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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Leadership from a system perspective

Martyn Forrest

In the international literature on leadership and management, the highest of the high priests is undoubtedly Peter F. Drucker. Drucker stands, for me, as a metaphor for the MBA culture which, led by the major consulting firms, has come to dominate considerations of management and leadership in organisations, public and private, over the last twenty years or so.

While Drucker notes the diversity amongst leaders, he cannot resist characterising leadership in terms of common rules or practices, e.g. the development of action plans, taking responsibility for decisions, or asking 'what needs to be done'.

I have huge concerns about the influence of a lot of this kind of writing. Leadership in my view, certainly at a system level, is not something you do to a particular organisation; it is an intrinsic and inseparable part of it. It grows from and is grounded in the nature of the business, especially its values and purposes, and its strength derives as much as anything from how you understand and take advantage of its particular context and culture.

Leadership is living the values and purposes every day and using them to guide the judgements you make in the face of the organisation's context and culture. Making these judgements requires an education in the broadest sense, not the slavish application of the text from a book.

Leadership is not a set of objective rules that can simply be replicated irrespective of the particular circumstances: it is a purposeful activity ('leadership for what') whose purpose should influence both what you do and how you do it.

There is a great danger of trying to find the essence of leadership in the instrumental activity of making the big and unpopular decisions that a small number of people must apparently do, by definition, to a much larger number of other people - for their benefit of course!

Leadership may be much less sensational, dealing with a difficult incident in a classroom or leading the implementation of an anti-bullying program. Who is to say, without the benefit of hindsight, which was the more important decision for the student or students involved?

I want leaders in classrooms leading the learning of their students; I want leaders in the school office leading the implementation of improved administration systems; I want leaders in the school grounds leading improvements in safety and amenity.

Furthermore, I want them to lead purposefully - making judgements - with a purpose and by authority, in other words with the support of their colleagues in the system.

There are three critical 'spaces' where the system leader must play.

The first concerns the goals, values and purposes to which leadership should be directed and towards which it should be exercised. The second and third spaces consist of the context and culture which define public education systems. Are practices such as those prescribed by authors like Drucker shaped by the context, culture and complexities of particular organisations and systems, their unique identities and psyches? I don't think so! For me, a core quality of any system leader in public education is their ability to identify, understand and use the strengths and qualities inherent in their environment.


We are in a particular business. We do not sell airplane tickets or produce motor cars; we do not give dividends. Context inhibits and restricts (a point all too often emphasised), but at the same time (a point all too infrequently stressed) it can be a significant source of strength and opportunity.

Context starts and ends with the three words by which we are often described: a public education system.

Being 'public' means essentially that we are operating in a political context.

  • In consequence our greatest strength is that we have to be inclusive: any child, anywhere. This presents considerable challenges, as every teacher knows, but it is the source of an inestimable moral and political strength.
  • We are taxpayer funded and consequently in competition with the rest of the government for limited funds. We have to justify our share of the total cake. This is an important discipline. It also means that we are part of government. Frustrating as this can be at times, it nevertheless offers significant potential for work with people with skills beyond our own, it also helps define our obligations and offers us the opportunity (if we have the wit to achieve it) to be at the centre of policy to meet the economic and social goals of our society.

  • Our funding source is not fees and government grants, but a parliamentary appropriation. This means we are much more accountable and become the subject of controversies that other organisations do not. But if well-worked, we have an immediate connection with our communities through our Parliamentarians and consequently a significant source of potential support.

    In terms of 'education' it means that:

  • We are in the business of social policy: education is social policy. We have to confront complex issues and contribute to the development of society. We are the place where some of society's disputes are worked out. Again my view is, let's use it to our advantage. We are in a business which has great significance for individual and community success and well-being. Have this recognised and take advantage of it. Let's lead the debate.

  • It means that we are in what you might call a highly contestable area, both within and without. We deal with huge public interest and substantial controversies, especially amongst our employees, over issues such as standards and teaching methods. But again you can use this to your advantage.

    As a system:

  • We are allowed to take advantage of groupings with other schools and gives schools access to share resources.

  • It also means that there will undoubtedly be tensions, for causes real and imagined, within the system whether it is about resourcing, priorities or policies or about the freedom or autonomy of professionals or issues of mandating. But these very tensions, if well managed, can become a source of considerable strength. We are very much more than the sum of our parts.

    If, as system leaders, we understand our public context, we can work with and contribute to government policies in ways that strengthen the education system and its capacity to achieve our purposes. Too much work from academic and other commentators simply ignores the realities of our context and devises systems or arrangements for improvement that will never be feasible in our particular context.

    My analogy is that it is a bit like yacht racing or judo: get hit directly by the wind or your opponent and you are done for. Get the angles right and you can use their strength and weight to achieve things you otherwise just could not have done.


    Like context, culture can undoubtedly inhibit, but it also offers very substantial opportunities for any leader to harness.

    One way of looking at culture is in terms of the key stakeholders - which in school education include system staff, students, parents and the wider community - and the characteristics of each group. Education system staff have qualities such as: relative homogeneity, a general distrust of governments and, as professionals, jealousy of their independence of thought and action and wariness of imposed solutions; while students treat ICT as just another part of life, expect continuous change, and are highly exposed to world strife through the media.

    A system leader constantly has to make analyses of culture like these and act upon them.

    As with context, the purpose is to establish the environment in which all those leaders in classrooms, offices or grounds can confidently thrive, and to determine the means from within the culture itself by which significant systemic improvements can be made.

    A shared set of values and purposes for your organisation will help you weather some of the political and other storms that you will undoubtedly encounter.

    The culture itself also provides the means to transform the business you are in. For example: while the implementation of new technology can produce friction between teachers and system authorities, the professionalism of teachers drives them to confront the challenge of the technology, if system authorities choose the right means to approach the issue.


    The practices of system and single organisation leadership are for me quite different.

    In devolved systems it is important that there are leaders everywhere, leading for an agreed systemic purpose. And unlike Bruce Wilson, in his earlier presentation to this conference, I am neither amazed by anyone wanting to share leadership nor accepting of his implied view that it is in finite supply and subject, presumably, to the zero-sum laws beloved of the economists whereby my accretion of greater 'leadership' automatically diminishes yours.

    I think this seriously misconceives the culture and context of public education systems and what is needed to make them thrive; it entirely confuses power with authority (and they are very different phenomena); and places a personal and a quite unhealthy focus on the behaviour of key individuals.

    If leadership is derived from, and makes use of the strengths in our particular context and culture and is exercised with confidence by the many, within an agreed framework of shared values and purposes that have been established by powerful exchanges and arguments then I believe we will be much better placed to lift the outcomes of our students.

  • KLA

    Subject Headings

    Officials and employees
    School and community
    School culture
    State schools
    Teaching profession