Sustainable Leadership and Social Justice

Winter 2005

By Andy Hargreaves

I grew up in a working class communityin the rigid social class system in England in the mid-20th century. In such a setting, you quickly learn that, in your community’s experience, leaders are more often part of the problem than they are part of the solution. In World War I, it was political leadership that sent my grandfather, along with half of my town, to the slaughterhouse of the Somme, only to find, on his return, half deaf and with one lung, that he was barred from collecting his disability pension because he could not travel the five miles back and forth each day to collect it.
 
Business leadership fired my mother from her first factory job, when she had asked to be reassigned from her task — using pliers to twist the coils of springs on the ends of looms — because her bleeding palms could no longer hold the pliers. And when she went to search for a new job, her boss actually
informed the Labor Exchange ahead of time that she’d been fired for insubordination. She prayed every night that the factory would burn down and, although this was probably a questionable use of prayer, one month later, it did.
 
 
 
Educational leadership when I was growing up was not much better. It was the kind of leadership that Joseph and Jo Blase, in their book Breaking the Silence, characterized as being practiced by authoritarian, even wounding, principals. It was rational, linear, hierarchical, secretive, and controlling. It was leadership too often lacking in mission, and almost always bereft of passion. This was a world of “power over” rather than “power with,” of transactional rather than transformational leadership.
 
It’s not surprising, then, that I was part of a generation that questioned authority on all levels — and it was only later, as members of our generation came into leadership positions ourselves, that we began to think about ways to truly improve things. Still, it has been a slow evolution. In the early years, we certainly had a sense of social mission. We cared about social justice, about civil rights, women’s liberation, and the end of nuclear proliferation. But we often pursued this with irreverence and, sometimes, even irresponsibility.
 
While I can’t speak to political and business leadership today, I’m happy to see that, when it comes to educational leadership, things have changed over the past 30 years, and are continuing to change for the better.
 
For one, there are more women leading schools today. In many cases, women brought to their work a more explicitly caring and collaborative ethic. They also brought a different kind of educational background and orientation. Unlike many of their male predecessors, the new women leaders have moved increasingly from curriculum and instructional backgrounds. Instructional leadership was not something they had to learn afresh, but something that was already in their bones, waiting to be fleshed out more fully when they moved into administration. This generation of women has brought caring and learning to the forefront of the leadership world.
 
We’ve also seen the rise of collaboration in schools. In the past, the dominant feature of this community was a culture of individualism, where teachers worked largely alone, in isolation, separate from their colleagues. They didn’t learn from their colleagues; they did not acquire expertise about how to improve; and they did not get moral support when they were going through the early, difficult stages of change. But we learned in the late 20th century that when teachers worked in more collaborative cultures — what are now called professional learning communities — they had the support of their colleagues, they learned from one another. This has not only made teaching a more inspiring job, it has also made teachers more effective in terms of the impact they have on their students.
 
Subsequent research has shown that, if the culture of teaching was one of the crucial things that affected the quality of student learning, one of the most significant impacts on the culture of teaching was the character of leadership, and particularly of principalship (or headship) within the school.
 
What we are seeing now is the importance of a higher, more evolved vision of leadership — what we call sustainable leadership. This is not the leadership of heroes, the leadership of charismatic individuals, the leadership that comes and goes, that rises and falls. It is leadership that spreads across people over long periods of time, and spreads from one school, one place, to another, so it benefits many schools and many children, not just a few schools that are bright exceptions in odd or eccentric places.
 

Most people who write about sustainability in education write about it in a somewhat trivialized way. They equate sustainability with maintainability, with the capacity to keep things going. I want to attune it more to the ecological origins of the concept, so that we see sustainability as a spatial as well as a time-based issue.  
  
 
 
As Dean Fink, an associate of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and I have defined it, sustainable leadership means not simply whether something can last, but how particular initiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the surrounding environment, now and in the future. Sustainable leadership means how your leadership affects other people around you. Sustainable leadership is therefore fundamentally not just about keeping things going, but also about social justice, about your impact on other people, whom your actions affect over time.
We have developed seven principles of sustainable leadership that speak to us from the environmental as well as responsible corporate development literature. While they are designed with public school leadership in mind, it’s clear they have applicability to all schools, public and private.
 

