THE VULNERABLE LEADER
26 April 2016
THE VULNERABLE LEADER - A second scholarly article on the theme of leadership - leading on from Blog Thirteen.
This critical review was written on 3 April 2016, in preparation for a highly promising and inspirational course, the second part of which sadly I was unable to complete in the end.
Further Reflections on Leadership
The following article is based on nine texts on various dimensions of leadership. These are properly referenced in the bibliography at the end and accordingly referred to as texts 1-9 in the body of this study.
Text 1, by Jim Collins, examines the leadership model of the Level 5 Hierarchy. It discusses the theory that the most successful leaders are people who blend “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” (p.4). They are described as self-effacing, modest, introvert leaders who are most likely to attribute the success of their company to others rather than themselves. They are not in the job because of personal ambition or in order to gain wealth or popularity; to the contrary, they think unselfishly beyond their own personal gain about the greater good of their business. The conundrum to resolve in this five-step model is how to make the transition from Level 4 (an effective leader who “catalyzes commitment to a vigorous pursuit of a compelling vision”) to Level 5: the Executive who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.” (p. 4). Collins identifies seven factors that take a company from good to great, but in his view the Level 5 executive leader is crucial in that s/he enables the other six factors: investing in the right people before inventing a strategy; confronting a difficult reality, yet holding on to the faith that they would prevail in the end; building consistent momentum instead of lurching back and forth with radical changes in direction; being systematic and consistent; being pioneers in carefully selected technologies rather than jumping on every new technological bandwagon; and finally a culture of discipline: “When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy.”
Many of these thoughts resonate with us educators. I appreciate that Collins acknowledges the impossibility of providing a step-by-step program for Level 4 leaders to proceed to being Level 5 executives, and his acknowledgement of the fact that there needs to be a seed planted in a person already (either innately or through life experiences) that predestines them to become such a rare type of unselfish, yet determined leader (p.10).
In contrast to Text 1, Text 2 focuses specifically on school leadership. Similarly to Text 1, however, it also focuses on a conundrum: how to combine the challenge of leading a school in terms of improving assessment and standardized test results (upon which parents often base their choice of school for their child) with the challenge to stipulate a much wider educational focus on the broader responsibilities of schools for “promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians” (Melbourne Declaration 2008, quoted from p. 133 of text 2). In order to combine these multiple purposes, it is important for school leaders to be driven by values and moral and ethical convictions.
Applying this to the contexts of schools I have worked at, I have always tried to emphasise an holistic idea of education and a moral purpose and responsibility, for example on student wellbeing and pastoral care, on inclusive activities, on promoting social justice and a sustainable future. Whilst academic learning is still the primary purpose of school education, no school nowadays can afford to ignore the significance of these other aspects, and they have become increasingly important in an increasingly fragmented modern world where other value systems (stable family structures, strong religious beliefs) have often collapsed. Hence I like the shift from the “accountability” (predominantly for academic results) of school leaders to their “professional responsibility”, as highlighted by Cranston (p. 134/5). This shift in terminology emphasizes a shift from an externally determined accountability to an internally determined professional responsibility where the school leader listens to their inner voice and to their personal values and beliefs in deciding what to prioritize in their school (p. 136). I feel that this is a refreshing shift in focus, yet not always easy to achieve in a profession that is as intensely regulated by external authorities such as BOSTES in a country like Australia.
Text 3 is a very central text, as it explains the focus and purpose of the Flagship Program. It leads on well from the concept developed in Text 2, which emphasizes professional responsibility rather than accountability to external bodies. Degenhardt similarly shifts the focus for school leaders from the acquisition of skills and knowledge to “an outer and inner journey of change and growing self-awareness.” (p. 18). The focus of the article is on “professional companioning” (a term developed by Degenhardt, p.15). On a personal level, I am particularly excited about this aspect of the Flagship program. Being a Deputy Principal is a lonely job, and being allocated a professional companion who acts as a mentor, the ultimate purpose partner, a pastoral carer, critical friend, strategic co-planner, consultant and coach (as per Degenhardt’s model on p.21) will be a godsend. It would be immensely helpful if a critical friendship developed from this relationship where the companion “cares about the person of the leader with whom s/he is working, not just about their performance in their leadership role.” (p. 26). I have been impressed with the list of criteria for the selection of professional companions, as provided on p. 30, and I look forward to being assigned my critical friend.
