Leading beyond what is known

There are some things that you know to be true, and others that you know to be false; yet, despite this extensive knowledge that you have, there remain many things whose truth or falsity is not known to you. We say that you are uncertain about them. You are uncertain, to varying degrees, about everything in the future; much of the past is hidden from you; and there is a lot of the present about which you do not have full information. Uncertainty is everywhere and you cannot escape from it.
Dennis Lindley, Understanding Uncertainty (2006)

Certainty is a comfortable feeling. When we know something to be true – when we are sure – we relax. Conversely, when we remain in doubt, we are restless. Perhaps it is this feeling that powers inquisitiveness?

I find that leading a school is like swimming in a sea of uncertainty. At the extremes, this can either feel invigorating, or like drowning. On most days it is simply perplexing and surprising.

Uncertainty is different to risk, although both can make you feel somewhat uncomfortable. Risk is quantifiable: calculations can be made and the various options weighed and evaluated. Uncertainty does not afford us that level of knowledge. To make decisions in a position of uncertainty means making do without much of the information we would like. This may be because this information is unavailable. However, often uncertainty arises from the fact that the situation is unknowable… there is a fuzziness to the problem, however hard we might try to bring it into focus.

The prevalence of uncertainty in schools may be (at least partly) explained by their complexity. Complex systems have been studied across many fields, including cybernetics, economics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary biology, and more recently in relation to social organisations. Complex systems are distinguishable from mere complicated ones in that the parts of the system are not fixed, but shift and change over time: they are adaptive (Holland, 2014). In a complicated system, a broken part can be removed and replaced with a similar component. In a complex system, there are few simple, causal relationships between the component parts – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As far back as 1976, Weick described the ‘loosely-coupled’ relationships between causes and effects in schools, and in doing so hinted at the complexity of schools as organisations. Since then, there has been little exploration of this idea in an educational context. In a paper by Hawkins & James (2016) titled ‘Theorising Schools as Organisations: Isn’t It All About Complexity?’, the authors coin the term ‘CELLS’, which stands for Complex, Evolving, Loosely-Linked Systems, which captures the key properties of complexity well. There are many implications arising from this perspective, but my interest here is the link with uncertainty, and what implications this has for leadership. Uncertainty is likely to arise from complexity due to the unpredictable nature of such systems, the constantly changing dynamics, the uncertain causal relationships, and the impossibility of ‘knowing’ all there is to know due to… well, the system’s complexity.

The sort of problems encountered in complex systems have been variously described as ‘Wicked’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973) or ‘Swampy’ (Schon, 1986). These problems may be defined in multiple ways, have no ‘right’ solution, and are essentially unsolvable. Schon distinguishes between the swampy and more mundane problems thus:

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solutions through the use of research­ based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing, and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.  The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe.

The final phrase stands out to me – a claim that, in tackling swampy problems, one must set aside any attempt at ‘rigour’. I have often heard this sentiment expressed to new senior leaders in schools as the need to give up being a ‘perfectionist’. I have said as much myself – but the phrase doesn’t quite capture the message which needs to be given. An understanding of complexity may help us to convey what is needed more accurately. As senior leaders, the problems faced will inevitably become more ‘swampy’. These problems won’t be solved through an objective analysis, through the application of a well-designed system, or by following a detailed plan. What new senior leaders need to understand, and come to accept, is that an optimal solution may no longer exist, and success will depend on an ability to live with uncertainty.

But complexity is not the only source of leadership uncertainty. Schools are steeped in ambiguity and the unknowable. The purposes of education are disputed and the means of educational effectiveness are unclear. Schools serve multiple stakeholders, each with their own preferences and priorities. Education is subject to ideological, social, economic, cultural, technical, legal and political change and influence. Folk knowledge, myth and misunderstanding often take the place of evidence and expertise. It is as if the enterprise of schooling is designed to breed uncertainty. Even the core business of schools is shrouded in the unknowable: learning is invisible; progress is non-linear; and teacher-effectiveness is, at best, an imprecise science.

How should we respond to uncertainty as leaders? It is tempting to impose order, certainty and simplicity in an attempt to tame the beast. These attempts are visible and rampant in our schools – we categorise, systematise and organise relentlessly. Where we have certainty, predictability and ‘high ground’ problems, this is an effective response. However, in the face of uncertainty, pretending to have answers is a risky pretense. However, leading in conditions of uncertainty – faced with problems which are ill-defined, complex or simply unknowable – isn’t written about much in the handbooks.

The first step may be to accept uncertainty. I have a suspicion that an inability to do this may be a significant factor in the high levels of stress experienced by senior leaders in schools. Some emerging work in this area has been carried out by Carr, Gilbride & James (2017) who suggest that adult ego-development might affect a school Principal’s sense-making capability; in particular, their awareness of and sensitivity to organisational complexity. It is theorised that, during an individual’s lifetime, adults progress through eight stages of development (a process known as AED) which affects how they interpret interpersonal relationships, cognitive complexity, impulse control and cognitive pre-occupations (Hy & Loevinger, 1998). It is not until the penultimate stage of AED, the Autonomous stage, that adults are believed to show a high tolerance for ambiguity, seeing conflict as an expression of the multifaceted nature of people and life. The final stage of AED reads like a description of the ideal school leader:


Wise; broadly empathic; full sense of identity; able to reconcile inner conflicts, and integrate paradoxes; self-actualised person, growth motivated…

Whether there is a way to accelerate this maturation process, I do not know. However, one might hope for more practical steps towards helping school leaders to accept and respond appropriately to uncertainty. This might involve equipping leaders with the ability to recognise complexity and identify the ‘swampiness’ of the problems faced. Accepting the inherent ambiguity of persistent problems faced in schools – student behaviour, workload, recruitment and retention, improving students’ learning, increasing teacher-effectiveness – is a prerequisite for developing effective leadership responses. Complexity theory may yield some strategies, but my instinct tells me that this beast will remain untamed – uncertainty is an inevitable feature of school leadership, and one we should learn to embrace. Although I can’t be certain.


This blog is the pre-cursor to my talk at the 2019 National ResearchED Conference in London on 7 September, where I will explore this topic in more depth.


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