Complexity theory and educational leadership The place of the new sciences in shaping thinking on how to lead schools today David Mansfield Introduction The dissertation on which this summary is based seeks to apply the findings of natural science in the area of quantum physics and chaos theory to the world of educational leadership. The use of observations from the natural world into social sciences and in particular to the world of business is already common place, but only tentative steps have been made to use chaos and its sister theory of complexity in the world of education.
The context The study firstly synthesises the key findings of chaos and complexity theory, and then demonstrates how these findings have evolved into a large body of business literature. The main body of the dissertation shows how these findings can be transferred to school leadership and how the literature on educational management and leadership already embraces, albeit implicitly in many cases, the core elements of complexity thinking.
Methodology Initially the dissertation was intending to test complexity theory against actual practice in schools and discern the degree to which it has verifiable validity as a model for planning and progressing school leadership. This proved to be a larger task than possible within a Master dissertation and so a simpler piece of qualitative research was done instead. This is placed in an appendix with and accompanying summary of the methodology underpinning it. The in-school research was not looking to evaluate the degree of validity, but merely to confirm that complexity language and the theoretic paradigm deriving from complexity theory did have some mileage in describing what goes on in schools. Further work by NCSL research associates would be encouraged in this area of research. The study is, then, essentially a literature based piece of research that works with three bodies of material: the scientific, the social science/business and educational leadership. The threads that link these diverse literature bases together are teased out and made explicit. An evaluation of the validity of these ideas is made and in particular of whether general principles are transferable from one discipline to another. This is a philosophical issue as well as academic as quantum thinking is postmodern in nature so hits linguistic and conceptual problems of transferred meaning. National College for School Leadership 2003
Complexity: new scientific findings Complexity is founded on the assumption that atomistic, Newtonian physics does not fully describe the reality of the natural world. Hence mechanistic/hierarchical theory of organisations is also only half the picture. The natural world is often non-linear in its development; it incorporates double-loop feedback systems that encourage turbulence, and allows unstable dissipative structures to continue. Indeed instability within boundaries is the ideal state for natural evolution to occur. Strange attractors provide the centre for drawing together neural networks that, due to sensitive dependence, inspire small changes that can have massive impacts down the line. The process of change may appear random but it is in fact fractal. Repeat patterns occur that inspire self-organisation and the emergence of the new. This distillation of quantum theory can be applied to the world of human organisation. It has been researched by many writers, and the study seeks use the literature to identify the key applications of chaos/complexity to organisational theory.
The application of complexity theory to organisations Complexity theory seeks to encourage spontaneous self-organisation and the emergence of new effective developments. Thus disequilibria within organisations are seen as no bad thing as long as the necessary preconditions for survival (‘the boundedness’) are in place. Complexity leadership will throw out challenges rather than solutions; it will encourage diversity, creativity and paradox, expecting disagreement as a necessary element in innovation. There will be no imposition of top-down pressure to deliver, indeed diversions from the norm will be amplified and supported. The organisation will support the creation of informal networks or teams that seek to work flexibly to find best-fit solutions. It will be assumed that off-the-shelf solutions will not work and that change takes time. Indeed as a result of continuous feedback, the organisation will constantly re-jig its vision and goals, recognising that long-term strategic planning is often unhelpful. Relationship between colleagues is foundational to the complex organisation as staff learning, planning and development all stem from group sharing and communicating. The business literature creates a picture that can be applied to the educational research on successful school leadership and organisation. The study seeks to demonstrate that many educational leadership principles derive, or at least are consistent with, complexity thinking.
Application of complexity theory to educational leadership If Stacey’s definition is correct, “the task that justifies the existence of all managers has to do with instability, irregularity, difference and disorder” (Stacey, 1996), then school leaders must be a particularly impressive group. The new science literature suggests that school leaders must have the flexibility to let go of the old, and embrace the new. They learn to work with, not ‘do’ to; they comprehend who a leader is – the personal values, the ways of relating, the reflective cultivator of others, the servant leadership; they have trust and faith in others; they apply democratic self-governance; they encourage organic leadership; they are visible, but are committed to the end to command and control culture. New science heads are no longer seeking autonomy, control and omniscience, they are not lone rangers, but team players, interdependent, confidence in people, not selffocused, but have learnt flexibility and patience, and that they do not have all the answers. They create a culture where people's confidence in them is not in their control, but their
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connectedness and commitment; as leaders, they work closely with people and are emotionally connected to them.
