Raising Standards Together

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Masters in Education Practice: Leadership


Characteristics and features of leadership


The moral imperative of leadership

Leadership is not a value neutral activity. A core feature of successful school leaders is that they have a keen sense of moral purpose and this is closely associated with key educational principles, particularly a sense of service and advocacy for children. This often involves headteachers and other leaders balancing the demands of accountability, particularly of the external political kind, with what they perceive as being the overarching moral imperative of leadership. For instance, Day (2005) reported on research across many countries which showed that successful headteachers are those who place as much emphasis upon people and processes as they do upon outcomes. Headteachers both accepted their responsibilities to do the best they could for every learner in terms of government testing and attainment agendas – while simultaneously being highly critical of such agendas. Headteachers also held the view that learners’ holistic development was vitally important. These leaders combined and implemented both of these elements – accountability and ethical commitment – within ‘an over-arching agenda in which they were committed to the principles of equity and social justice’.

This approach appears to be a common feature even in schools in the most challenging circumstances (see also subtopic 1.4 – Professional learning to enhance leadership). Much of the research into leadership of schools facing challenging circumstances highlights a contrast between external performance demands and the vision and moral purpose maintained by headteachers. They saw their role as not just improving standards against performance league tables, but as bringing about a more fundamental transformation. This included an emphasis on values, the ethical dimension and ‘people’-related factors, such as creating an inclusive community and building a collaborative identity to which all can subscribe. So, successful school leaders were primarily driven by individual value systems.

It seemed that moral purposes, emotional and intellectual commitment and ethical and social bonds were far more powerful levers of leadership than extrinsic agendas.

(Day, 2005)

This is reflected in 10 themes which characterise successful headteachers and other leaders, gained from research.

  1. Performativity and vision: managing the tensions.
  2. Building and sustaining an inclusive community.
  3. Narratives of identity.
  4. Values, beliefs, and the ethical dimension.
  5. Renewal of professional trust.
  6. Moral purpose, agency and culture of courage.
  7. Expectation and achievement.
  8. Leaders who learn.
  9. Building internal capacity through collectivity.
  10. The passion of commitment.

(Day, 2005, pages 274–275)

What this means in practice is that the leader’s moral code informs and drives both the transformational vision for the school and day to day transactional leadership (see subtopic 2.3 – Transformational leadership and subtopic 2.4 – Transactional leadership). For instance, it involves granting the same liberty and opportunity to others that one claims for oneself, on telling the truth, keeping promises, distributing to each what is due, and employing valid incentives or sanctions (Bass and Steidlmier, 1999). Indeed, some commentators see the leader’s moral code and framework as a well from which they draw to face pressures and replenish their leadership energies. It becomes:

. . . a reservoir which provides the calm centre at the heart of the individual leader, which preserves their personal values and vision and which continues to allow effective inter-personal engagement and sustainability of self-belief in the face of external pressures.

(Flintham, 2010, page 2)

Activity 3.1.1

Watch Ken Robinson talk about his vision of education (external link) .He illustrates that his passion regarding creativity is at the core of his sense of moral purpose for education.

Reflecting on this and on the material above, how important do you feel it is for leaders to have an overarching moral purpose? If you were asked to identify the elements of your own moral purpose in leadership what would they be?

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