I read Ben Laker and colleagues’ Harvard Business Review article, The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School, with interest. It has created a bit of a rumpus following his appearance on BBC Newsnight last week. Academic research seldom incites this kind of controversy. For this reason alone, perhaps it is helpful. It has provoked a debate about school leadership. But I am left wondering whether this is the right debate.
Laker’s research identifies five leader-types, but postulates that only one leader type can turn around a failing school:
The surgeon who typically studied PE or religion seeks out poor performance and tends to exclude in order to raise standards – but exam results collapse after they leave.
The soldier who typically studied IT or chemistry, focuses on efficiency and cost reduction but things go back to square one after they leave.
The accountant who typically studied maths, focuses on increasing the financial strength of the school – revenues tend to increase and costs reduce.
The philosopher who typically studied English or languages, focuses on teaching during their tenure, but there is a gradual decline when they leave.
Finally, the architect which Laker claims is the only successful turn-around leader-type, who typically studied history or economics – these leaders redesign everything and build a new vision resulting in exam results increasing following tenure.
I like that the research is data-led; would that more research was of this nature. It is good that the research reinforces the fact that it takes time to bring about sustained improvement in a school. Quick fixes are not likely to be sustainable. The business of improving a school is complex. It takes time - as Laker et al identify, the architect builds by design.
Quick fix or sustainable improvement?
There are strong lessons in this research for our high-stakes accountability regime. A possible unintended consequence of this regime is that head teachers feel under pressure to produce results quickly. And governing boards feel under pressure to appoint leaders who promise that they can do so.
Then of course there is the way we reward short termism. The research is right in drawing our attention to this and how we might need more strategic, transformational thinking if our intention is to move beyond the quick-fix and build sustainable improvement in our education system.
However, there is a problem I think with the presentation of ‘types’ of leaders. The typology assumes that leaders are locked in to their behaviours, styles and cultures – and further locked in by the subjects they originally studied. There has been a strong reaction against this. Rightly so. The evidence may show a correlation between subject-studied and leader-type, but I am not sure how this helps us. The logical (and ridiculous) conclusion would be that we advise governing boards to hire only those applicants for headship positions who studied history or economics.
The structuralist orientation of the research means that a great deal has already been decided about how the story of leadership will be told. It reduces the impact of the thoughtful and deliberate actions and decisions of individual leaders. In the end, I believe it is fatally deterministic. It over-simplifies.
I wonder if there is not more merit in talking of leadership styles or approaches rather than types. While leaders may have a proclivity to one or another, different styles may be appropriate to different contexts. This would avoid determinism, while still giving us a language with which to talk about leadership.
The Order of Things
In conclusion, I’d like to offer the opening inscription from Michele Foucault’s iconic book, The Order of Things. Foucault cites a fictional Chinese Encyclopaedia from the writer Jorge Luis Borges in which it is written that “animals are divided into:
(a) belonging to the Emperor
(d) suckling pigs
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitches
(n) that from a long way off look like flies”
Laker’s research may help to shatter the familiar landmarks of our thought about leadership, it may help to break up the ordered surfaces and planes of leadership literatures, but in the end, it too is an attempt to tame the abundance and complexity of leading a school.
It has some important messages, but its delimitations represent the limitation of its usefulness. We need theories of leadership that focus on agency, ethics and courage, not destiny and determinism. To be useful, we need research that is less about leader-types and more about the specific steps and actions successful turn-around leaders take in their first three months and six months, and then a year and two years.