The Domain of Leadership

My daughter has a new, favourite TV show. It is called ‘What would you do?”. The premise is that various contentious situations are set up using actors, and members of the public are drawn in. Viewers are invited to think about what they would do in such a situation before watching how others react. The program raises ethical issues in a light way and, although cheesy-American, is quite watchable and even educational.

Let’s play… what would you do?

A member of staff arrives at your door looking harassed. You are in the middle of a piece of work which you have left too late to complete, but you can see that it is going to have to wait. You ask if everything is okay. She proceeds to tell you how overworked she is, how the school is expecting too much of her, that she isn’t sleeping. She is angry and upset. She then blames you for adding to this by asking her to do something by tomorrow. She tells you that the last time she felt like this was when she was unwell and was absent from work for some time.

Our response to hypothetical questions such as this is to say ‘it depends’ and ask for more information. In other words, give me more context. We may be likely to act in generally similar ways in such a situation, perhaps by inviting the colleague to sit down, shut the door and take her time to talk it through. But our specific response would be influenced by what we know. Is this behaviour typical, or out of character for this individual? Are they good at keeping on top of their workload or tend to leave things to the last minute? What else might be going on in their lives that might affect their view of work? What was the nature of her absence from work and the circumstances of her return? What has helped this individual in the past. What are the work pressures to which she refers? Have these increased and are others struggling too? Our specific response is dependent on what we know and most people with experience of such situations would begin by asking questions and getting as much information as possible.

In addition to knowledge about the context of this particular situation, we will also draw on other knowledge. In this instance, knowledge of mental health issues may be useful.  We may also draw on knowledge of employment law in understanding whether any health issues raised may fall under disability legislation, or on our knowledge of school policy in handling stress at work. Such ‘declarative’ knowledge may have been acquired through reading or training, or through direct personal experience.

Let’s imagine that the scene plays out and the colleague eventually leaves the room. Do they leave feeling that they have been listened to?

We all like to think we are good listeners, but is there really such a thing? We can feign listening (as my wife will tell you) by allowing another to talk, maintaining eye contact, nodding in the right places, asking questions and echoing back what the person has just said. This is superficially reassuring to the complainant, but do they leave feeling that they have really been understood, and that this understanding will change things?

The ability to listen in the meaningful sense is dependent on the listener:

  • being inclined to listen, which is affected by their prior knowledge of the person talking and the background to the topic in question
  • understanding what they are being told
  • knowing enough to be able to empathise with the person talking
  • having the relevant knowledge to respond in a satisfactory way

Understanding what someone is telling you and acting appropriately in response requires knowledge; often quite specific knowledge. ‘Listening’ without knowledge is a hollow skill. That is not to say that there aren’t things we might think of as skills, and be able to learn as skills, like maintaining eye contact and using body language, but without deep and relevant knowledge we will only be able to create an impression that we are able to do what the other person really requires of us.

I am reminded of a discussion with a colleague who had been diagnosed with a specific medical condition which I knew little about. As a result, we both left feeling slightly dissatisfied with the encounter. I did not feel that I had been able to respond appropriately and I suspect they felt that they had been heard, but not understood.

I would therefore contend that ‘being a good listener’ is not really a thing. Armed with deep and relevant knowledge we may understand and respond appropriately to what we are told. Without this knowledge, we may make the right moves and sounds but our efforts will be superficial and ineffective; deeply unsatisfactory to both parties. The ‘skill’ draws on a deep well of knowledge, and our effectiveness will vary according to whether we are in familiar territory or out of our depth. We may acquire the habit of asking lots of questions when we do not possess the knowledge required, but this will still leave the other person with a sense that you don’t get it; you appear interested but you don’t really understand what I am saying, at least not yet.

This post is an attempt to extend and solidify a previous post titled ‘Leadership is knowledge‘ in which I rejected the generic-skill model of leadership in favour of a position that leadership draws from the specific things that leaders know. Having thought about this further, I would like to set out more clearly the propositions upon which this claim is based and give this idea a name which I think will be a short-cut for some people in understanding where I am coming from. I’ve called it ‘Knowledge-rich leadership’.

I’ve read a great deal about leadership. I studied the theory in college, read numerous books about leadership and organisations throughout my twenties and thirties and took an MA in Education Management. I have practiced leadership for many years (admittedly not always successfully) as a middle leader in schools, then a senior leader for the last 14 years or so. The models, theories and discourse around leadership tend to focus on traits which leaders are born with or acquire; habits, outlook, personality or skills. We hear about ‘great leaders’ as if that is an inherent part of their being and are told that we too can learn to be better leaders if we mimic others’ success. What I rarely, if ever, recall is anyone questioning whether leadership is actually ‘a thing’, or to be more academic and technical about it… is there a domain of knowledge called ‘leadership’ in the sense of a specific, specialised discipline?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about leadership in these ways, and I am likely drawing on many theories of leadership as I write this. However, I am not going to explicitly reference particular ideas or writers in this blog as I am exploring the edges of my understanding and drawing upon the mish-mash of knowledge which I possess, which is not tidily organised or referenced. Who knows, there may even be some original thoughts here.

