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.



“The Vision Thing”

It was George H.W. Bush (the father of George W. Bush) who in 1987 responded to the suggestion that he turn his attention from short-term campaign objectives and look to the longer term by saying, “Oh, the vision thing”. I wonder sometimes if many of us in Scottish education suffer from Bush’s same discomfort with the “vision thing”?

At risk of stereotyping the Scottish psyche we are often more comfortable when faced with practical problems, which require “fixing”. Over the last twenty years this “fixing” mentality has been at the core of school development planning, i.e. identify what’s not working; work out a solution; implement solution; check if it’s fixed the problem. What happened in such an environment was that we ended up with lots of discrete tasks that “fixed” individual things but did not necessarily combine to move the system forwards.

Yet such an approach has much to commend it:

  1. Change can be represented as a technical enterprise, which can be controlled and managed.
  2. It gives the impression of productive activity (a prerequisite for the Scottish educator); and
  3.  It often results in a concrete product, which can be admired and shared – often to the credit of the person responsible for the action.

Perhaps our proud engineering and scientific heritage has positively reinforced our belief that the solution to a problem can be found through reliance upon technical mastery and hard work? The technical model has much to commend it for many discrete tasks that suit a linear, logical and controlled environment. Such an approach is sometimes referred to a “waterfall model” of development that maintains that one should move to a phase only when its preceding phase is completed and perfected. Phases of development in the waterfall model are discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them. In many ways educational change strategies in Scotland have depended upon this “waterfall” approach  which have been bureaucratic, slow and inflexible.

Yet there exists an alternative strategy that exists in practice in many Scottish educational contexts which promotes a more flexible, creative and effective approach to change, which can be used in conjunction with the waterfall model. As the waterfall approach takes its example from the scientific world, so the alternative takes its example from the artistic world. The model I have in mind is that of the sculptor. A sculptor will often start with a vision in mind about the final outcome. But as they commence their work and interact with the media with which they are working they begin to modify and change the original vision they had in mind.

This form of thinking is sometimes known as an “iterative” process where progress towards the eventual vision takes place over a series of versions where the creator reflects upon the original purpose but takes account of the shifting perception of what is actually required – which might be quite different from what was originally envisaged. This contrasts significantly from the dominant approach in education we often remain locked into “plan-driven” model where no allowance can be made for any change in the environment, or the needs that originally informed the need for change.

So where does the “vision thing” sit between two such contrasting approaches to change? As I suggested earlier many educational leaders are more comfortable when focusing upon technical problems that lend themselves to a linear and sequential problem solving approach. The very complexity of education sometimes means that it can only be conceptualised by breaking it down into manageable chunks – each of which can be managed, considered and improved in isolation, in the belief that they can then reconstituted into a “better” whole.

In many ways I agree that many of the elements of education can be considered and effectively changed in such an isolated manner. However, I would argue that the overview, or gestalt perspective, should be seen through the eyes of the sculptor as opposed to the eyes of the technician. For the educational leader must have a vision of what it is they are seeking to create in partnership with their colleagues. That vision should be clear but it should not be so “locked in” that it shuts out the emerging reality of the situation. It has been my privilege to work with a number of educational leaders who have adopted such a creative perspective – the results have to be seen to be believed!

Abstract Thinking


Over the next few months I intend to attempt to write a paper on the Seven Sides of  Educational Leadership for possible publication in an academic journal.

The first part of the process is to come up with an abstract.  Does the following: a) make any sense; b) provide an expectation about what the paper might be about; and c) entice the reader to read the full paper.

Changing the Metaphor; Changes the Theory; Changes the Practice: Developing a Multiple Metaphor Model of Educational Leadership.
Existing models of educational leadership are dominated by approaches, which try to reduce the change process to a series of sequential steps, in the assumption that if done in the correct order they will result in success. Such thinking has led educational leaders into bureaucratic, technical and mechanistic leadership approaches.

The approach described here taps into educational leaders’ intuitive appreciation of the change process and develops a meaningful tool with which to analyse, plan and effect ‘real’ cultural change in the complex environment of education.

Throughout human history metaphors have been recognised as a way in which to help people understand and interact with phenomena which otherwise would be too abstract and too complex. The multiple metaphor model uses a kaleidoscope of seven inter-connecting metaphors which have emerged and been tested over a ten year period in a variety of education settings.

The model, referred to in this paper as the Seven Sides of Educational Leadership, enables the leader to effect substantial and sustainable change through a form of leadership that is more suited to the challenges facing education in the 21st century, than the technical model of leadership that so dominates current leadership practice around the world.