Sustainable leadership creates and preserves sustained learning.

Sustainable leadership is first and foremost about leadership for learning in the deepest sense. It’s leadership that fully understands the nature of student learning, that engages directly with learning and teaching in classrooms, and that promotes learning among other adults to find the best ways to help the learning of students. Sustainable leadership, in this sense, captures, develops, and retains deep pools of leaders of learning.
 

Sustainable leadership secures enduring success over time.

Sustainable improvements continue year upon year, from one year to the next. They are not fleeting changes that depend on exemplary leaders’ efforts and that disappear when the leaders have gone. Sustainable leadership spreads beyond individuals in chains of influence that connect the actions of leaders to the ones who went before and the ones who will take up their legacy. Sustainable leadership makes leadership succession central to the process of continuous improvement.
 
Quick-fix changes to turn around schools in trouble are the antithesis of sustainable leadership. They often exhaust the teachers or the principal, so the improvement efforts can’t be sustained over time. The success of principals in such schools may lead to their promotions or their movements to other schools that need them, resulting in regression among the teachers who feel abandoned by their leader or relieved when the pressure is off.
 
Sustainable improvement, therefore, has to be measured over many years. For individual principals themselves, leadership succession challenges them to think about who they succeeded, what were their achievements, what business they left unfinished, where they fell short. It is a challenge of deciding what to continue, what to change, of recognizing the legacies that have to be honored and the work that has yet to be done.
 
Leadership succession challenges individual leaders to consider how the improvements they guided, or will initiate, will live on after their promotion and retirement. There is a dark corner of the soul in most leaders that secretly wants their own brilliance never to be surpassed, that hopes their successors will be a little less excellent, a little less loved, a little less brilliant than themselves. The Emperor Caligula killed half his children. Saturn ate his offspring. Governments have been known to spend all the surplus to spoil things for the next government that comes in. These are the most pathological cases of poor leadership succession.
 
Moral leadership doesn’t deny the feelings of wanting to be better than any successor. Instead, it rises above these feelings for the good of others.
 
 
 
Etienne Wenger, in Communities of Practice, talks about two kinds of knowledge — inbound knowledge and outbound knowledge — that leaders possess at times of succession. Wenger says that individual leaders and the people who appoint them are obsessed with inbound knowledge, the knowledge that you need to fix something, change it, turn it around, place your stamp on it. Almost no one pays any attention to outbound knowledge, the knowledge you need to keep something going, improve on it, build on what’s gone before, leave a legacy when you’re done.
 
Independent schools have more opportunity than most to groom their successors. Some schools even keep this within the family, though it’s important to ensure that the perpetuation of longstanding traditions and values doesn’t eclipse getting hold of the best expertise. In independent schools, it would make a lot of sense for all school improvement plans to incorporate clear succession plans.
 

Sustainable leadership must depend not just on grooming individual successors, but also on sustaining people around the leader.

Leadership succession, in this sense, is about distributed leadership, about how you spread leadership to other people. Outstanding leadership isn’t just dependent on individuals. In a complex, fast-paced world, leadership cannot rest on the shoulders of the few.
 
No one leader, no one institution, no one nation can micromanage or control everything it believes to be in its power without help from other people around it. The burden is simply too great. In Witi Ihimaera’s magnificent novel, Whale Rider, about an adolescent Maori girl who becomes the unexpected daughter — rather than the anticipated, chosen son — who will lead her people out of the darkness, she gathers her people together to turn beached whales back into the ocean, challenging her patriarchal elders to understand that lone leaders cannot do it all by themselves.
 
In highly complex, knowledge-based organizations, we need everyone’s intelligence to help the school to flex, respond, regroup, and retool in the face of unpredictable and sometimes overwhelming demands. If we lock intelligence up in the individual leader, this creates inflexibility and increases the likelihood of mistakes and errors. But when we draw on what Brown and Lauder call “collective intelligence” that’s infinite rather than fixed, multiple rather than singular, and belongs to everyone not just a few, then the capacity for learning and improvement is magnified many times over.
 
