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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Leadership: what's wrong?

Bruce Wilson
Chief Executive Officer, Curriculum Corporation

Within the school education community, we have a pretty well-established ideology about leadership. As with all true ideologies, we are largely unaware that what we think is ideological: we think it is just the truth, the way things are. In fact, it contains three ideas that are essentially wrong. To set them out in an extremely simplified way:
1. Power should be shared
2. Everyone is a leader
3. We should talk about 'leadership' rather than 'management'.
Let me examine each of these concepts in turn.

'Power should be shared'

Our contemporary ideology urges the dispersion of leadership. This is a monumental mistake.

Our rhetoric is right about the need to work for consensus, to open up inclusive processes, to delegate and to adopt collegial behaviour. Smart leaders have already moved in this direction. What is wrong is assuming these are the core elements of leadership. They are just means to the end of improving student learning, teacher quality and school management. It seems that democratic and consensual processes work best. But if these mechanisms didn't work to achieve our purposes, we should not adopt them.

And they should not in any important sense be a sharing of power, because they are not a sharing of accountability. Delegation should not reduce the power of the person delegating. It should enhance it, because the person to whom responsibility is delegated feels much more engaged with the task than she would if the leader issued an instruction.

But when a really tough decision has to be made (sacking someone, ending a program, changing conditions of employment), that decision will be made by the organisational leader.

What is really occurring here is greater subtlety and sophistication in the use of power, and in its extension across the organisation.

'Everyone is a leader'

Leadership is taken to be something that everyone does, and in definition is close to doing your job well, whatever it is.

But is everyone a leader? One way of working out the answer is by finding out who goes down with the ship. How does accountability work when there is a hole in the budget, or the school's performance is drastically below expectations? Do all members of staff wave bravely from the bridge as they disappear beneath the waves? I don't think so.

Most of what we mean when we say that everyone is a leader is that many people have roles in program administration, reporting to someone else. They have some autonomy, and they are expected to exercise some initiative. But there is a substantial difference between organisational leadership and program administration. Leaders stand on the precipice, and are at risk of falling over at any time. Program administrators lounge in comfortable chairs, figuratively speaking, well away from the precipice, and surrounded by lots of other folk who might protect them in an emergency.

Most organisations have a single leader. That leader is out there. She is exposed politically. She is personally responsible for everything, including lots of things she can't control directly, and might not even know about. She is personally accountable, in the end, for every failure and every problem and for the performance of every individual. She must make sure that every failure and problem is addressed.

In schools, this person is the principal.

We should use the word leader to refer to that person who exercises leadership responsibilities and accepts accountability for everything in an organisation.

'We should talk about leadership, not management'

In discussing leadership we talk of values, influence, vision, communication and democratic decision-making. When we talk of management, on the other hand, you will hear words like administration, efficiency, procedures, routines, and even 'managerialism', which illustrates the fact that management is such an evil concept that we had to invent a word to castigate it adequately. Leadership is about setting collaborative and democratic values-based goals, and all striving together to achieve them. Management is about yard duty, the bus timetable, lockers and the collection of the rubbish bins.

In reality, outside the secret garden of the school education sector, management is about goals, values, inspiration, engagement, influence and vision, as well as resources, personnel, structures, procedures and accountability. Out in the world, leadership is a crucial component of management. You can't be a good manager without being a good leader. But the way we talk about leadership it sounds perfectly possible to be a good leader without having much idea of what we mean by management.

What school leaders really need to be good at is all of management, not just the leadership elements.

What can be done?

We should stop talking about leadership as if it were primarily the carriage of a set of bureaucratic functions, and recognise that it is primarily the exercise of a set of personal ethical responsibilities. We should avoid the rhetoric about collective responsibility and talk instead about how hard, and how important, it is for the individual leader to stand repeatedly and consistently for what is right in the midst of a storm of disagreement.

Two kinds of differences, I think, are fundamental. The first set of things is cultural.

Be honest about power

1. We need to be honest about the fact that we expect principals to exercise power in the interests of the students. If our rhetoric is restricted to the language of delegation, consensus, power-sharing, collegial behaviour and democracy, a lot of principals will get the message: we don't want them to exercise power and authority. I challenge you to read system documents about school based management and find any reference which implies that the principal is in a position of power and authority.

Moral character of leadership

2. The main requirement for any leader is a recognition of the moral character of leadership. We need to select principals mainly because they have a strong grasp on a set of values, because they are principled and ethical people.

Strong and committed individuals

3. We need to select principals who are strong and committed individuals, who can stand up in situations which require courage, who are prepared to risk unpopularity, who can act with decision in difficult and distressing circumstances.

The second set of things is operational. It is to do with how leaders and others should behave to improve the quality of the leadership of our schools.

Management skills

4. We need to select people with highly developed management skills, or to develop those skills formally. By 'management', I don't mean the desiccated and scornful concept we mostly use in education, but the rich, powerful meaning most of the world uses. This takes in goals, values, vision, a sense of direction and purpose, as well as the capacity to marshall resources, manage the performance of people with sensitivity and skill, work with students and parents and others, develop and implement plans, set up structures and design procedures.

Engage everyone

5. Leaders should use their power, once they have secured it, to engage every member of the school community in the key task. They should delegate, communicate, spread responsibility around the school, establish democratic forums, consult widely, offer opportunities for every member of the school community to have their say. But my critical point about this is that leaders do this in order to ensure that the goals are achieved, that people are focused on the right task, that the leader's vision and direction become the vision and direction of all those involved. They don't do it in order to find out which direction to head in.

Develop potential leaders

6. We need to accept that not everyone is a leader, because being a leader is immensely difficult and demanding. There will, however, be a small number of individuals in most schools with potential to become leaders. These people should be selected, guided by the principal, and offered the kind of training and experience that will equip them to become leaders when they are ready. That means, essentially, a structured program of feedback, training and experience in management.

Performance management

7. Finally, and probably most importantly, leaders need to use their power to engage in effective and continuous performance management. The fundamental failing arising from the powerlessness of school leaders is the effective absence of performance management in schools. By performance management I mean coaching for potential leaders, identifying and fostering talent, setting of goals and providing data and feedback to staff, ensuring that program administrators are equipped to manage the performance of those reporting to them, and structuring professional development to meet identified weaknesses or organisational needs. I also mean offering support, rewards and incentives to staff, and disciplining and dismissing under-performing members of staff. These things are weakly represented in Australian schools. They cannot be implemented without support from every level of the system, including structural changes to give principals the power to do the things I have been talking about, with confidence that their decisions will usually be supported by their own leaders.

I think we have a crisis of leadership in schools in Australia. There are extraordinary individual leaders, but many principals feel powerless. Our rhetoric reinforces that feeling, and organisational and institutional arrangements conspire to weaken and undermine principals.

I want to rebuild the idea of a strong, courageous, talented individual who takes on responsibility for a school and a school community, who acts ethically and responsibly, who exercises the kind of power that is appropriate to the position. I want to see principals use their power to ensure that the school focuses clearly and explicitly on the only goal of schooling: the improvement of student learning.

This article is an abridged and edited version of a keynote presentation given at Curriculum Corporation's 11th Annual Conference. Subsequent editons of Curriculum Leadership will cover other presentations from the Conference.


Subject Headings

Education aims and objectives
Educational evaluation
School culture