What is Leadership?

In recent times the concept of leadership and what constitutes an effective leader has gone through a period of intense scrutiny and redefinition.

The traditional image of a leader as a ‘heroic’ figure who issued commands that were blindly obeyed by his /her followers is no longer relevant or appropriate. The concept of a leader who makes decisions that are unquestioned and sacrosanct is no longer appropriate in a world that values consensus and collaboration as key elements in the decision making process. It is now generally accepted that for leadership to be effective and sustainable it has to allow for,  and encourage, the development and empowerment of others.

This is not to say that there are not many times when a leader simply has to lead, when a decision simply has to be made. This leadership role is still important it is just a case that in our modern world that alone is not all that leadership is. Leadership has become as complex and multi faceted as any other aspect of our world and so I thought it appropriate to outline my positioning regarding educational leadership.

I must stress that this is my blog and therefore it contains my opinions. They are not Rolleston College policies, merely my personal beliefs. Yes I am the Principal of Rolleston College and my views and the policies of the College will need to be in harmony but the points of view expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone, they will be taken into relevant discussions and debated along with the views of others involved and engaged with the college community and what will emerge are policies that serve us all.

The leadership structure I feel most comfortable with is based primarily on the Distributed Leadership model as defined below;

Distributed leadership is a conceptual and analytical approach to understanding how the work of leadership takes place among the people and in context of a complex organization. Though developed and primarily used in education research, it has since been applied to other domains, including business and even tourism. Rather than focus on characteristics of the individual leader or features of the situation, distributed leadership foregrounds how actors engage in tasks that are “stretched” or distributed across the organization. With theoretical foundations in activity theory and distributed cognition, understanding leadership from a distributed perspective means seeing leadership activities as a situated and social process at the intersection of leaders, followers, and the situation.

Put simply it is a model of leadership where individual actions make sense when viewed as part of relationships forming a collective pattern.

Leadership  here is generally defined  as any activities tied to the core work of the organization that are designed by organizational members to influence the motivation, knowledge, affect, or practices of other organizational members.  As this definition implies, there is, within an organization, a group of people who are influenced by these leadership activities: these are the followers. Importantly, the role of a leader or follower is dynamic, and a person might be a follower in one situation but not in another. Additionally, followers are not passive recipients of these influences and followers may influence the leaders as well.

In general terms this is primarily a collaborative approach where leadership is undertaken by individuals according to the task in focus at that particular time. An individual could be a leader in one context and a follower in another and there is an element of fluidity between roles according to need and desire.

There is an extensive body of research that supports the Distributed Leadership model as the most appropriate model for a modern educational institution that exists within a change or development context. This includes the work of Timperley, Fullan, Spillane and Hargreaves. Timperley’s most basic summation of the model is encapsulated by the phrase, “actions and interactions that are distributed across multiple people and situations.”

It has developed from a need to be adaptive and flexible to a change environment as well as an increasing desire to see practice and leadership as accountable and flexible.

It has also developed from a realisation that the job of a school leader Is an increasingly complex role. This has been described by Alvey and Robbins as follows;

“the work of school leaders has become so incredibly complex that no one person can address the demands of the role.”

There is a fundamental belief underlying this model that no one person can solve every problem, nor should they try to.

Distributed leadership not only meets the demands of a school that exists in change mode but also allows for a school to be adaptive, future focused and responsive to the community in its approach, not fixed as has been the case in the past. Nor is it dependent on one person for total leadership and direction which was the case in the ‘heroic ‘model of leadership.

It is not a new model and has, in fact, been around in one form or another for hundreds of years but it has experienced a surge of implementation since the mid 1990’s especially in educational institutions.

It allows for a more collaborative and reflective approach to decision making and leadership. It is the model that places great importance on relationships and the ability to grow communities through shared decision making.

So in general terms Distributed Leadership has merit. There are some more specific reasons why  this model is a good fit when applied to a modern educational environment.

It is a case of ‘walking the talk.’ If we are to go down a path of personalized and flexible learning programmes then it makes sense that our staff develop in a similar environment, it is also an effective model in enabling staff to embrace and own change.

