There’s No Such Thing As Leadership

The essence of my talk at ResearchED Rugby 2019.

Do you have a leadership position in a school? If so, think about the last day you were in work. For what proportion of the day were you leading? 100% (its everything I do!), 70%, 30%… less than 10%?

And what were you doing that constituted leadership? Were you sharing a compelling vision for the future? Perhaps you were strategising, influencing or building capacity?

I wasn’t doing anything as grand. I went to find a colleague to let them know I had authorised a day’s leave so they could attend their son’s graduation. I sent someone home who was not well enough to be in work. I stopped writing an email because the school bell rang, and went outside to be a presence whilst students moved between lessons. To me, these things are familiar as leadership. They speak of my values and priorities. They are modest and cumulative. They are tangible.

It seems to me that there is a gap between the reality of what leaders do in schools and the way leadership is often portrayed. The gap is so great that it doesn’t feel we’re really talking about the same thing. What do we mean when we talk of leadership? What can I take from the research and writing which helps me navigate through the here and now?

In 1984, Charles Jacob Yoos published a paper titled “There Is No Such Thing As Leadership”. Yoos was a Military Officer teaching managerial studies at the U.S. Airforce Academy. In the paper, Yoos threw down the gauntlet by challenging us to convince him of what knowledge would be forgone if the term leadership were expunged? Yoos talked of the euphemism of leadership, of literature full of pontificating executives, of a term without definition, a field with no basis for research. Would not, he asked, a knowledge of other disciplines better serve us in explaining the social phenomena we observe in organisations?

Yoos had a point. Take, for example, the Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Leaders’ Handbook, surely a source we might reliably turn to? In researching this compendium of wisdom, the authors interviewed over forty ‘successful leaders’ and reviewed decades of HBR articles. They conclude that the ‘best leaders… almost always deploy these six classic, fundamental practices:

  1. uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision;
  2. building a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do;
  3. attracting and developing the best possible talent to implement the strategy;
  4. relentlessly focusing on results in the context of the strategy;
  5. creating ongoing innovation that will help reinvent the vision and strategy; and
  6. “leading yourself”: knowing and growing yourself so that you can most effectively lead others and carry out these practices.’

This approach is sadly typical of the pop-psychology of leadership, reliant on self-reporting and the ‘aggregation of recurring messages’. Pop will eat itself. Pontificating executives regurgitating the grandiose language of the MBA course to describe their heroism. Leaders replicating the myths of a genre steeped in self-congratulation.

There is little attempt to provide a null hypothesis. Where is the study of those leaders who failed? What of their exciting, aspirational vision? You know, the one that ended up falling flat on its face and losing hundreds of people their jobs?

There are, of course, more valid attempts to describe what it is that successful leaders do, among these the Seven Strong Claims of Successful School Leadership, ‘revisited’ by Leithwood, Harris and Hopkins recently. It is a balanced and well-evidenced paper; possibly the most compelling I have read. However, even work of this quality over-reaches itself, claiming to be ‘a powerful new source of guidance for practising leaders’. In doing so, I would argue we leap too quickly from describing to prescribing; from clarity to advocacy. We may provide insight, even a model, to which we might aspire, but I am left none the wiser about what I might do to achieve such greatness. How do I move from where I am to where I am told I should be? Am I to mimic or impersonate? What exactly should I do right now, and how do I learn from this experience?

Faced with the leadership literature, I wonder what I would make of it if I were CEO of Suck-Cess, the sewage extraction company? What would my compelling vision be? My mission might be this: “We are on our way to suck-cess!” This will invigorate my workforce.

(This is their actual slogan, incidentally. I am thinking of adopting this as our tagline to replace the Ofsted Outstanding banner we had to take down a few year’s ago.)

I am being facetious, but do so to make an important point. There is a gap.

As with the quest for the Theory of Everything – a unifying model of the universe which eludes physicists – perhaps the search for an explanation of leadership will never yield a result. Perhaps that is because there is no such thing. We are able to explain specific phenomena which we observe in organisations. If our need is to understand our school sufficiently to enable us to move it forwards, we might be better to settle for a theory of something, rather than a unifying model which transcends individual contexts.

Besides which, abstract models have their limits. Maps are a good example. Writing of maps and mountains, the author Robert MacFarlane inadvertently provides us with an eloquent case for this.

“a map can never replicate the ground itself. Often our mapping sessions would induce us to bite off more than we can chew. At home we would plot a route over terrain that would, in reality, turn out to be sucking bog, or knee-high heather, or a wide boulder-field thick with snow. Sometimes a landscape would caution us of the limits of the map’s power… Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move – is constantly revisiting itself. Watercourses are always transporting earth and stone. Gravity tugs rocks off hillsides and rolls them lower down… These are the dimensions of a landscape which go unindicated by a map.”

Our models of leadership can never replicate the schools we lead. How familiar the metaphorical ‘sucking bog’ which we often find ourselves in as leaders – that one wasn’t in the handbook! Our conceptions of leadership have limited power, like the map; they too are static, not dynamic like our schools, and their transformation with the passing of time. There is no substitute for walking the terrain.

The scientist Norbert Weiner said that ‘the best model of a cat is another, preferably the same, cat’. Similarly, the best model of our school is our school. We must get to know it well.

I can’t help thinking that we attribute too much to leadership. As leaders, we should admit that many of the good things that happen in schools are not of our doing. Sometimes, they happen despite us. When we place leadership at the centre of our thinking about schools, we make the same mistake as those that imagined the Earth to be the centre of our solar system. This geocentric view appeared to make sense for many centuries, until we began to look for evidence to support our beliefs. Astronomers noticed strange anomalies; for example, Mars’ orbit around the Earth would perform a sudden loop before resuming its path. Some observations seemed to confirm the established beliefs, but there were clues as to the fallacy. When Galileo’s observations were pieced together, and the evidence that the Sun was in fact the object around which the planets orbited became incontrovertible, so much else fell into place; by changing the perspective, the fundamental assumptions, the data started to cohere.

Leadership can truly be transformational, but more often it is transient. We conceive of school turnarounds as due to the gravitational pull of a charismatic leader, around which everything revolves. We may better conceive of the leader as an asteroid, temporarily disrupting the orbit of the solar bodies before disappearing into the void.

Setting leadership to one side, we can imagine other ways of achieving our organisational goals; professional communities, teams, democracy, even bureaucracy. Leadership might become part of a repertoire; a mask worn occasionally, not an identity. Alvesson and Spicer (2012) make this case when they state:

“Leadership could thus be seen as a productive and communicatively grounded asymmetry in work relations, invoked in situations where coordination, mutual adjustments, bureaucracy (rules), professionalism and other means of control do not work well. Such deliberation would clarify when leadership could be evoked and when it might not be. Rather than the leader leading people most of the time, one could imagine that autonomy and supportive horizontal relations in combination with organizational structures and cultural meanings and norms take care of most things at work, but that occasionally leadership may be necessary or positive”

If we set aside our ego, leadership might more often be kept in its box, brought out only when absolutely necessary.

How we conceive of leadership is important. Leadership may be no more than fantastical conceit; an attempt to make sense out of chaos. We need to persist by seeking out better evidence for our claims, and fresh perspectives. There may indeed be no such thing as leadership, but I prefer to think we’re just looking at it in the wrong way.

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