Changing attitudes to leadership

Dr Martha Cleveland-Innes asks (in changeMooc) this week – ‘Who needs leadership?’

This was a thoughtful presentation. I liked the measured pace and the challenge to traditional ways of thinking about leadership.

It seems that there is no longer in this post-modern era a grand theory of leadership . Leadership theory is either so broad that it is meaningless or so granular that it is too narrow to be useful. Leadership is thought to be contextually based.  If it can be defined at all (Dr Marti Cleveland Innes suggested that it is beyond our ability to define it) then leadership depends on having ‘the right person at the right time, in the right place doing the right things’. A very tricky ‘definition’ because of that loaded word ‘right’.

It was suggested that in today’s world, leadership is no longer thought of as being in an individual, but because we live in a complex, distributed and networked world, we should all be leaders.  As Marti mentioned on her blog complexity theory is now being applied to leadership. (As an aside: ‘Everyone a leader’ is similar to the ‘Everyone a teacher’ argument – see Howard Rheingold talking about peeragogy ).

That we should all be leaders suggests that anyone can be a leader, that is anyone who has followers. A leader has to have followers. This video, also shown in Marti’s presentation, might suggest that it doesn’t take much to get some followers. It also raises the question of whether people who have a large number of blog, Twitter or network followers (or just any number of followers) are therefore automatically leaders.

There’s no doubt that if everyone in a given group or network is a leader, then everyone is also a follower and a view of leadership as invested in one charismatic person would have to change. The questions we ask about leadership would have to change.

But do we really think that there is no longer a place for the charismatic leader. World events, such as what is happening in Burma at the moment would suggest otherwise. Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly thought of as a charismatic leader – a leader of change.

Leadership and the type of leadership that we experience and want is strongly affected by context and culture. So charismatic leadership seems to be just what Burma needs at this current time, but is charismatic leadership what we need for education (my own context is education in the UK)?

Marti mentioned in her presentation that education is notoriously difficult to lead because institutions of Higher Education are notorious resisters to change. That fits my experience. Perhaps education is an example of a system that is too complex to be led by an individual, and all who work in higher education need to see themselves as leaders of change. Perhaps change in Higher Education can only come from the bottom up, through covert, subversive action.

But I know of many charismatic school head teachers who have pulled failing schools out of the mire and turned them into examples of excellence.  So what are the contextual and cultural differences between schools and Higher Education that call for different styles and a different understanding of leadership?

As always a Changemooc session leaves me with more questions than answers – always the sign of a good course:-)