Before further exploration of the idea that leadership may not actually be a thing in and of itself, let me set out the propositions I made in my previous post:

  1. There are no such things as generic leadership skills which exist separate from specific knowledge which relates to the context within which competence is developed. [In other words, you don’t learn to lead teams, you learn to lead this team]
  2. Due to the context-specific nature of leadership, competency learnt within one context has limited transferability to another context. Transfer is only possible to the extent that the domain of knowledge and social context are similar. [In other words, you can’t walk in to a new job and expect to be equally proficient]
  3. It is possible to codify common procedures which school leaders carry out, but codified models must be adapted to work in the specific context in which you work. [In other words, there are ways of doing things that tend to work, but these are only a guide to what will work in your context or specific situation]
  4. The more deep, relevant knowledge you possess, the more effective your leadership will be. [In other words, build knowledge over skills]

This ‘knowledge-rich’ view of leadership doesn’t just place knowledge over skill, it rejects the possibility that a skill can exist independently of a specific knowledge base (in the sense that a skill is not just doing something, but doing something in an informed and useful way). Leading, as a function which may be carried out in organisations, is defined as ‘acting on deep and relevant knowledge to alter the course of events for the better’. That is my working definition for the term leadership from this knowledge-rich perspective.

What is the well of knowledge which school leadership draws upon? There are at least three:

  1. Domain knowledge: this includes knowledge of the field of education and other specialist areas (such as psychology, child development, economics and social science).
  2. Contextual knowledge; this includes knowledge of the social context within which the leader operates (including culture), knowledge pertaining to specific people or situations and knowledge of the wider educational context (e.g. government policy, legislation).
  3. Procedural knowledge: encompassing received wisdom on leadership practice and tacit knowledge gained through experience of acting in a leadership capacity in a variety of contexts. It is important to note that procedural knowledge is a rough estimate of what might work, not a route map to be followed precisely, due to the complexity of the contexts within which school leadership takes place.

As leaders ‘act on deep and relevant knowledge to alter the course of events for the better’, they will draw upon these types of knowledge to varying extents. One interpretation of my previous blog was that the need to understand the social context within which one is leading meant that it was therefore necessary to stay in one school to develop one’s effectiveness as a leader. Whilst length of service within one school may indeed strengthen knowledge of the social context, culture changes and people come and go, so this knowledge must be continually refreshed. Also, set against any benefit of not moving school is the opportunity cost of experiencing diversely different school contexts and acquiring a base of procedural knowledge which is more widely tested through application to different social contexts. I’m not saying either is better, but each will build different knowledge.

It would appear, then, that there are at least three distinct areas of knowledge which leaders draw upon. What are often asserted to be transferable leadership ‘skills’ are, in fact, leaders making informed decisions to act in specific contexts with the best available knowledge, and therefore their effectiveness is tied to their extent of their knowledge, not their mastery of generic skills. If we accept this position, it becomes difficult to think of leadership as a domain of knowledge in its own right i.e. a specific, specialised discipline or field. We cannot name and place a range of skills or competencies within a group called ‘leadership’, neither can we claim that there is a unique and defined body of knowledge associated with the concept. Leadership draws upon various bodies of knowledge and disciplines. It is the Geography of the management world. There are perhaps some generalisable procedures which we could set out in terms of ‘this is what  leaders do’, but without context we quickly relapse in to the language of generic skills e.g. manage difficult conversations.

Ceasing to think of leadership as a discipline in its own right might actually help us move forward. Rather than lead in accordance with an abstract notion of what leaders do, we can anchor our leadership in the concrete question ‘what do we know?’. In doing so, we may be less prone to be over-confident, believing ourselves to have mastered the art of leadership, and more likely to recognise the gaps in our knowledge and set out to acquire a richer, deeper understanding of the relevant domains and social context within which we lead. Knowledge-rich leadership rescues the concept of leadership from existential threat by giving leaders a purpose (to alter the course of events for the better) and a method (by acting on deep and relevant knowledge). It places substance over style, and points us towards a tangible way to become better leaders in a way that generic-leadership development approaches never did.

Before we can answer the question ‘what would you do?’ we must ask ourselves ‘what do we know?’.


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