John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

Article Sections

In his innovative study de Gues stresses the importance of what might be seen as the human side of organizational life, the centrality of relationships and the pivotal importance of a sense of community.

However, experience is accumulating that corporations fail because the prevailing thinking and language of management are too narrowly focused on the prevailing thinking and language of economics. To put it another way: companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organization’s true nature is that of a community of humans. (de Gues 1997 P9)

It might just be that the performance culture that increasingly dominates all aspects of corporate life has had a negative impact on the social nature of schools. It might be that the sense of community has been eroded by the imperative of producing ‘ goods and services’.

There is abundant evidence of the central importance of the family to educational success (Desforges 2004). There is also a very high correlation between living in an effective community and high social capital, well-being enhanced life chances and educational success. This raises the important issues of schools engaging with their host communities to build social capital and then the possibility of schools seeing themselves as communities. In his discussion of Linux, the open source software community, Leadbeater (2003 P41) argues that innovative communities:

. . . seem to combine many ingredients that are traditionally kept separate, or at least prove difficult to combine. There is healthy competition within the community but also cooperation and sharing; it thrives on masses of individual initiative but is founded on a public good, . . . the community is highly distributed and virtual, yet also hierarchical, with a single authority at its heart.



Table 1. From organization to community


Schools as Organisastion Schools as Communities
Competition Collaboration
Hierarchy Networks
Obedience Consent / consensus
Certainty/ linearity Complexity/ uncertainty
Top down power Shared authority
Low trust/control High trust
Specialization/boundaries Interdependent working
Career structure Personal growth pathways
Efficiency/outcomes Enhanced value
Performance based accountability Moral accountability
Rule-bound Value-driven

An interesting perspective on the nature of successful communities and with significant implications for how leadership might be most effective and how schools could be organised to optimum social benefit comes from the work of Dunbar (2010).




Fig. 3 Understanding social relationships - the Dunbar number



According to Dunbar (2010) we live in a number of ‘circles of intimacy’:

Within the group of about 150 that constitutes our social world . . . The innermost group consists of about three to five people . . . Above this is a slightly larger group that typically consists of ten additional people . . . And above this is a slightly bigger circle of around thirty more. (2010:10)

Dunbar cites a range of examples to reinforce his case that 150 is the optimum number for effective human interaction; it is the average size of a clan in pre-industrial society; the average size of village in the Domesday survey and the average size of an English village in the 18th century. It was the approximate size of the maniple – the basic unit of the Roman army and is the size of the company – the basic unit of the modern British army. When the GoreTex raincoat became the essential fashion accessory of the 1960s the demand was met not by increasing the size of the original factory (150) but opening new factories of about 150 workers. The Amish communities of Pennsylvania split when they reach 150.

There may be some interesting implications in Dunbar’s model for all forms of social structure – including schools.



Download Articles