During the past decade, the school system has become more receptive at embracing professional growth, in particular when seeking to improve leadership capabilities known to increase student outcomes (Robinson, 2010). There is still much that leaders need to know, such as how best to lead in certain situations and why. As important as knowledge is, compelling evidence exists that suggests that the environment remains a key determinant when leading change (e.g. Coe, 2022).
I first became aware of this as a middle leader in the early 1990s, and instantly became drawn to a fledgling term that had crept into the school leadership lexicon. It was called ‘organisational culture’ and education researchers were beginning to suggest that it was emerging as a key indicator of an effective school, and that context and environment played a key role (e.g. Ouchi and Wilkins, 1988; Murgatroyd, 1993).
Keen to test this out, I spent several years researching its impact on student outcomes. This led to an MEd, in which the author’s glib conclusion was that there were indeed ‘a great many factors within the organisational culture that effect the management of change’.
Quite what these were remained unclear, so I resolved to learn more about what these factors might be. As a leader, there is much to be curious about. In particular, as a new headteacher, I wanted a better understanding of the school-based evidence that underpinned culture. Much of the research seemed detached from the reality of the challenging schools that I was leading. Numerous books were being published convincing people how to become a great leader. Much of it was unhelpful, with limited consideration given to cause and correlation or the interference of teaching.
The situation hasn’t improved, and even in the commercial sector, much of the research is still driven by rhetoric and jargonistic claims that seek to overcomplicate the matter (Hirst, 2019). Others in education appear to agree. Professor Rob Coe (2022) suggests that much of the leadership research, as important as it is, is in fact ‘mostly dreadful’, awash with ‘frothy’ advice and full of ‘poorly operationalised constructs’. He concludes that ‘no wonder we don’t know how to train effective school leaders’.
The leadership challenge
This is why leadership can appear perplexing, especially in the current high-stakes VUCA environment. VUCA was a term first used by US Marines during the Gulf War to help decision-makers cope with higher levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Previous operational methods no longer worked, and what worked in one place no longer worked elsewhere.
The same is true in schools. There is no doubt that the educational landscape is as uncertain as ever, which is why there is a need for an authentic school culture and working environment that is grounded, yet agile enough to adapt and respond to continual change.
The key challenge for leaders is how best to achieve this, given the false dichotomies and tensions that exist in the current system, all the while under pressure to drive up standards. ‘Expert’ content knowledge appears essential, especially of what it is that a purpose-driven leader needs to know and do. This is necessary so that on the one hand a leader stays true to core beliefs, while at the same time they are evolving continuously as a reflective, evidence-informed practitioner.
The research suggests that it is possible to have both: to be able to maintain a sense of personal and professional identity while at the same time embracing diverse perspectives, constructive dissent and ‘rebel ideas’ (Syed, 2021). This may seem to contradict what it means to be authentic, for it is often claimed that as soon as an individual imitates the behaviours of someone else, or backs down from their own core beliefs, the person is no longer authentic.
Unlike established leadership models, one cannot become more authentic in perhaps the same way as being more ‘transformative’ or ‘instructional’. An individual is either authentic or not. As soon as a person attempts to codify what authenticity consists of, it no longer is. Daniel Goleman (2013) warns leaders of the risks involved if they do try to fake it in terms of superficial behaviors: reform or go.
It remains therefore the most delicious of paradoxes, not least because as a leadership model in its own right, it is a relative newcomer, being the last of the 14 models to appear (Gumus et al., 2018). As problematic as it is when defining the behaviours of an authentic leader, etymologically one might find greater recourse from its Greek root, in which autos means ‘self’ and hentos ‘being’. The epitome of authentic leadership is therefore knowing how to ‘be more self’, providing one’s actions are embedded in ethical practice (ASCL, 2019).
However, it is understandable why novice leaders struggle with this moral maze, particularly when being mindful that ‘the notion of adhering to one “true self” flies in the face of much research on how people evolve with experience, discovering facets of themselves they would never have unearthed through introspection alone’ (Ibarra, 2015).
What is encouraging to note is that the need to evolve is intrinsic. Psychologists claim that this is what it means to be human, especially during times of leadership transition (Ibarra, 2015). The research is convincing, such as Bronfenbrenner’s Ecology of Human Development (1979), Kelly’s ‘personal construct theory’ (2013), Kegan’s theory of the ‘self-transforming mind’ (1983) and Loevinger’s ‘adult ego development’ (AED) theory (1976).