Text 4, once again, focuses on internal leadership qualities, i.e. qualities that need to come from within and cannot really be learned from a textbook. Authentic leadership is a concept unbelievably close to my heart and at the core of my value system, and the sentence that really resonates with me is one that is quoted from a different source: “Just as genuineness can’t be artificially manufactured – it simply is – neither can authenticity; it can’t be generated, it can only be discovered (. . . ). Leadership begins at one’s centre: authentic leaders build their practice outward from their core commitments rather than inward from a management text.” (Evans 2007, quoted from Text 4, p. 46).
Throughout my career I have been inspired by people who build their leadership outward from their own core commitments, and I have been both angered and bored by those who return from a course and inflict leadership jargon and externally learned values on their audience. I also agree 100% with Beatty’s statement (p.47) that the most important condition for school success is the quality of relationships. Where people feel unsafe (from bullying, harassment, job loss etc.), they will be unlikely to give their best and join in with collaborative inquiry and innovation. Again, my favourite quote here is one that is quoted from a different source: that trustworthy principals “hold out the hope of reconciliation and the repair of trust. But it’s not enough to just lift up a vision; trustworthy leaders must also play the role of mediator when trust breaks down.” (Tschannen-Moran 2007, quoted from Text 4, p. 48).
Text 4 is closely related to Text 2, in that it emphasizes the wide educational purpose of schools nowadays, which transcends the mere acquisition of factual knowledge and skills. It also acknowledges that leaders need to face their inner emotional turmoil and challenges and openly and honestly work through them in order to develop the resilience necessary in their role. The collaborative approach to this reflective process is strongly advocated by Beatty. A thought that equally resonates with me is that of facing emotionally challenging conversations openly and bravely: “The emotional implications of facing fears and moving toward emotionally challenging, even professionally dangerous terrain point to the need for courage and counter-intuition on the part of both teachers and leaders if they are to challenge the normative feeling rules that keep them apart. But leaders need to go first. Most of the teachers who had ventured uninvited into contentious emotional terrain had suffered additional shame. (…) Apologies from leaders and the ongoing sense of their openness to consultation and critique were respected and celebrated. Such leaders had engendered longstanding loyalty among staff members (...)” (p. 55). It takes great strength for a leader to be emotionally honest and allow their staff the same openness. Such exposure to each other’s vulnerabilities can only succeed in a climate of mutual trust and respect. We all need to acknowledge that emotion matters.
Text 5 highlights three “Cs” in education to maintain momentum in teaching, attract good quality teachers, retain them and maintain their motivation: Capability, Commitment and Career. Hargreaves and Fullan make some noteworthy observations, in particular about attracting high quality staff and keeping up levels of commitment and energy in teachers who are 10-20 years into their careers and in some cases have become disillusioned or cynical.
Text 6 follows on more closely from texts 3 and 4 by focusing again on the emotional aspects of leadership and the vulnerability of the leader. The argument opens up with two key questions:
How to preserve a healthy sense of self “in the face of a host of factors challenging that self in the best scenario and leading to a wounding crisis in the worst”, and
How to “fortify the impact of these challenges and produce a mindset that leaves the person open to learn and grow from such experience.” (p. 312).
