Seven Sides of Educational Leadership – a father and son thing

As Groucho Marx once quipped, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Such are the number of available leadership models in education that we could change Groucho’s words to read,

“Those are my educational leadership principles, and if you don’t like them…. well, I have others.”

Professor John McBeath (2003) captured this proliferation perfectly when he coined the phrase “The alphabet soup of leadership” and went on to list twenty-one different terms and interpretations on educational leadership, from heroic to charismatic; from authoritarian to transactional; and from distributed to invitational.  Since McBeath’s paper that list has continued to grow in size and complexity enough to confuse even the most devoted student of educational leadership.

My own preferred definition of educational leadership is as follows:

Educational leadership is the aptitude to achieve high quality educational outcomes for all learners through the efforts of others.

The advantage of using such a stripped down, unsophisticated and utilitarian definition is that it does not lean towards any particular leadership approach or style, and in so doing enables the observer to consider those matters in isolation.

However, it strikes me that one of the fundamental flaws in all of the various models presented in McBeath’s article is that is presumes that a leader only adopts a singular perspective, and the associated conditioned behavioural response to any educational challenge – regardless of their dissimilarities.

Yet over my thirty year career in educational leadership I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually much more refined than that, and that outstanding leaders actually consider problems from a variety of a perspectives and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

In that regard I attempted to identify these various perspectives and link them together into a coherent framework with which to represent the complexity of the educational leadership decision making process. I called this model the ‘Seven Sides of Educational Leadership’ and have been peddling the idea for a number of years to anyone prepared to listen.

The model is composed of seven lenses, or perspectives, through which leadership challenges can be viewed and considered.

In very broad terms these lenses are as follows:

The sculptor adopts a creative approach towards problem solving where personal insight and subjective judgment are used to produce innovative ideas. :

The scientist adopts an objective perspective and uses knowledge; data and experimentation to better understand and improve their world.

The Builder operates to a plan,  follows rules and regulations to clear timelines and has a very tight grip on budgets and resources.

The Gardener works for deferred reward and recognises the importance of regular maintenance, weeding and appreciates the importance of environmental conditions for growth.

The parent promotes values, offers unconditional support, and is prepared to relinquish control at an appropriate time.

The conductor has the big picture and seeks to get the best from specialists in their own fields by coordinating their work to produce an outstanding performance.

The villager is a networker, who understands the importance of giving and taking, communication and relationship building skills.

However, as is often the case, it took another person to take an idea and actually build it into something more concrete and worthwhile – in my case that person happened to be my eldest son.

One of the joys of  advancing years is when you begin to discuss your work with your own children.  Living in a farming community where so many parents and their children work together it’s not so unusual for generations to share the same passions but much less common for those in professions such as my own. Yet over the last six months my son and I have discovered a common professional interest that has had a profound influence upon my thinking.

His particular area of expertise is in the field of Behavioural Finance and through a remarkable coincidence our professional interests have aligned, particularly when he introduced me to the notion of Decision Making Frameworks.

The conversation went something like this: Son “Dad, you know that seven side thing your always on about”-  Me: “Yes”  – Son: “Well, I think it’s really a decision making framework”.

Emerging from these discussions and from the domains of behavioural finance, systems thinking and leadership experience the framework seeks to provide the leader with a variety of integrated perspectives – and in so doing reflects more accurately the practice of exceptional leaders.

By allowing the leader to consciously view such challenges from different perspectives it frees them from their default opinion, which is often an intuitive and automatic response to a situation. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate in economics described this as the difference between thinking ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, where ‘slow’ thinking is conscious, rational and rule based.  By applying a ‘Leadership Decision Framework’ the leader can begin to develop a slower and more rational approach to leadership problems while at the same time providing them with the building blocks with which to identify and implement powerful solutions.

As the leader applies and learns the framework, which is assisted by its use of symbolic and memorable metaphors, it has the potential to fundamentally change their own leadership behaviour by influencing what they previously done at an automatic and reactive level.

All I can say is that the framework has had a profound effect upon my own behaviour as I’ve begun to internalise the model and consciously apply it in my day-to-day work as a public service leader.