THE AUTHENTIC LEADER

29 January 2016

 

THE AUTHENTIC LEADER - A REVIEW OF VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS ON LEADERSHIP

 

The following review is based on seven articles on the theme of leadership.  These are referenced in the bibliography.

 

Text 1 deals with the problem of educational leadership and the necessity to build a collective ethos of responsibility for school leadership.  It opposes traditional assumptions of the primacy of the principal and instead attempts to investigate and challenge this model through proposing alternatives (p.3). The text deals convincingly with the increased complexity of school leadership in contemporary educational settings and argues the point that “the lone-ranger view of the principal’s role is no longer, it if were ever, desirable, practical or effective” (p.4). 

 

I agree with the main finding that the principal’s role is often not seen as attractive and that potentially excellent leaders are put off by the fact that a variety of managerial challenges detract school leaders from their main purpose of improving teaching and learning (p.4-5).  Judging from my own school context and from my personal role as Deputy Principal I can recognise some of the key obstacles identified on p.6, in particular the infringement of work responsibilities on personal life, the ever-increasing workload, the amount of paperwork and administrative tasks and, as a result, the lack of time for instructional leadership and professional development (p. 6).  

 

I whole-heartedly embrace the notion that school leadership needs to be underpinned and driven by a moral purpose, as identified on p. 7 and throughout, and that school leaders can shape a “visionary, collective intent and action” (p. 7).  Not only at my current school, but also at previous workplaces have I noticed the influence a school leader has on the morale of their staff and the creation of learning environments.  I also agree with the statement that principals can even enhance this through developing “intentional collective strategies” although the success of any such attempts will not depend solely on the leader, but also on the quality, openness and flexibility of their team to embrace such collective strategies.

 

Another point I fully agree with is the emphasis on the individual teacher and their contribution to a student’s success.  The three key points, quoted from another source on p. 10, are indeed a good summary of what makes a teacher memorable to their students:  fair and consistently high expectations of all students, good personal relationships and appropriate teaching methods (p. 10). In my current school I have, even in my first year, already seen some excellent practice with regard to teachers leading teachers within a whole school framework and trying to “overcome their often isolationist habits and practices” (p. 13).  Whilst I agree, in principle, with the idea of “distributed leadership” (p. 18 and throughout), I would still maintain that it takes some strong individuals at the top to engineer this distribution and that an overly democratic approach or a premature delegation of responsibility may lead to a lack of accountability on the part of the school leaders.

 

Text 2, by the same author, elaborates on the theme of authentic leadership and focuses on major challenges such as leading complex organisations, leading a paradigm shift in education and leading change (p. 1).  Two of the characteristics of an authentic school (listed on p.2-3) have resonated particularly strongly with me:  the necessity to have a “close match between rhetoric and reality” and the need for leaders who are authentic both personally and professionally.  It can be damaging if a school leader preaches something they don’t believe in themselves, or if there is a mismatch between buzzwords the school uses and their (cynical) perception by key stakeholders within the school community. 

 

I equally agree with the definition of leadership as an “influence relationship” (p. 7) and the need for a leader to allow for change “through participative feedback and reflection” (p.6.).  “Cultivating authentic relationships” (p. 8) is, in my view, an essential ingredient of good leadership, as it generates trust and brings out the best in people.  Although the temptation is often great to stay in the office and deal with the backlog of emails during the lunch break, it does pay to go out into the staffroom to talk to other staff and enquire about their health, discuss the latest news items or simply talk about holiday plans.  It builds trusting relationships and also helps us to discover “our inner self and engage authentically with others” (p. 13).  The need to find ourselves and define who we are and what we stand for is even more essential for school leaders than business leaders, as our work is having such a direct impact on the lives of others:  primarily our students, but indirectly also their families and communities.  I do agree with the description of our work as “transformational” rather than “transactional”, as quoted on p. 27 from Shapiro.

 

Text 3 has, for me personally, not added substantially to the key ideas expressed in texts 1 and 2, but is a useful exploration of the historical and philosophical background to some of these ideas, highlighting that we are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants.   (Contrary to Duignan’s assertion p. 154, this concept has not been invented by Isaac Newton to whom it is often attributed, but has already been developed and expressed in 12th century philosophy).  In addition to the ideas previously expressed on authentic leadership and its moral purpose, Duignan focuses strongly on the spiritual aspects of leadership and on the theories developed on positive psychology.

 

The findings on p. 161 provided interesting reading:  that it is often the “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy” leaders who turn good companies into great companies – an argument in favour of those who feel that the best leaders are the ones who learn to look beyond their own self and egocentric world view.  The text reiterates the view that a good school leader is not a lone ranger, but a team player because an overreliance on a “heroic” principal cannot lead to sustainable reform (p. 163).  I think this is a fair statement and that strong leadership needs to be coupled with succession planning, but I maintain my view that it does usually take a couple of strong individuals at the top to give direction to their team and (no matter how unobtrusively) provide the narrative for the shared moral purpose and common goals.