All of these posit that one must remain continually open to change in terms of core beliefs. AED, for example, suggests that the effectiveness of a headteacher is determined by how well s/he transitions through the stages from ‘impulsive’ to ‘self-aware’ and on to ‘integrated’ (Gilbride et al., 2020). Even in retirement, the pressure to evolve continues. In a study involving 19,000 adults, scientists found that despite assertions that individuals have finally settled on the true authentic version of themselves, perceptions are wildly inaccurate, and people continue to evolve and change beliefs right up until death (Quoidbach et al., 2013).
The authentic leader model
There is no blueprint or schema for an authentic leader so do not be persuaded by those claiming to have one. This model does not seek to do this – far from it. Instead, it draws on a range of perspectives and evidence that enables leaders to shape their own personal leadership voice, based not only on formal content knowledge and knowledge of the context and environment, but also on heuristics and interoception (Paul, 2021).
In turn, this flexible approach will promote the creation of a purpose-driven culture that returns full circle to those questions I first posed in my MEd statement of intent a quarter of a century ago. Namely: ‘What are the forces that make up the culture of the school, how do we go about influencing them, and how do we ensure this always leads to improved outcomes?’
Impact is key. At the heart of being authentic lies the ability to turn purpose-driven actions into sustainable impact that adds value. Accomplishment must be the supreme task of any leader, but not at any cost. ‘Achieving great things is not just about what you do, it’s about the way you do it.’ (Barber, 2021 The authentic leader model embraces this by facilitating a clear line of sight, from core personal constructs (quadrant one) through to the outcomes that leaders choose purposely to produce, both within the classroom and beyond (quadrant four): everything must flow from purpose in order to remain authentic (Kouzes and Posner, 2017).
While it’s not for researchers to tell others what their purpose is (this must be discovered individually), credible attempts have been made to identify the common characteristics of an authentic leader. In a review of literature by Avolio and Gardner (2005), they compared the emerging traits associated with authentic leadership development theory with those of the more established leadership models, such as transformational and servant.
A number of broad components were identified considered to be strong indicators of an authentic leader, including:
Four classic leadership conundrums
Drawing on this research, along with the author’s own experience and insights, the four-part model aims to provide leaders with an adaptable conceptual framework that promotes an authentic purpose-driven culture. In so doing, the mental model revolves around four classic conundrums that are common to all schools. Unlike with problems, where there is often a universally accepted and transferable solution, these persistent leadership evergreens are more complex and stubborn.
As such, they require specific content knowledge as well as a secure understanding of the context, circumstance and environment. The conundrums themselves each form a quadrant of the model and are designed systematically to challenge and disrupt thinking:
On culture, on purpose
By thinking deeply about these questions, leaders should be well placed to secure sustainable change. There is much that needs to be known, and whereas the codification of leadership knowledge can sometimes be problematic, personal characteristics alone will not be enough (Barker and Rees, 2021).
With this in mind, the model is predicated on nine baseplates that need to be secured, each underpinned by the content knowledge required that will guide the leader in revealing the solutions for each conundrum. For example, when trying to unlock potential in order to increase capacity (quadrant three), pedagogical knowledge of the ninth baseplate – professional growth (CPD) – is essential.
We already know from the work of Robinson (2010) that fine-grained leadership knowledge is necessary if leaders are to become capable of improving student outcomes. But this cannot be achieved in isolation. Professional growth can only occur in a collaborative environment that encourages strong relationships – for example, through goal setting, feedback and deliberate practice (Sims et al., 2021) or learning to become an evaluative and self-determined practitioner (Korthagen, 2016; Weston and Clay, 2018).
Relational trust is essential, and so by incorporating baseplates four and five (building relationships and enabling trust), leaders can leverage this further, by knowing for example how to apply Vangen and Huxham’s (2009) trust-building loop when working collaboratively. What is important is that none of this happens by chance. Leaders need to know how to do it from purpose and on purpose. It has to be deliberate.
Leadership is complex and there is much to learn. On the one hand, authentic leaders are required to remain true to their own ethical personal constructs, while at the same time being willing to embrace new ideas that may well challenge one’s own sense of self.
As important as they are, generic personal characteristics are no longer enough, as leaders seek to become competent in their field. Getting the balance right is challenging. Yes, we need visionary leaders, but only if they know what an accurate and purpose-driven vision looks like in the first place within the unique and specific context of their school, based on a secure understanding of the environmental variables.
More importantly, through insight, leaders need to know why and how they intend to translate their actions into meaningful impact so that it goes beyond what would normally be expected. The authentic leader model makes no claims to be able to ensure this. No leadership model should.
But what it should do if well executed is encourage and guide knowledgeable and curious leaders through their thinking as they seek, together with authentic others, to accomplish meaningful impact by focusing only on the right things.
The Authentic Leader: A Four-Part Model to Lead Your School to Success was published by Bloomsbury on 13 October 2022 and is available to buy here.
This is an abridged version of the original Impact article available here.
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