Leading schools and school systems has become a perilous business in Canada as well as the United States. School superintendents, college presidents, and principals are appointed with much fanfare, only to find themselves soon immersed in bureaucratic challenges, beset by seemingly intractable problems, and ground down by the realities of managing the system. Looking for inspiration, today’s school leaders discover that motivational books about transformational change are now in short supply. The latest educational mantra is “sustainable leadership.” Success has come to be almost synonymous with survival in today’s educational world.
Educational leadership is a peculiar field, not normally characterized by critical thinking or reflection. Yet the Canadian educational system remains under stress and the need for leadership greater than ever before. Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood’s Overdue Assignment (1993) accurately identified the source of that stress. “Those used to running the system, be they ministry bureaucrats or school board administrators, trumpet the arrival of change and reform even as they cling to the traditional power structure.” Since the mid-1990s, principals have found themselves on the front lines feeling pressured to guide and, at times, manipulate the agenda for schools. Students, parents, taxpayers, and employers now challenge those running the system seeking improved test results, higher literacy standards, special education services, and a dizzying array of changes.
School leadership is increasingly unsustainable and improvement efforts are flagging in most educational spheres. A 2004 Spencer Foundation-funded study of educational change in North American high schools produced sobering results. Over three decades and based upon a study of 200 educators in 8 different high schools, Andy Hargreaves and I. Goodson found that leadership sustainability was critical to any successful reform. “Most processes and practices of school leadership,” they concluded, “create temporary, localized flurries of change but little lasting or widespread improvement.”
Educational leadership and change gurus like Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves seem to be changing their tune. Upbeat inspirational books like their 1991 What’s Worth Fighting For? series ( Ontario Teachers’ Federation) have given way to a new generation of “How to” school leadership books with more prosaic titles like Sustainable Leadership (September 2005) and Turnaround Leadership (September 2006). Old prescriptions such as “continuous improvement,” “interactive professionalism,” and “building learning communities,” have given way to “Seven Principles” or strategies for institutional resilience and survival.
The “Lone Ranger” leader who rides into town and saves a single school is still frowned upon by the influential educational change theorists. After successive waves of change initiatives, recycling old ideas in new guises, the leader of the future is now the “consensus-builder” attuned to school culture and skilled in the art of leading from behind. Spearheading change is passe in a field which now extols the virtues of “sustainable leadership” based upon depth of learning, length of impact, breadth of influence, justice for all, diversity of approach, resourcefulness in personal renewal, and conservation of the best for a better future.
Sustainable leadership consultants like John Varney ( CEO, Centre for Management Creativity) provide renewal workshops to fortify beleaguered school administrators. “New age” leadership, according to Varney, “is the capacity to perceive or create a field of meaning on which the game of life is played.” Success amounts to creating a ‘meaning field’ where “shared values” inform every action without the need for “overt communication.” Mass meditation certainly sounds like the recipe for survival!
Gone are the days when educational leaders sought to inspire others in the dynamic style promoted by Sir Ken Robinson. Chief education bureaucrats are shadowy figures who have long since given up the crusading ways of Massachusetts’ Horace Mann and Ontario’s Egerton Ryerson. Powerful women educators like Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and the Toronto Learning Partnership’s Veronica Lacey stand out as notable exceptions. The most successful university presidents such as Tom Traves (Dalhousie), Paul Davenport ( UWO), and Colin Dodds ( Saint Mary’s) are “iron-men” who outlive mere “flashes in the pan.” The Toronto-based Canadian Education Association, led by Carole Olsen, is little more than a cheerleading chorus for public education. Ground-breaking initiatives such as Pathways to Education originate outside the system and are driven by the likes of Carolyn Acker and a new breed of social enterprise entrepreneurs.
The situation is most critical at the local school level. School principals are mostly careerists, on an upwardly mobile administrative track. Moving principals from school to school every three years has unintended results, mainly associated with “revolving-door” school leadership. Innovative, dynamic principals learn to “walk on eggshells,” especially when it comes to dealing with teacher union issues. Simply replicating system-wide initiatives is much safer than trying something original and certainly better rewarded in the system.
All of this rambling discourse, begs a few key questions: What has happened to the educational visionaries and inspiring leaders? Why has sustainable leadership become the popular mantra of leading educrats, superintendents, and principals? Where have all the real educational leaders gone — and where will we find the next generation of school leaders?