Using the terms of Bush and Glover. Leadership, at various times and to various degrees, has to incorporate the following elements.

  • Instructional
  • Transformational
  • Moral
  • Participative
  • Managerial
  • Post Modern [or at least socio constructivist]
  • Interpersonal
  • Contingent.

The later element being possibly the most relevant as it is concerned with being responsive to situational and adaptive leadership.

If we also accept that there will be an ever-changing and fluid emphasis on these various elements depending on the context being addressed at the time then a distributed leadership model allows for the flexibility and fluidity necessary to allow for this appropriate emphasis according to context and situation that a more fixed approach does not allow for.

It is a more natural and organic way of functioning as a modern school as it allows for personalization and the development of leadership capacity as well as developing a culture of ongoing learning.

In other words  we model what we expect of the learners.

The best way to show how I see this model working is shown in the following diagram;


Here we have a weave of horizontal and vertical strands that sit underneath the learning team cells.

There is an umbrella of senior leadership that will often sit above the model to ensure coherence and fairness as well as equal access to information and to enable transparent lines of communication. Sometimes though senior leadership will sit within in the weave. The portfolios of the senior leadership team will be fluid and dynamic according to need, skill and desire. It is inevitable that an individual senior leader may drive a part of school life for an extended period of time but the people they work with in driving that element will be dynamic and fluid. In the same way the ‘connect’ across elements within the senior leadership team will be more fluid than would be the case if they were locked into portfolios. The simple description to explain this would be a ‘flat’ management system.

The weave in a traditional school model would be at the forefront and all staff would tend to fit into the silos of pastoral or content strands.  They would, in fact, often work to avoid each other rather than weave themselves together.

I propose that we place the weave behind as a base structure rather than in front and driving.  We have subject specialists who operate as guardians for the learning areas as defined by the New Zealand Curriculum. Watchdogs who ensure that the learning prepares learners for the next step. These roles are represented in the diagram by the vertical weave.

The horizontal weave represents the Hauora directors [a role combining Whanau leader/ director role and ideally also guidance].

These weave across and through the horizontal strands and ensure the wellbeing/mana/ safety and dignity of the learner in their whanau.

What sits above and on top of this base and under the senior leadership are the whanau groups made up of a series of staff who are the advisors for a smaller group of learners [represented by the smaller white circles.] These are the schools within a school. The weave ensures that they are autonomous within a structure but this does not inhibit their ability to be flexible and adaptive. They oversee and guide the education and well being of their small group of learners for the duration of those learners time at secondary school.

These schools within schools engender spirit and provide the nurture  for their learners, they are supported by the weave that sits below.

There is an element of independence and autonomy but not total freedom.

By promoting these cells to a position where they sit on top of the weave rather than where they have traditionally sat [behind the silos] means that there will be the opportunity for connection between all of the elements.

It facilitates distributed leadership as it will enable a staff member to have opportunities within their own cell as well as within the horizontal and vertical strands according to situation.

It is designed to be situational, in other words to be able to be adaptive to the needs of the institution rather than slavishly adhering to a philosophy where the school is made to fit the philosophy. I prefer a situational approach where the model is adaptive to meet the needs of the school community.

An obvious example of how this would work in reality can be seen in how programs of learning will be developed.

In the past the Head of a Department would produce the curriculum and often the programmes of learning for a particular cohort. This is then administered and delivered by the staff.

In this model the multidisciplinary team develops the programme according to the needs of the learners within the cohort and it is checked and balanced by Hauora directors and, in particular, subject specialist leaders.  Learning teams will have a distribution of teachers with varied subject strengths within each team.

The structure outlined above is primarily designed to allow for flexibility and opportunity but also places a safety net in the weave to ensure support and rigour.

It is a structure that will ensure that learning leaders are able to produce programmes of learning that meet the needs of the learners in a responsive and authentic way.

Again I must emphasise that this is my thinking, I am sharing it primarily so that educators considering applying for positions at Rolleston College over the next twelve months have some insight into my positioning and that will hopefully result in some lively and fruitful conversations during the appointment process.





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