The predispositions of school leadership

Much of the discussion at the recent uLead conference was on how we lead schools in today’s world. As you can imagine, there was a smorgasbord of opinions that yielded interesting discussion and important insights. The benefit of attending such conferences is that it often provokes and stimulates your own thinking as was the case when we were asked to write down our top three attributes of a school leader.

As I’ve written before, I find these requests to develop a list of leadership traits somewhat problematic. The trait theory of leadership posits that leaders are born with inherent traits and qualities that make them ‘fit for purpose’ for leadership. These traits are somehow genetic – in your DNA from birth like integrity, intellect, morality, resilience, fairness, compassion etc.

Since trait theory was first articulated there has be nearly 140 years of attempts to capture, define and replicate leadership. Most seem to anchor this in a deconstructed approach to leadership whereby you examine the parts of the whole, privileging some over others and then construct a new whole.

We are more likely to find an answer to this by looking not at leadership but at leading. It is in what people do as a leader that we actually understand leading. Looking through a lens of leading, means that we gain deeper insight into leadership.

I think a more realistic way of understanding the complexity of leadership is to view it as a set of predispositions that overlap with each other. For example, someone may have a natural predisposition for collaboration but it’s in the totality that you see leading in action. In other words, all the elements even if not in equal measure end up making the whole.

 While my fellow participants were noting down there top three traits, I jotted down my five predispositions that good leaders demonstrate in no particular order.

    1. Curiosity – the capacity to continually ask the why questions, to go deeper  and not to accept things at face value
    2. Empathy – the ability to see and understand the world through your teachers, staff and students lens
    3. Collaboration – the recognition that problem-solving and creativity comes from a shared vision and language
    4. Adventurous – the courage to take on and shoulder bigger risks with the aim of improving the outcomes for those in your learning community
    5. Learning – the desire to continually cultivate environments of learning and transformation requiring honest feedback (from others), critical self-reflection and personal growth

As John Kotter said, leadership is about coping with change. For me, these predispositions are fluid enough to be able to respond to the context and demands of the times.


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