John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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5.Leadership is about collective capacity – not personal status

A key issue with much of the theory and practice of educational leadership is the focus on the leader rather than the availability of leadership. This is very much a phenomenon of the Anglophone world, not all systems and cultures seem to need the focus on one individual and are often deeply suspicious of the emphasis placed on the positional power of one person that is often accompanied by the trappings of status.

The cultural imperatives are very deep and there is evidence that a change of leadership is disproportionately significant – i.e. a change of principal can bring about a very significant change in the culture and performance of a school. The obvious issue here is capacity and sustainability. Given all the demands is it appropriate or reasonable for one person to have such a pivotal role? In other words does leadership need to be distributed across the school or, more radically, shared? In the distributed model delegation is essentially at the behest of the leader; where leadership is shared then it is a collective property.

The historic model of the autonomous headteacher or principal has challenged firstly through the emergence of the leadership team (or, often and perhaps significantly, the Senior Management Team) and then the transition from middle managers to middle leaders and now the emergence of the related ideas of teacher leadership and student leadership.

What is crucial in this transition process is the genuine rethinking of the location of authority and responsibility - to what extent are they delegated (i.e. given) or seen as implicit to professional status? Traditional models of leadership tend to work on the assumption of hierarchy i.e. levels of authority as in the feudal system and this hierarchical approach is often reinforced by a parallel bureaucracy. Given the nature of schools, their moral purpose, the focus on the needs of the learner it is surprising how bureaucratic they can be.

It might be appropriate to consider alternative models where leadership is seen as collective capacity i.e. a collective, community resource rather than the personal status of one individual working through positional power schools move to situational authority – who is the best person to lead in this context?


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