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Jacquie Turnbull - The Challenge of Leadership in Education

'Effective management will lead to incremental improvement that is useful but may not be sufficient. Leadership, by contrast, offers the possibilities of transformation'i

JTurnballLeadership has always been a concept important to society. Yet at the same time it's also one of those intangibles that seem to defy a precise definition. For Warren Bennis, it was like beauty, hard to define but we know it when we see it.

The quote I've used to head this article is just one example of an increased interest in leadership. Although we've always relied upon leadership as an important element in society, the pace of change and complexity of our modern world has challenged traditional ideas of what leadership should be like. Just as ideas of what constitutes beauty change, we've had to recognise that our ideas about leadership need adapting to be fit for purpose in our modern world.

The very complexity of organisations has led to a recognition that we can no longer depend upon a single individual heading up organisations as a main source of leadership. During the lifetime of the GTCW, it was always acknowledged that all teachers were leaders in some form or another. Then in 2008 the Welsh Assembly Government's School Effectiveness Framework was advocating a need for distributed leadership: a model of each part of the education community building influencing networks of collaborative working.

But although there has been a lot of talk about leadership, demonstrations of leadership with transformational potential have been less in evidence. For one thing, despite living with an avalanche of technological and social change, we still retain a toe-hold on the practices of a previous industrial age. It was an age when social scientist Max Weber was theorising that the dominance of machine production was influencing our ideas of what an efficient organization and the management of work should be like. Emphasis was placed on precision, speed, clarity, regularity, reliability and efficiency; all achieved through a division of tasks, hierarchical supervision and detailed rules and regulations.ii Twentieth century social scientist George Ritzer has extended Weber's ideas with the notion that 'McDonaldization' – the 'assembly-line' organization of fast-food restaurants – is influencing society at an accelerating rate, even impacting upon healthcare and education.iii

And of course, there's been a metaphor specific to education: Guy Claxton argues that the 'production line' model is deeply embedded here also. Education is assumed to be something that is 'done' in the same way as a product is assembled. Students are sent down the production line in batches of the same age, and a variety of 'technicians' add particular knowledge components – their 'subject'. Quality control is essential, so the 'products' are regularly tested and graded. The work-force also needs to be monitored for effectiveness, so every so often external forms of quality control are imposed, and inspectors visit the production line to make sure everything is being carried out as ordered.iv The model doesn't operate autonomously, rather it depends upon being 'managed' to ensure that everything continues to run smoothly. Thus the primary role of the senior person in an education 'factory' is to manage the process.

Unfortunately, if we accept the analyses, and if we also accept the argument that we need leadership to chart the way through the turbulent waters of a fast changing world, it becomes a challenge to apply a model of transformative leadership onto a system that is deeply embedded and traditional. The very fact that the Welsh Government guidance on educational leadershipv clusters the attributes of leaders under a heading 'standards' suggests an attempt to 'standardise' a notion that is not easily open to reduction to a list of competences. This is particularly relative to leadership, which we can all recognize at some higher or more intangible level, yet which may appear in different forms in different people and in different contexts.

The danger of trying to 'standardise', is that leadership is not limited solely to behaviours. For Daniel Goleman for instance, great leadership works through the Being able to articulate a vision that inspires and engages people to work towards a challenging goal is working at a more emotional level than that involved in a focus on low level targets.

Yet another psychologist, Robert Sternberg, presents a model of educational leadership as a synthesis of wisdom, intelligence and creativity.vii Of course, wisdom is another intangible quality: it may suggest an attribute that develops with age, yet while some aged people never attain it, I have known young people considered 'wise' beyond their years. And as for intelligence, that can encompass the analytical intelligence that supports sound judgement, and the practical intelligence to know how to implement strategies effectively.

Of course, it's applying the notion of creativity to leadership that really illuminates the tension between incorporating a model of transformational leadership into a hierarchical and structured system such as education. And yet, what's been termed 'little 'c'' creativity refers to the 'everyday' creativity evident in high-level problem-solving skills, displayed in productive relationships that generate fresh ideas, demonstrated in human ingenuity in all its forms,viii all attributes of value in leadership.

In practical terms, it's leadership rather than management that can motivate people to become high achievers and to achieve organisational goals; it's leadership rather than management that handles relationships openly and in a straightforward manner, valuing people as individuals, it's leadership rather than management that encourages people to understand and accommodate necessary change.

These attributes are not easily captured in a list of competences. In addition, the combination of personal values, self-awareness, self-management and empathy that underpins the practice of leadership is also not necessarily acquired from a training course. The challenge for education remains not merely whether there is a recognition of the qualities of transformational leadership that will ensure improved performance, but whether there is the will and capacity to grow the right sort of leaders to ensure higher educational attainment for the future.

Jacquie Turnbull



i John West-Burnham & Dave Harris 2015:7
ii Gareth Morgan 1997:12
iii George Ritzer 2004
iv Guy Claxton 2008 pp.51-52
v Welsh Government 2011 Revised Professional Standards for Educational Practitioners in Wales
vi Daniel Goleman 2002:3
vii Robert Sternberg 2005
viii Jacquie Turnbull 2012:154 Creative Educational Leadership

 Jacquie Turnbull's experience as an educator includes teaching in school and university, and workplace training for personal and professional development. Her experience of leadership spans terms as Deputy Chair of the General Teaching Council for Wales and as Chair of the Corporate Board of Coleg Glan Hafren in Cardiff. Jacquie's writing draws on both a solid academic base and her wide experience of teaching and coaching in educational and community settings. Her books have been translated into several languages, and she is currently working on her second book on leadership in education. Jacquie was awarded an MBE in 2011 for her work as an educator.