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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Leadership in Complex Times

My life has got more complex.  It was my own fault, there is no-one else to blame.  I now work with a greater number of schools, they are more diverse in nature and there are many more connections to understand and take account of.

Of the following two pictures which one do you consider would best represent the school you work in or your view of the education system as a whole?

Photo Credit: Sergei Golyshev via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Sergei Golyshev via Compfight cc

Or this:

Photo Credit: Douglas Brown via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Douglas Brown via Compfight cc

Life’s Complex Not Just Complicated

Complicated and complex are not the same but are often confused by leaders.  I always aspired for the school I led to run like clockwork.  Try as I might it never seemed to quite work out that way, though on a good day many bits did.  The problem is definitely me but was the root cause of my difficulties wrong actions or wrong thinking or both?

Complexity Theory suggests that the clockwork I sought can be found in complicated systems where there is a simple linearity and link between cause and effect.  If I do A then B happens which leads to C and so on.  There is a predictability in this system which doesn’t always seem to occur in my daily life as a leader.  My world is as much about leading and managing entropy, the degree of disorganisation, as it was about order.  This is represented by the rain forest picture, or ecosystem, which is complex, consisting of unpredictable interrelated webs of relationships, actions and consequences.


Disproportionality of Cause & Effect (The Butterfly Effect)

Our complex schools and education system prove to be remarkably robust and resilient and paradoxically extremely fragile.  There is disproportionality in terms of cause and effect as opposed to the linear workings of the clock.  For leaders this matters.  Ever spent what seems an age and considerable effort trying to lead a significant change only to find out that the actually daily experiences of children in the class room hasn’t changed one iota?

“In education systems that undergo wave after wave of reform, frequently the emphasis is on the on the implementation and consolidation of externally designed changes.  The main result is frustration and a resistance to change rather than a desire to improve schools.”

Sahlberg, P (2015) Finnish Lessons 2.0 p. 184

Part of the challenge in leading the a school, department or phase is understanding the inbuilt homeostatic resistance to change that maintains the class room’s basic equilibrium, to external change, in favour of the status quo.

Photo Credit: Yousif Abdelrazaq via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Yousif Abdelrazaq via Flickr cc

Alternatively, ever mooted an idea with a few people, or in a discussion with staff, to turn round and find the whole thing has taken off or spiralled out of control in an unforeseen way.

The Butterfly Effect suggests that even the smallest event, such as a butterfly fluttering its wings, can lead to a hurricane half way across the world.  Just about everything you say and do as a leader ripples through the organisation.  Sometime the consequences are hugely positive, both intended and unintended, but at other times the reverse happens.  You soon learn as a leader that every decision or choice you make has a consequence and a reaction, intended or unintended, seen or hidden.  It is sometimes the ability to see the potential impact of leadership decisions and an ability to manage the shadow side that makes some changes and some leaders more successful than others.

Think what you are going to say or do as a leader before you say or do anything.

Allegiances & Alliances: The Self-Organising System

“Wheatley (1992) explains that freedom and order, while seeming to be a paradox, actually are partners. Allowing autonomy at the local level creates freedom that finds a natural order through self-organization. The result is more coherence and continuity.”

Bower, D. (2006) Sustaining School Improvement.

If it wasn’t complex enough inside schools the whole education system is morphing at an increasingly exponential rate.  There has been much written and said lately about the self-improving school system or the school-led system but what about the self-organising system?

I think two megatrends are beginning to appear, local area allegiances and wider area alliances.

In complex systems local level solutions tend to emerge out of decentralised structures.  These have been created in our Education System as previously local authority maintained schools convert to academies or free schools are set up.  Local level interactions create their own order through building positive relationships based on collective moral purpose and the Common Good.  Like an ant community every person or organisation plays their part, within a set of very simple rules, often unwritten, for the good of the whole community.

“The core of the organization, characterized by principles, philosophy, and values, influences processes like feedback, communication, dialogue, sense making and relationships. These processes in turn support what emerges from the organization – ownership, renewal, creativity, a safe and trusting environment, engagement and self-organization.”

