I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently. From politicians to principals, the people at the top have as much power to make things better as they do to make them worse. Why, then, do we often end up with leaders who seem unsuited to the job? Since we are not shy of criticising leadership done badly, nor short of opinions on how it could be done better, we seem to be caught in a paradox.
It’s one we find in our schools, too. Early on in my career, a principal told me there are two types of people: those who like to run things, and those who like to complain. I resisted leadership roles for a long time after that, believing that to get into a position from which creating change is possible, I would first have to become someone who wouldn’t change a thing.
But I’m about to take on the role of leading the Arts and Technology team at a new senior campus, so I need to know if effective leadership is even possible for people like me. Over the Christmas break, I read a book from the Before Times of 2013 called The Australian Leadership Paradox, hoping it might hold the answers. Even though it turned out to be more of a how-to guide for corporate leaders, it did help clarify why I resisted leadership for so long.
We’ve all seen it happen: a colleague with good intentions determined to be an agent of change must first demonstrate to the selection panel that they can beat the middle-management slave drum to the rhythm of an ‘annual implementation plan’. By the time they’ve got the job, and the deadlines pile up, they have forgotten why they wanted the gig in the first place. As author Kurt Vonnegut warned: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
It’s easy to assert a vision for education; much harder to do the work to change it.
Even if a leader can hold onto their values, they often find their old colleagues now look at them with fear and mistrust. For a moment there, it seemed like the Learning Specialist role would be the job to break this cycle – one with a mandate for pedagogical change whilst staying on the team of actual teachers. But it’s now clear that Leading Specialists are just rebranded Leading Teachers, accountable for the same AIP goals of NAPLAN improvement and staff performance.
According to The Australian Leadership Paradox, a LinkedIn study showed that 75% of Australians rate “being liked by colleagues” as the most important factor in career development. And since most of us don’t like being performance managed, it’s not hard to see why we don’t want to become performance managers.
On paper, my coordinator role seems to be a good mix of actual teaching and curriculum innovation – and I was luckier than most in that I did not have to do any promotion-worthy performances to become the successful candidate. After two years of pandemic hastened others of equal experience into the Great Resignation, I was the only applicant.
At first, I assumed this would make it easier for me to use my new leadership role the way I use this column: to speak out, push back and punch up until our schools become better places to work and learn in. But the book offered a warning every bit as useful as Vonnegut’s: “Leaders who are unclear on their purpose easily get caught in the doing, get led astray from initial intention, resort to technical fixes in the face of complex challenges, and often end up with unspoken competition on individual agendas.”
Am I fooling myself that I have a clear purpose when in fact all I have is a vague personal agenda? After all, it’s easy to assert a vision for what education should be; much harder to do the actual work to change it. In chapter 12, the writers came close to providing the answer when they proclaimed the need for creative conflict in innovation, but then they back-tracked, warning that “conflict ends up polarising rather than helping innovation”.
Personally, I think creative conflict is more than just a means to an end, and that fostering constructive debate is central to good leadership. So, I’ve started the year with more than a vision of how creativity should be taught or an assessment task timeline. I want the teachers I work with to embrace conflict, trusting that I will help solve their problems, not silence them. I’ve concluded that this is what leaders should be: conflict negotiators who help groups define and then reach their common goals.
I recently saw a tweet from Bernie Sanders that declared 2022 to be “the year of global solidarity”. Perhaps, one day, we might get a leader with that kind of vision in Australian politics too.