John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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1.Leadership focuses on the strategic not the operational

This is not a semantic debate. There are many nuances of meaning around the definition of the differences between leading and managing. The debate is all-important because it provides a key indication of the relative significance attached to the two elements. The classic distinction belongs to Warren Bennis who distinguishes them in terms of leadership being about the right things and management about doing things right. Stephen Covey distinguishes between path making and path following. A more specific distinction might be found in the comparison between the strategic and the operational.

 Leadership is about the long-term vision and the values of the school; management is making the school function on a daily basis. Schools are complex organisations, managing them is a sophisticated and challenging process but that does not make it leadership. Simplistically the strategic dimension of leadership might be understood in terms of:

Principle – the values informing the organisation’s culture and priorities

Purpose – the dominant view as to the raison d’etre of the school

People – the engagement, motivation and performance of people in securing the principles and purpose.

The operational, by contrast, is concerned with the routines, systems, structures and procedures that translate principles and aspirations into actual practice. Leadership and management work in a symbiotic relationship but always with leadership driving management.There are many ways of conceptualizing the tension between the competing paradigms of management and leadership, the linear and nonlinear, objective and subjective, rational and emotional. McGilchrist (2009) has explored how the two hemispheres in our brains influence how we perceive and engage with the world. In simplified terms the left-brain is perceived as the logical rational dimension (management) of our engagement with the world, the right brain (leadership) the social and emotional response to the world. This coincides with many definitions of the difference between management and leadership, in essence the difference between management focused on procedures and structures and leadership on values and relationships.

The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denonative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature but ultimately lifeless. (2009:174)

 This is very much the world of ‘doing things right’. The right hemisphere in a very different, it:

 . . .  yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. (2009:174)

These elements capture the reality of life in organisations – they are messy, full of contradictions, emotions and ambiguities. This is the world that leaders need to inhabit not an artificially neat, rational and controllable world. What would happen if the left hemisphere became dominant in the world?

In fact more and more work would come to be overtaken by the meta-process of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing – at the expense of the real job in the real world. (2009:429)

A primary criterion for effective leadership is the ability to sustain an unremitting focus on the ‘real job’ by not allowing distractions or competing demands to usurp the core purpose of the role and organisation.


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