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Let it go, leadership that is!

For many years now in schools we have struggled with the vexed question of distributed leadership. Generally, this is seen as a good thing, and desirable, and encourages us to flatten the hierarchies of leadership control that have traditionally existed in schools across the globe. No longer should leadership reside with one or two visionary people who's job titles and remits expressly describe leadership as a key function. e.g. Headteacher, deputy-headteacher, principal teacher, etc. For many years various education systems have encouraged school leaders to see leadership as a responsibility of all, and that we need to provide the conditions that enable all staff to step up to the plate and lead on various whole-school developments. 'After all, everyone is a leader of learning in their own class' is the often used repost when some question whether everyone wants to, or can lead, in a school. Personally, I have believed for a long time that the qualities that one looks for in high performing leaders are very similar, if not the same, as those you would look for in high performing teachers. In that case, we should look to support teachers who wish to lead outwith their immediate classrooms as there are benefits within them as well. I benefitted from school leaders who gave me the opportunity to not only develop my teaching practice and understanding, but to also contribute to whole-school developments, so that I could gain more experience, well before I had any formal leadership role. As a result, I have always sought to provide similar opportunities for staff when I became a school leader. To me, it has always been a win/win situation with benefits for individual teachers, the school and, further down the line, other schools. Myself, and others, have never really liked the term 'distributed leadership' as it still smacks of a school leader who distributes tasks to those he/she favours, and the tasks they don't want to do themselves. I much prefer Clive Dimmock's 'dispersed leadership' term as this more reflects my own approach which seeks to support staff throughout the the school to identify how, why and when they are able to lead, by working collaboratively with others. Dispersed leadership is a bit more natural and spontaneous in nature and is not dependent on the largesse of the school leader. 

Move on a few years and we start to get the call for 'system leadership', from Michael Fullan, Michael Barber and others. In this, we are looking for school leaders, and those with expertise, to recognise how they can contribute to the development of the system through collaboration and support outwith their own schools. This can be seen as 'distributed' or 'dispersed' leadership on a larger macro scale, and builds on the work of many that support and promote the development of teacher agency and adaptive expertise by all in the system, then extends this out into the system as a whole. The drive is to produce the 'self-improving' and developing system, where individuals recognise how they can work to improve the system as a whole from within, rather than being driven from the top down. In system leadership we are not waiting for a formal role, but recognise our responsibility to all learners within the system, and see how we can support and develop the system by collaborating and using our experience and expertise. In times of fiscal austerity, system leadership and the self-improving system becomes even more desirable as support from out side schools diminishes or disappears. I look at system leadership as just an extension of the adaptive expertise I am am looking to develop in staff but at that macro level. Again, system leadership is something I have bought into for some time and the rationale is one that makes complete sense to me, and many others in the system.

However, with dispersed and system leadership, there is an issue that we need to consider. That is, for either to work effectively they are dependent on formal leaders, in both micro and macro systems, to be willing to let go and support each approach. For school leaders to really embrace and benefit from dispersed leadership within their schools they have to develop a culture that supports and encourages staff to step forward and have a go. They have to let go of some of the reins of control they have traditionally employed to get the benefits for all. They need to be prepared for mistakes to be made and they need to encourage innovation and new thinking, as long as it is based on sound principles and evidence. So it is with system leadership. For system leadership to really take hold and become embedded, those who have traditionally led within the system have to be prepared to let go too. How else are those within the system going to be encouraged to collaborate and develop new ways of working? Such practice and thinking will soon die on the vine if they come up against formal system leaders who still insist on micro-managing and directing all those below them in the hierarchies that still exist within the system. There has to be some changing in mindsets, and how people see their roles, at all levels, for system leadership to grow into the organic self-developing and improving system practice we seek. If area and district managers are not prepared to let go, system leadership will only get so far. Everyone seems to talk the talk, the proof of the pudding will be in their preparedness to really walk the walk. Watch this space!


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