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leadership demands

August 10, 2013

Research emphasises that leadership is crucial to effective student learning, second in importance only to classroom instruction (Leithwood et al, 2004; Louis et al, 2010; Mendels, 2012), yet traditional understanding of leadership theory focused on trait theory, or the charismatic qualities of the lone hero which may persist in current mental models (Senge, 2000; Timperley & Robertson, 2011).

In stark contrast to this myth, the new paradigm of leadership demands capacity building within robust learning organisations (Crowther, 2000; Fullan, 1993).


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A shift away from linear non-systemic world views yields a proliferation of models seeking to foster collaborative learning practices in the midst of these complexities: From AITSL standards to Crowther’s parallel leadership; Lunenberg’s 4 functions of principals to Drucker’s RBF; Waterman, Peters & Phillips7-S framework; Quinn’s competing values framework; Goleman’s EI-based competencies; the TAP transformation cycle and Hersey & Blanchard’s life cycle theory of leadership; all could be encompassed by Drucker’s metaphor harmonising or Meadows’ coinage dance.


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While models serve as useful frames of reference enabling diagnostic interpretation, along with reflective discussion in order to modify structures and culture, it is unlikely that one single tool will capture the multifaceted nature of exchange inherent in a dynamic learning organisation (White, 2013).  Thus, best practice can be seen in deliberately evolving mental models through processes of capacity building (Argyris, 1995; Crowther, 2010; Senge, 2006); reference to the competing values framework of leadership, for instance, reveals balanced functioning only emerges through considered attention to the ongoing maintenance of a healthy system (Quinn et al, 2003).

Moreover, modes of leading will be context-specific and responsive to feedback.


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According to critics, “The school is not currently a learning organization. And teaching is not yet a learning profession” (Fullan, 1995, p. 230). Essential features underlying effective leadership for school improvement will therefore necessitate:

  • Attention to reciprocal processes (Hargreaves, 2010);
  • Perceptions of nonlinear/ turbulent/ chaotic interplay – (Meadows, 2008);
  • Acceptance of dynamic/ organic/ unpredictability (Meadows, 2008; Senge, 2006; Wheatley, 1999);
  • Cultivation of the learning organisation (Caldwell, 2001; Senge, 2001);
  • Mindfulness to feedback loops and context variations (Argyris & Schon, 1974);
  • Alertness to espoused theory vs theories-in-use (Argyris, 2001);
  • Application of systems theory thinking and practice (Meadows, 2008; Senge, 2006;  Wheatley, 1999).

In the literature, machine age thinking is expressed in outmoded institutions, underpins limitations inherent in blind management of current circumstances, and languishes in the absence of vision (Hopkins & Jackson, 2003; Senge, 2000). Commentators state that schools “have structures designed when stability, efficiency and the management of stasis were the expectations” (Hopkins & Jackson, 2003, p. 101), or are

caught up in the pressures to preserve a traditional system that finds itself under increasing stress, unable to innovate (Senge, 2006, p. 361).


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Clearly, these schools fail to meet defined criteria of being well led.

Rather than accept this mechanistic model, systems theorists advocate attention to balancing processes – norms and embedded power relationships – which hinder change (Argyris, 1995; Meadows, 2008; Senge, 2006). In order to counter resistance, and navigate confusion, effective leaders are encouraged to focus on “steering broadly” (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009, p. 71), using an aligned “constellation of approaches” (Caldwell, 2011, p. 8), such as autonomous self-management, capacity building, reflection in action, distributive leadership, capital growth, and/or coaching to refine prevailing mental models.

This desirable skill set is described as having two dimensions:

One category includes managerial tasks normally associated with the role of the principal – creating and enforcing policies, rules, and procedures, and authority relationships. The other category, called “building cultural linkages”, includes establishing behavioral norms, using symbols, instituting rituals, and telling stories designed to build the cultural foundations of school excellence (Lunenberg, 2010, p. 11).

Aligning praxis with the school’s vision is defined in the literature as a vital means of enabling school leaders to facilitate school transformation. This involves a continually adaptive process of learning, unlearning and relearning our understanding of management practices and collaborative enterprise.

Agility is required.


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Operating within this unified sphere where learning is deliberately co-constructed, principles of effective practice serve as supportive frames of reference to sustain organisational learning. Despite functioning within a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, the aligned school evolves.

Thus considerable benefits accrue from the harmonious interplay of being both well managed and well led.

Selected references

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2011). National Professional Standard for Principals. Retrieved from

Argyris, C. (1995). Action Science and Organizational LearningJournal of Managerial Psychology, 10(6), 20-26.

Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Caldwell, B. (2001). The importance of being aligned. Professional Educator, 10(5), 16-20.

Chris Argyris Theories of Action Double Loop Learning and Organizational Learning (2001). Retrieved August 10, 2013 from

Crowther, F. (2010). Parallel leadership: The key to successful school capacity-building. Leading and Managing, 16(1), 16 – 39.

Fullan, M. (1993). The School As a Learning Organization. In Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. London: The Falmer Press (pp 42 – 83).

Fullan, M. (1995). The School As a Learning Organization: Distant Dreams. Theory into Practice, 34(4), 230-235.

Fullan, M. (2009). Large-Scale Reform Comes of Age.  Journal of Educational Change, 10(2), 101-113.

Goleman, D. (2001). Emotional Intelligence: Issues in paradigm building; An EI-based theory of performance. In: C. Cherniss, & D. Goleman (Eds.) The emotionally intelligent workplace: How to select for, measure and improve emotional intelligence in individuals, groups and organizations (pp. 13-44). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hargreaves, D.H. (2010). Creating a self-improving school system. Nottingham: National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services. Retrieved July 25, 2013 from

Hargreaves, A. & Shirley, D. (2009). The fourth way: The inspiring future for educational change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23 (5), pp. 26-34.

Hopkins, D., & Jackson, D. (2003). Building the capacity for leading and learning. In A. Harris, C. Day, D. Hopkins, M. Hadfield, A. Hargreaves & C. Chapman (Eds.). Effective leadership for school improvement (pp. 84-104). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning: Learning from leadership project. The Wallace Foundation: New York.

Louis, K.S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K.L. & Anderson, S.E. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findingsLearning from Leadership Project. New York: The Wallace Foundation.

Lunenburg, F. (2010). The principal and the school: What do principals do? National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision, 27(4), pp. 1 – 13.

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Mendels, P. (2012). The effective principal. Journal of Staff Development, 33(1), 54 – 58.

Peter Senge and the Learning Organization. (2001). Retrieved July 21 2013 from

Quinn et al (2003). The evolution of Management models. In Quinn, R. Becoming a master manager: A competency framework Third Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (pp. 1-24).

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation (revised edition). London:Random House.

Senge, P. M. (2000). The industrial age system of education. In P. Senge, N. McCabe, T. Lucas, B. Smith, J. Dutton, & A. Kleiner (Eds.). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline field-book for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education (pp. 27-58). New York: Doubleday.

Timperley, H. & Robertson, J. (2011). Establishing platforms for leadership and learning. In J. Robertson & H. Timperley (Eds.). Leadership and Learning (pp. 3-12). London: Sage.

Waterman, R. H., Peters, T. J. & Phillips, J. R. (1980). Structure is not organizationBusiness Horizons, Vol. 23, Issue 3, pp. 14 – 26.

Wheatley, M. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

White, R. (2013). Master of school leadership leading the aligned school. Retrieved August 10, 2013 from:

photo credit: <a href=””>kevin dooley</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=””>Patrick Hoesly</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


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