The complex leader Key to leadership is the need to deal with needs, hopes, ideals and symbols of a whole community. This is managing chaos! Leaders must add value to practice, to create a moral order of symbol, purpose and meaning. This is not easy! There is no route map or blueprint. Your own organisation has its own special combination of personalities and prehistories. There is no one answer to the question of how one brings about change in specific situations. You can get ideas, directions, insights, and lines of thought, but you can never know exactly how to proceed. You have to beat the path by walking it. (Hargreaves & Fullan, 1998) The complexity leader must go beyond transformational leadership to create, as Morrison (2002) puts it, “a genuine democratic, distributed, transcendental, quantum and servant leadership within complexity theory”. Allix (2000) argues that transformational leadership is too technicist, it is instrumental and often manipulative, as it relies on heavy persuasion and influence. Morrison calls for servant leadership based on a sense of stewardship (implying a recognition of shared ownership) and community, which presupposes democracy. “The notion of distributed leadership is the sine qua non for emergent organisation,” argues Morrison (2002). He goes on to quote the servant leadership qualities identified by Spears (2001), CEO of the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership: listening; empathy; healing; awareness (of self and others); persuasion; conceptualisation (‘think big’); foresight; stewardship; commitment to growth of people; building community. These qualities sit happily on the person specification of a complexity leader. So complexity thinking leaders must be flexible, people-centred visionaries who do not hold on to power, but disperse it, who listen and are led by their people. Above all they must be prepared to find new routes to agreed destinations, and not be afraid of getting lost, trusting that the edge of chaos is the grounds of real creativity and development for all. “Leadership is best thought of as a behaviour rather than as a role or position” (Morrison, 2002). Governing bodies selecting heads need to develop tools to discover whether these hidden reserves of character exist within potential leaders. Without these skills, complexity will destroy rather than create. This dissertation argues that complexity theory has much to recommend it as a reconceptualisation of what school leadership is all about. It suggests its critics have valid but not irrefutable claims, but do not undermine the basic foundations of the theory. Certainly further work is at least a sensible route forward. In conclusion, let Morrison summarise the role of complexity thinking on schools and their leadership. Schools should be regarded as self-organising, complex, emergent, non-linear organisations, within which different forms of differentiation occur (horizontal [task division], vertical [layers of management], spatial [geographical location]... The leadership task becomes the management of micropolitics and of moving the members of the school from a competitive, secretive, isolationist and procedure-driven mentality to a collaborative, interdependent, group- and team-based network, with devolved decision making and its accompanying responsibility and accountability. (2002)
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This descriptor is an almost definitive assessment of what successful school leadership looks like, yet it derives from complexity theory. Morrison makes the bold claim in his key book on complexity and school leadership that: Complexity is a reality; it is happening; it is working in practice, whether we like it or not. Though its message is unsettling, for it argues that long-term planning is futile, that control is a chimera, and that the power of bosses is limited, it is descriptively accurate. (2002) Complexity helps describe what actually happens. Perhaps further investigation into how leaders can use complexity to shape events will cause an emergence of a new leadership paradigm across our schools.
References Allix, N M, 2000, Transformational Leadership: democratic or despotic? Educational Management and Administration, 28(1), 7–20 Hargreaves, A and Fullan, M, 1998, What’s Worth Fighting For Out There? Guidelines for Principals’ Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto Morrison, K, 2002, School Leadership and Complexity Theory, London, RoutledgeFalmer Spears, L C, 2001, Recent Commentary, Indianapolis, The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership [www.greenleaf.org/leadership/read-about-it] Stacey, R D, 1996, Complexity and Creativity in Organisations, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler
Acknowledgements Many thanks to the schools which helped shape these thoughts: • •
King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford Chelmer Valley High School, Chelmsford
Thanks in particular to these staff and former staff at Hull University in the International Leadership Centre within the Institute for Learning: • • •
Professor John West-Burnham Professor Brent Davies Derek Bowden
Comments to the author: • •
or [email protected]
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