Bower, D. (2006) Sustaining School Improvement.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sue DeConnick via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Kelly Sue DeConnick via Flickr cc

In these families of schools leaders and teachers are willing to take pain for each other and make a commitment to stick together, for better or worse, in a synergistic relationship based on shared values, a readily identifiable our children and common purpose.  The unwillingness of some leaders locally, who want autonomy and additionality without commitment, will be a block for their schools taking part in the short term.  These local families of schools provided the basis for an intense sharing of Social Capital that enables the whole to be more than the sum of its parts.  This self-organisation also needs to be taken into account as leaders look to change systems within schools.  Going against the grain may lead to a lot of energy being wasted in a futile attempt at reorganisation which has little impact.

The Wider Area Alliances are based on organisations coming together to add value to what each one can do. They are linked by a vision of what could be.  It is a different example of building in the social capital and Teaching School Alliances are a current example but there are many others which don’t always get the same official recognition.  These groups like HeadsRoundTable, twitter networks or international groups all have the potential to add significant social capital to the teachers and leaders working within the networks.  Alliances tend to be more transitory in nature nor can they readily identify our children, commitment overall to them may be less than the local family of schools but they have additional reach and expertise.

Building Social Capital: The Leader’s Role

Through allegiances and alliances the leader’s role is increasingly to build social capital.  Its purpose is simple, to increase the quality of teaching and learning within the class room.  Improving teaching is the leadership necessity.  Chris Husband (2014) builds an important differential between teachers and teaching in a great blog post, Great Teachers or Great Teaching: Why McKinsey Got it Wrong.

“It’s a fabulous quotation: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” It has the sense of an underlying educational law, as compelling as Newton’s laws of motion. It’s routinely attributed to the 2007 McKinsey Report, How the world’s best performing education systems come out on top.

But if you dig into that report, you’ll find a footnote acknowledging that the quotation came from a senior government official in South Korea …”

Husbands, C. (2014) Great Teachers or Great Teaching: Why McKinsey Got it Wrong

He correctly argues that a system can outperform and exceed the quality of its teachers Pasi Sahlberg (2015) also makes the same argument in Finnish Lessons 2.0 What can the World learn from educational change in Finland?  Our schools need more great teachers, more human capital, and these along with great teaching are developed through greater social capital, with teachers learning with and from each other.

Photo Credit: p.Gordon via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: p.Gordon via Flickr cc

Trying to neatly organise cosmic string, juggle ether or knit fog are great preparation for teaching in or leading a school.  In both areas the complexity is increasing, the linearity of cause and effect is increasingly difficult to see.  This calls for different leadership in these complex times.  The role of leaders in, in moving from good to great, is to deliberately connect the right people, at the right time, in the right way.  Failure to do so will lead to frustration and a resistance to change rather than a desire to improve.”

“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.”

Lee Shulman, The Wisdom of Practice (Taken from Coe, R. 2015)

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Rory Gallagher has pointed out a possible error in my theory attribution.  Thanks Rory.  I’m wondering whether chaotic systems are an example of a complex system but there are better qualified people to answer this than me.



Bower, D. (2006) Sustaining School Improvement. Ohio University (USA)

Coe, R.  (March2015) From Evidence to Great Teaching, Presentation to ASCL Conference

Complexity Lab (2014) Complexity Theory: A Short Film
Complexity Lab (2014) Self Organisation Theory: An Introduction

Husbands, C. Great Teachers or Great Teaching: Why McKinsey Got it Wrong. IoE Blog

Learning Space (2014) A Classroom Basis for Accountability and Growth – The Example of Lesson Study

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0 What can the World learn from educational change in Finland? 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Thanks also to Phil Wood (@geogphil) who kindly shared a number of papers on Complexity Theory to get me thinking.



5 thoughts on “Leadership in Complex Times

  1. Reblogged this on ep3577 and commented:
    What a great piece, really made me think!

    Posted by ep3577 | March 29, 2015, 9:55 pm
  2. Reblogged this on rwaringatl.

    Posted by Richard Soles | March 30, 2015, 11:55 pm


  1. Pingback: Education Panorama (April ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit - March 30, 2015

  2. Pingback: Leadership in Complex Times | rwaringatl - March 30, 2015

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