define, talk and think about leadership is important. It influences leadership enactment and expectations of leaders. However, while contradictions in policy and practice remain, distributed forms of leadership cannot be fully realized.

Professor Karen Starr, PhD, is Chair, School Development and Leadership, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University.

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