 

Text 4 explores the spiritual dimension of leadership further, in a fictional dialogue setting that explores ancient Greek and Eastern philosophical concepts.  It thus links some of the modern ideas of positive psychology and spiritual leadership back to the cornerstones of old indigenous cultures.  I think that this angle of looking at the concept is original and have enjoyed reading these thoughts – a refreshing break from educational jargon.  The imagery used on p. 189 to describe the “way in” to meditation and reflection and then the “way out” to normal levels of activity, but with increased awareness, reminded me of Plato’s simile of the cave, the powerful story told in “The Republic” where he describes the philosopher’s journey to the ideal world of true forms and his return to the real world. 

 

The twist begins on p. 191 where it is stated that “the leadership of the future will not be provided simply by individuals but by groups, institutions, communities and networks.”  Although fundamentally this may well be true, I maintain my view that even these groups and networks will always need  influential leaders to direct them – not in a dictatorial way, but as guides who provide the moral compass and the courage of their conviction.  I am not convinced that global networks will render hierarchical leadership “inherently inadequate”, as stated on p. 192.

 

Text 5 has, for my liking, overemphasised the spiritual aspects of leadership. I have, however, taken some important thoughts away from it.  The quote from Peter Block’s The Empowered Manager (cited here from p. 21 of Text 5) resonates with me:  “If we are focused on seeking others’ approval (…), then we run the risk of sacrificing our integrity … for the sake of finding the most popular path.”  The different levels of leadership styles, outlined p. 18-27, made fascinating reading.  I have seen few leaders who have modelled all the bullet points outlined on p. 23-24, and even fewer who have reached Level 5.

 

Text 6 uses a terminology that does not quite satisfy me – the ways of Venus, Mars, Mercury and Earth.  I think it presents a simplified history of education.  The article focuses on the four imperatives of contemporary education:  a stable economy, social justice, sustainable living and the generational renewal of the workforce with an emphasis on producing responsible leaders.  (p. 327-328).  Whilst these are all important goals, for my liking they neglect aspects of education that I find personally indispensable, especially in our world of superficiality, social media and easily available factual knowledge, such as learning for learning’s sake and a truly liberal education. 

 

The article is not as closely linked to the other texts, but repeats the key idea of leadership being “systemic” rather than “individual” (p. 345) and of distributed leadership aiding succession planning.  In a simplified way the author describes the first wave of school reforms as the way of Venus, with an emphasis on freedom and innovation; the second wave as the way of Mars, with an emphasis on achievement for all and standardised testing; the third wave as the way of Mercury with an emphasis on the skills required in the 21st century but somewhat incoherent and superficial, and the fourth wave as the way of Earth that needs to learn from all previous waves but support a more grounded way of education, with an emphasis on peer leadership, teamwork, social justice and sustainability.  All laudable aims but possibly expressed in a way that ignores some of the intellectual and “purpose-free” challenges and pleasures of education.

 

Text 7, the final text, provides a useful overview of six principles of leading change (or leading “adaptive work”, as the article calls it):  “getting on the balcony” (p. 4) to gain an overview, a bird’s perspective, followed by identifying “the adaptive challenge”, regulating distress, maintaining “disciplined attention” (p. 7), giving the work back to people and protecting the voices of leadership from below.  I thought this was a well-phrased article by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie and particularly liked the metaphor of the pressure cooker in the paragraph on regulating distress:  “If the pressure cooker exceeds the cooker’s capacity, the cooker can blow up.  However, nothing cooks without some heat (p 6).” Having worked in a number of schools that underwent significant change in a short space of time, this is an apt description of the challenges of leading change and of getting it right: “Because a leader must strike a delicate balance between having people feel the need to change and having them feel overwhelmed by change, leadership is a razor’s edge.”  Having cut myself more than once on the razor’s edge has made me nod and smile when I read this paragraph!

 

Overall I have found it enlightening to read and digest these articles.  They provided some useful key concepts and multiple perspectives on leadership, some more original than others, and they are certainly able to give food for thought to many readers.

 

 

Bibliography

 

The review is based on the following texts:

 

Text 1:

Duignan, P. (2012): Educational Leadership: Together Creating Ethical Learning Environments (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press.  Ch. 7:  “Building a collective ethic of responsibility for leadership in schools. “

 

Text 2:

As above.  Ch. 8:  “Authentic leaders use the power of presence, authentic relationships and influence fields”.

 

Text 3:

Duignan, P. (2014): “Legacy Paper – Authenticity in Educational Leadership:  History, Ideal, Reality.” Journal of Educational Administration 52 (2014, No 2), p. 152-172

 

Text 4:

Senge, P., Scharmer, C.O. et al. (2004): Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future.  Cambridge, MA, SOL.  Ch. 13: “ Leadership:  Becoming a Human Being” (p. 183-192)

 

Text 5:

Anderson, B. (undated):  The Spirit of Leadership. www.theleadershipcircle.com

 

Text 6:

Hargreaves, A. (2010):  “Leadership, Change and Beyond the 21st Century Skills Agenda”.  Afterword to:  “21st Century Skills:  Rethinking how students learn”. Bloomington, IN, Solution Tree Press.  P. 326-348


 

Text 7:

Heifetz, R. and Laurie, D. (2001):  The Work of Leadership.  Harvard Business Review 12 (Best of HBR).

 

© 2013 by Astrid Seele