John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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6. Leadership only works through relationships

It has long been accepted that in some ways emotional intelligence (EQ) is more significant that a person’s intelligence quotient  (IQ) although this is yet to be fully reflected in the development and selection of school leaders. Leadership effectiveness is a product of personal effectiveness, which is in turn manifested in emotional self-awareness and emotional literacy. What makes leadership distinctive is the high level of sustained and significant engagement with others and just how significant those encounters are. In the course of a day they can involve the extremes of anger and despair, joy and celebration. They will also reflect the tedium of routine transactions and the micro-political scheming that can be found in any organisation.

 It is worth reflecting on the number of transactions leaders have each day, each of them rich in potential, each of them a ‘moment of truth’ and every one of them based in perception rather than logic and rationality – or at least in competing rationalities. The level of demand and impact will, of course, vary over time and context but this aspect of the job of the leader explains why it is both so demanding and challenging and so rich and rewarding. This in turn leads to the need for emotionally literate leaders - leaders who are fluent and confident in talking about their social and emotional engagement because they have a rich personal vocabulary of the emotions and understand the rules of the grammar and syntax of relationships.

Of all the elements that seem to be significant in terms of the relational dimension of leadership there are three that seem particularly significant. Firstly, trust, the capacity to trust and engender trust does seem to be a highly significant human quality and pivotal to so many aspects of leadership effectiveness. It is difficult to see how leaders can function without trust, as it is pivotal to almost every aspect of what we might regard as the basics of effective leadership.

Some recent studies show that trust remains a powerful and strong predictor of student achievement even after the effects of student background, prior achievement, race, and gender have been taken into account. Therefore, school leaders need to pay careful attention to the trust they engender in teachers, students, and parents if they wish to improve organizational performance still further. (Day et al 2009:244-245)

In their most recent work Bryk and his colleagues (2010:45-46) report on a detailed and systematic longitudinal study carried out since 1989 looking at over 100 schools that have improved compared with over 100 schools that have declined. The key differences between the schools has enabled the identification of a framework for school improvement that is made up of a number of ‘essential supports’:

1.    Leadership as the driver for change.

2.    Parent-community ties.

3.    Professional capacity; promoting the quality of staff and focusing on improvement.

4.    A student -centered learning climate.

5.    Instructional guidance – focusing on ambitious educational achievement for every child.

Bryk sees these supports as akin to the recipe for a cake but just as putting the ingredients for a cake into a bowl is not enough to make a cake:

 . . . then trust represents the social energy, or the “oven’s heat,” necessary for transforming these basic ingredients into comprehensive school change. Absent the social energy provided by trust, improvement initiatives are unlikely to culminate in meaningful change, regardless of their intrinsic merit. (2010:157)

The second element is empathy, which is the ability to accurately recognise, reflect and respond to the emotional state of another person. It is thus about sensitivity and recognition of the essential dignity of another person but it is also a very basic courtesy and an essential prerequisite to communication, motivation and engagement and sharing understanding. This dimension of leadership is perhaps best captured in the following quotation from the ethical code of the teachers’ union in Finland:

A humanistic conception of people and a respect for human beings form the underlying basis of ethical principles. The worth of a human being must be respected regardless, for example, of the person’s gender, age, religion, origins, opinions or skills






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