I have experienced a number of challenges in the leadership positions I have held both in the UK and Australia. I know how hard it is to keep things together in a crisis, to put on a brave persona with colleagues and students and to battle through such challenges developing resilience on the way, but I do find it even harder not to allow such experiences to affect my sense of inner worth and self-esteem. I am therefore looking forward to trialling some of Ackerman’s and Ostrowski’s strategies and discussing them with my professional companion. I have experienced myself that “leaders who are insecure about their own emotional capacity and identity will create organizational settings, which tend to deprive others of theirs.” (p. 312). I would like not to do that to my own staff.
Text 7 focuses specifically on leadership for learning. Like other texts it emphasizes the need for the Principal to base their leadership on values, to understand the context and to collaborate with others. For my first pre-reading task I read a number of texts on distributed leadership, and in my critique I commented on the fact that, despite the unquestionable advantages of distributed leadership, I still feel that the Principal’s leadership is key. I am glad that Hallinger shares this view and that he comments (p. 138) that “even where shared leadership is being supported by policy measures, the principal’s own leadership is essential to fostering the leadership of others.”
Text 8 highlights, amongst other things, the dilemma faced by so many teachers to reconcile the primary purpose that made them go into teaching in the first place with the shackles imposed by external curricula and tests. The text mentions a noteworthy report into defining the purpose of education (the Delors report, 1996, p. 11), which reduced this purpose to four key pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, learning to be. This summarises in few words some key ingredients of the holistic ideas of education where you educate the whole person, teach factual knowledge and transferable skills, advocate social skills and support personal growth. Some commendable thoughts by Julia Atkin.
Text 9, by the same author, talks about the transition from values and beliefs about education to their practical implementation. It dates back to 1996 and was written three years before Text 8. I particularly like the advice to avoid knee-jerk reactions and only to implement new strategies if they are underpinned by evidence that they will enhance learning or strengthen the school community. The article contains various exercises and thought experiments that stimulate further discussion and reflection. It asks leaders to ask continually “why” we are doing things in certain ways. The guiding principles highlighted at the end of the articles are based on beliefs we undoubtedly still subscribe to 20 years on.
Once again, these articles have provided much food for thought and often inspiring reading. One common thread has been the emotional side of leadership and the personally modest, yet professionally driven and strong-willed executive leader. Developing strategies to maintain a healthy degree of vulnerability and emotional sensitivity, combined with the necessary degree of resilience, will be a key priority for me, together with maintaining my understanding for the emotional vulnerabilities of those staff who are entrusted to my leadership.
This critique is based on the following 9 articles:
Collins, J. (2001): Level 5 Leadership. The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve. In: Harvard Business Review July-August 2005, p. 1-10.
Cranston, N. (2013): School Leaders Leading: Professional Responsibility not Accountability as the Key Focus. Originally published online: www.ema.sagepub.com/content/41/2/129. In: Educational Management Administration & Leadership 2013 41, p. 129-142.
Degenhardt, L. (2013): Professional Companioning: Support for Leaders in Managing the increasing Complexity of their Roles. In: Leading & Managing, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2013, p. 15-33.
Beatty, B. (2007): Feeling the Future of School Leadership: Learning to lead with the emotions in mind. In: Leading & Managing Vol. 13, No. 2, 2007, p. 44-65.
Hargreaves, A./Fullan, M. (2012): Investing in Capability and Commitment. In: Professional Capital. Transforming Teaching in Every School. Chapter Four, p. 46-77.
Ackerman, R./Ostrowski, P. (2004): The wounded leader and emotional learning in the schoolhouse. In: School Leadership & Management, Vol. 24, No. 3, August 2004, p. 311-328
Hallinger, P. (2010): Leadership for Learning: lessons from 40 years of empirical research. In: Emerald. Journal for Educational Administration, Vol. 49, No. 2, 2011, p. 125-142.
Atkin, J. (1999): Reconceptualising the Curriculum for the Knowledge Era. Part 1: The Challenge. Seminar Series No. 86. Melbourne IARTV.
Atkin, J. (1996): From Values and Beliefs about Learning to Principles and Practice. Seminar Series No. 54. Melbourne IARTV.