How Experts Have (Accidentally) Encouraged Caged Leadership

Leaders need to be generous, unselfish and check their egos at the door. At the same time they can’t be pushovers or hand-wringers. Generative Leadership is compatible with Cage-Busting Leadership, a term coined by ed scholar Frederick Hess. We are honored to have him guest blog today about how we need to acknowledge a blind spot in the leadership conversation in education: the cage. Rick’s comments follow:

In my recently published book Cage-Busting Leadership, I argue that one of the most important and most readily addressed causes of “cage-dwelling” leadership is the shared conviction among experts that the cage isn’t a problem. Educational leadership authorities suggest that talk of structures and the cage reflects a “corporate” mind-set and is inappropriate for K–12 schooling. They tend to echo Trinity University professor Thomas Sergiovanni’s declaration, in Leadership for the Schoolhouse,  that “corporate” models of leadership don’t work in education.

Cage-busters don’t believe that school leadership is unique. They agree that it has unique elements and challenges. But they think that inspiring adults, connecting with communities, serving children, leading teams, managing public budgets, and all the rest are roles that have a lot in common with leadership at YMCAs, hospitals, universities, and parks . . . as well as software firms, transit agencies, and charities.  As the dean of one elite business school muses, “I don’t know where educators got this idea that business schools do one kind of leadership and they do another. We train students planning to be energy traders, financiers, health-care executives, and nonprofit CEOs side by side. Believe me, they all have very different interests and issues. But the core skills of leading an organization, motivating a team, managing resources, and negotiating an environment are similar across a range of fields.”

Readers are likely acquainted with the shelf of influential works by prominent education leadership authorities like Michael Fullan, Ben Levin, Andy Hargreaves, Richard Elmore, Kenneth Leithwood, Terrence Deal, and Lee Bolman. Their advice comes in different flavors, but all emphasize the primacy of curriculum, instruction, coaching, and culture.  Such advice is good and useful. Nobody is arguing otherwise. Cage-busters, too, embrace rich content, rigorous standards, a vibrant school culture, smart use of formative assessment, terrific teaching, and engaged learners.

That said, these experts routinely make two mistakes. First, they have constructed a notion of instructional leadership that reifies consensus, deifies stakeholder buy-in, and insists on the “specialness” of education—while dismissing or ignoring the half of the leadership equation that deals with statutory, bureaucratic, contractual, or organizational obstacles. The result: swell ideas that work fine under optimal conditions, but that inevitably disappoint when leaders try to roll them up the mountain.

For an easy illustration, flip through the pages of the education magazines that school and system leaders peruse for guidance and advice. It quickly becomes clear that these are suffused with the “five Cs” of the leadership canon—collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching, and culture—while cage-busting concerns are largely ignored. In Educational Leadership, for instance, between January 2009 and September 2012, collaboration was mentioned 142 times, professional development 180, and culture 214. Collaboration, the least frequently mentioned of these, outpaced the combined mentions of regulation, licensure, compliance, maintenance of effort, supplement not supplant, inept, mediocre, productivity, collective bargaining, layoff, arbitration, grievance, due process, labor agreement, and negotiation. Indeed, during a period of fierce budget cuts and tumultuous debate about teacher evaluation and tenure, the terms layoff, labor agreement, arbitration, due process, negotiation, maintenance of effort, regulation, and ineptitude appeared a grand total of twenty-eight times in the course of nearly four years.

Over the same time frame, Phi Delta Kappan mentioned collaboration 151 times, culture 245, and professional development 256. Again, collaboration, the least common of those three, outpaced the combined mentions of the other fifteen terms noted above.

The point is not that the authorities ought to stop paying attention to the five Cs—it’s that they should start paying attention to the cage.  Look, I want to be clear about two things. First, yes, I’m suggesting that almost the entire education leadership canon suffers from a giant blind spot. Second, I am not in any way, shape, or form dismissing this work. It has valuable things to say, but it only speaks to one half of the leadership equation. In ignoring the cage, leaders trap themselves within it.

– Frederick Hess, author of Cage-Busting Leadership, 2013

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Categories: Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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  1. Quiz: Are You a Transformative Leader? « Education to Save the World
  2. Transformation Begins with Adults « Education to Save the World

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