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MEP learning pack

Masters in Education Practice: Leadership


Thinking about leadership and leadership styles


Leaders as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Hosts’

Great Barr Teacher becomes Super Head: A headteacher who transformed a failing city secondary has been hired as an education guru to help poorly-performing schools.

(Birmingham Mail, 2011)  

We have become used to reading headlines of this kind in which leadership is characterised as the charismatic superhero who is drafted in to turn around a school’s fortunes. However, this tends to be in stark contrast to the kind of messages arising from much of the research into effective leadership. The evidence shows instead that bringing about school improvement has more to do with determination, commitment, resilience, and establishing shared values and sharing the leadership task itself with others.

Thus the emphasis is on leadership as a painstaking, sustained and tenacious exercise. Considerable caution is sounded about short-term charismatic interventions that leads to short-term change but does not necessarily ensure improvement for the longer term.

The task of leading a school in the twenty first century can no longer be carried out by the heroic individual leader single handedly turning schools around. It is greedy work, all consuming, demanding, unrelenting peak performance from super leaders and no longer a sustainable notion.

(Gronn, 2003)

It’s not all about the leader

The strong focus on the powerful contribution made by leadership in schools has meant that there has been a pre-occupation with the role of the leader. Some have seen dangers in this; it may over-simplify the complex nature of schools as social organisations and in particular neglect the importance of dynamic relationships involved in the leadership process. Instead it is argued that developing new approaches to leadership grounded in complexity theory provides models which ‘more accurately reflect the complex nature of leadership as it occurs in practice’ (Uhl-Bien and Marion, 2009; p.631). Here the focus is not just on the leader, but also on the follower and the relationship between the two. This leads to a recognition that:

... effective leadership processes occur when leaders and followers are able to develop mature leadership relationships (partnerships) and thus gain access to the many benefits these relationships bring.

(Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995; p.222 and p.225)

Embracing chaos

An even greater challenge to traditional perceptions of leaders and leadership is posed by those who see that the world in which we try to exercise leadership as one of chaos. The common reaction when posed with chaotic events is to establish some form of control. This links with the hero mindset which looks to parachute dynamic leaders into schools, particularly those categorised as causing concern, to sort out the chaotic condition they are perceived to be in.

For some this is seen as a highly problematic approach, placing too much emphasis on the efforts of individual leaders to solve often deep rooted systemic problems:

You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things; that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can save the situation, the person, the world.

(Wheatley and Frieze, 2011; p.4)

The startling challenge and alternative approach from Wheatley and colleagues is that, rather than try to impose our own control, we should embrace this chaos and look for patterns of order to emerge:

All these years we have confused control with order. So what if we reframed the search? What if we stop looking for control and begin the search for order, which we can see everywhere around us in living dynamic systems? It is time, I believe, to become a community of inquirers, serious explorers seeking to discover the essence of order – order we will find even in the heart of chaos.

(Wheatley, 1993; p.3)

So, instead they encourage leaders to embark on ‘the journey from hero to host’ where leaders host gatherings of colleagues to establish a sense of order and arrive at collaborative solutions.

Activity 2.2.1

Read the following extract and view the two short video clips of Wheatley explaining the argument for leaders moving from hero to host.

How convincing do you find this portrayal of leaders as hosts? Drawing from your own experience what are the potential and pitfalls of this image of leadership?

Extract: From hero to host

Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable . . . If we want to be able to get these complex systems to work better, we need to abandon our reliance on the leader‐as‐hero and invite in the leader‐as‐host. We need to support those leaders who know that problems are complex, who know that in order to understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in to participate and contribute. We, as followers, need to give our leaders time, patience, forgiveness; and we need to be willing to step up and contribute.

These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do; they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done. They know that other people, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy, can be as motivated, diligent and creative as the leader, given the right invitation . . .

Leaders‐as‐hosts know that people willingly support those things they’ve played a part in creating—that you can’t expect people to ‘buy‐in’ to plans and projects developed elsewhere. Leaders‐as‐hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders know that hosting others is the only way to get complex, intractable problems solved.

Leaders‐as‐hosts don’t just benevolently let go and trust that people will do good work on their own; leaders have a great many things to attend to, but these are quite different than the work of heroes.

Hosting leaders must:

  • provide conditions and good group processes for people to work together
  • provide resources of time, the scarcest commodity of all
  • insist that people and the system learn from experience, frequently
  • offer unequivocal support – people know the leader is there for them
  • keep the bureaucracy at bay, creating oases (or bunkers) where people are less encumbered by senseless demands for reports and administrivia
  • play defense with other leaders who want to take back control, who are critical that people have been given too much freedom
  • reflect back to people on a regular basis how they’re doing, what they’re accomplishing, how far they’ve journeyed
  • work with people to develop relevant measures of progress to make their achievements visible
  • value conviviality and esprit de corps – not false rah‐rah activities, but the spirit that arises in any group that accomplishes difficult work together.

(Wheatley and Frieze, 2011; p2-3)

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