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).
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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 & Phillips’ 7-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.
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