Walter Humes on Leadership – brainstrust2

Challenging the Discourse of Leadership

Walter Humes

I should admit right away that I am something of a sceptic on the subject of leadership. By that I don’t mean that I think leadership is unimportant but I do think much of the agonising about it in recent years has been unproductive and unhelpful.

Leadership Courses

Consider the record. We have had the SQH – which critics regard as too academic and not sufficiently geared to practice. We have had the flexible route to headship – which has been criticised as insufficiently demanding and lacking in intellectual rigour. We have had Columba 1400 which those who have attended enthuse about but the firm evidence of its institutional – as distinct from its personal – benefits is hard to find. Mind you, I can think of a number of people in Scottish education I would happily send on a course which included white water rafting and free fall parachuting.

We have also had Glasgow City Council developing its own Aspiring Heads programme. The rationale for this programme sounds reasonable – the city’s educational challenges are different in nature and scale from other parts of the country and require tailored leadership training. An alternative interpretation is that senior officials in Glasgow are suspicious about allowing an external perspective which might introduce new ways of thinking and acting that might disturb their assumptions. In a recent evaluation of the different programmes providers were asked to identify the strengths and limitations of their current provision. On limitations, the response from Glasgow was ‘No obvious weaknesses – the Council would address them if there were’. This suggests a disturbingly complacent attitude.

GTCS + Donaldson

In addition to all this there has been the development of the GTCS Standards: Standards for Registration (including provisional and full registration); Standards for Career-Long Professional Learning; Standards for Leadership and Management. These include recommendations for encouraging leadership development at various stages of a teacher’s career and for the promotion of distributed leadership. This is consistent with some of the key recommendations in the Donaldson Report which sees good leadership as essential to the production of a teaching force fit for the 21st century.

Academic Contributions

As if all this wasn’t enough there have been hundreds of mind-numbingly dull academic contributions to debates about leadership. I should confess that I have contributed to some of these. And what has been the result of all this effort? Here’s what two of the leading experts have said. Peter Gronn has written that ‘a significant amount of the field’s understanding of leadership is grounded in highly dubious and problematic assumptions’. And John Macbeath, referring specifically to distributed leadership, has described it as ‘a contested concept embracing a wide range of understandings and often bearing little apparent relationship to what happens in schools and classrooms’.

Leadership Gurus

This confusion has left the way open for so-called leadership gurus who claim to be able to transform jaded individuals and institutions into energised, upbeat agents of renewal. All for a fat fee, of course, and there is no shortage of takers. Some of these gurus advertise themselves as consultants – I always think it is no accident that the word ‘consultant’ begins with a ‘con’.

My Own Position

What about my own view of leadership? It comes in a variety of forms, often linked to the particular personalities of those exercising it. I have known and worked with strong, flamboyant leaders, quietly efficient leaders, leaders who had good ideas but depended on others to carry them through, leaders who were good with people and very much ‘hands on’ but who were less good with paperwork and bureaucracy. I have known leaders who were skilful diplomats and able to negotiate successfully with the bureaucracy. I have known fewer leaders than I would have liked who were prepared to challenge officialdom and willing to say no if they thought they were justified in doing so.But although effective leadership can take many forms there are certain basic principles which can be identified. They do not call for rocket science and can be stated quite simply in common sense terms: recognised expertise demonstrated by example rather than exhortation; a clear sense of purpose; fairness in the treatment of staff; support for colleagues in times of difficulty; praise for good performance; a willingness to address hard
issues and listen to critics; openness to new thinking.

The Importance of Context

The actual embodiment of these principles will depend to a large extent on particular contexts. Government attempts to make everything conform to a single corporate image are likely to fail and should be resisted. We have here one of the central contradictions of Scottish education. The new curriculum for excellence is intended to produce pupils who are flexible learners and can think for themselves. It is claimed that the approach to teacher education recommended in the Donaldson report will encourage more independent thinking. But talk to teachers and you find that their experience is that independent
thinking is fine in theory but not welcome in practice: it is certainly not appreciated by local authorities, by the SQA or by the inspectorate. There is a fair amount of bad faith in the official discourse of Scottish education and that includes the discourse surrounding leadership.

Responsibility Without Power

Let me end by suggesting a rather sinister motive behind the current emphasis on leadership. It seems to me it is, in part at least, a diversionary tactic designed to shift the focus away from issues of policy and resources. By devolving responsibility onto head teachers and schools, and tying them to a tight agenda of ‘improvement’ – defined narrowly in terms of exam passes – the scene is set for attributing blame when things go wrong. But although responsibility is devolved, power is not. Power remains not on the front line of service provision but in the back rooms of the educational bureaucracies, in the inner
circles of the policy communities which continue to be managed by a system of patronage, a system that benefits those who know how to play the political game. The discourse of leadership deserves to be subject to sharp, critical interrogation.

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