Leaders – you are not in control
Leaders – you are not in control

Leaders – you are not in control

It started with Keven Bartle’s presentation at #TLT15. A presentation that questioned the current balance of education power and concepts of what leadership and leading is. Keven superimposed his messages upon clips from the The Matrix, encouraging his audience to question and look beyond the accepted narrative of inspection frameworks with it’s emphasis on accountability. Beyond traditional conceptions of leadership and leading.

“…unfortunately no one can be told what the matrix is you have to see it for yourself.”

The Matrix clips were interspersed with messages from Dee Hock’s Birth of the Chaordic* Age. I knew nothing of Dee Hock, or what chaordic meant – incidentally, it is a made-up-word-alert alluding to the point where chaos and order reside. A place where

…success will depend less on rote and more on reason; less on the authority of the few and more on the judgment of many; less on compulsion and more on motivation; less on external control of people and more on internal discipline.”

Dee Hock p265.

Keven’s presentation and Hock’s book rocked my boat. My first encounter with Complexity Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems left me digging deeper down a rabbit hole; having previously shared my concerns around school inspection and performance related pay as part of education’s accountability framework. I also felt that the leadership courses I had previously attended, presented a very linear and reductionist conceptualisations of leadership.

April 2016, I accepted my first Headship and in doing so, I knowingly took on a school in disarray and in the midst of a large building project. A school lacking in identity with transient and temporary staffing. In terms of improving the school, I set about the task of defining new leadership and administrative roles, new systems and processes, that ensured that we fulfilled our statutory responsibilities. I managed a “Material Change” inspection and deployed SIMS Independent. We formalised School Improvement Planning and Self-Evaluation and HR and Compliance procedures were reinforced. I was, to a large degree, leading the school as I had been lead. Taking a linear and reductionist approach, I believed that I was in charge and in control.

The red pill

Later that year Keven invited me onto “Working with Complexity in School Leadership” course. A very different kind of leadership courses. In fact, distinctly, “a rejection of typical leadership courses,” and not a linear or cycle leadership model in sight. During the first half of the Saturday morning sessions we were taught aspects of Complexity Theory. That organisations, and therefore schools, are:

  • dynamic, that is they are continuously changing
  • far from equilibrium, have the potential to change suddenly and may take one of two paths,
  • open systems, that is interchange energy (and information) with their surroundings
  • feedback driven – what happens next depends on what happened previously
  • systems where the whole is more than the sum of the parts
  • are causal and yet indeterminate

That organisations, and therefore schools, are complex adaptive because they are a system

…composed of a diversity of agents that interact with each other, mutually affect each other, and in so doing generate novel, emergent behaviour for the system as a whole. The system is constantly adapting to the conditions around it and over time it evolves.

(Lewin [1999], p198).

In the second half, we were introduced to a form of narrative inquiry that explored our very real “wicked problems,” or “thorny issues,” within these complex adaptive systems, in a level of depth I had not experienced previously. And so the seeds of doubts were planted.

After twelve months travelling up to Harrow, wider reading and having the experience of leading a school, the boat had been rocked so hard, I had been tipped out. Throughout my career, I was comfortable being in charge and in control; in charge and in control of the class, the Department, Teaching and Learning, and finally of the school. And yet, here was a leadership course openly suggesting that I was being deceived. Instead, we were being encouraged to reflect upon how we were contributing to the organisation (through our narrative writing), and how our contribution was reflected back at us, paying attention to the reactions of others, and what happens as a result, and then using this information to take into account when deciding what to do next.

And that, at last, is the point of this post – what to do next.

Reviewing Complexity Theory is not the purpose of this post, however, if you are interested, Making Sense of Complexity – is a interesting starting place.

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