This is the power of distributed leadership. Distributed leadership, unlike delegated leadership, creates an environment where other people have the power, initiative, motivation, and capacity to initiate acts of leadership themselves. It is about empowering to teachers, students, parents, and all other groups connected with the school so that improvement is a genuinely-shared responsibility.
 

Sustainable leadership is thrifty without being cheap.

There is no point investing large amounts of resources in a pilot program and then seeing the initiative disappear when the pilot-project resources have gone. There is no point developing No Child Left Behind legislation according to one budget, and then implementing it on a seriously reduced budget over time. Sustainable expenditure is exemplified in spending on skill development that lasts once the resources disappear. Sustainable expenditure is also seen in buying people time to create a collaborative culture that will continue even when the amount of time decreases, once the resources have gone. In short, sustainable leadership develops improvements that can be achieved within existing or achievable resources.
 
Independent schools, generally speaking, have greater resources than public schools. But the principle still applies. Overextending a budget to achieve short-term desires can hurt a school in the long-run. With independent schools, there is also the concern of driving up the price of an independent school education so that it excludes the middle class. If the goal of true diversity — class as well as race — matters to a school, sustainable leadership requires the sort of fiscal controls that allow this to happen.
 

Sustainable leadership is about systems thinking and social justice.

In a study of eight schools I have been conducting with a group of colleagues, we have seen how schools are affected by the schools around them. When a charismatic leader left one school and took his best staff with him, not only did the leader go, but key teacher leaders went with him.
 
 
 
A second example from our research concerns three schools in a northern Rust Belt city that are all connected to each other. One of them is a magnet school, created in the 1980s to stop white and bright flight out to the suburbs. This magnet school has done very well. The school next door, though, which used to be the jewel of the district, now calls itself the special education magnet, because all its best students have been creamed off to the magnet school. Many students from a poor school on the other side of town have been transferred to this second school. The school is no longer attached to its community because it now has to take poor students from many different areas. What occurs in the magnet school or charter school affects the other schools around it. You cannot pursue improvement in one school without thinking about the implications, in terms of social justice, for the other schools around it. This is a systems-thinking question, and also a moral question that all leaders have to ask about their practice.
 
The applicability to independent schools is different — but the principle is the same. Schools need to see themselves in light of the greater good — indeed, the broader public purpose of precollegiate education. For independent schools, it’s looking at the ways they connect with and serve the culture and wider community that allows for their existence. The moral life of schools runs parallel to the academic life of schools.
 

Sustainable leadership must sustain the self.

One of the most powerful resources we have is not financial, but human. It is the capacity and the power of our people. A number of truly heroic and courageous leaders are achieving phenomenal success in their schools, but often at enormous cost to their own health, to their own well-being, to their families, and their sanity.
 
Among four of the most successful leaders we have seen in the eight schools we have studied, one has moved up into the superintendency, two have retired early and gone into consultancy or to do a doctorate, and one went into the hospital. Four outstanding principals who are no longer principals. We want a lot from principals and school heads — courage, character, and commitment — but we must not and cannot demand so much of them that it drains the key resource we have: the emotional health and integrity of those individuals themselves. Sustainable leadership must be about sustaining the intellectual and emotional lives of leaders themselves so they can carry their work and maintain their impact over long periods of time, and not just through short periods of heroic effort. Sharing responsibility, taking time out for reflection, investing in one’s own professional learning — all these things replenish the spirit and the soul of leaders.
 

Sustainable leadership develops environmental diversity and capacity.

A sustainable school that develops deep learning where teachers share their best practices among each other, and learn from evidence from the outside, is one that promotes substantial diversity, in different forms of excellence that can then be shared with one another.
 
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 70 species of pear in Australia. Now, because of over-specialization and over-standardization, there are just two. Any bug, any blight, anything that comes in now destroys not just one pear out of 70 but half of the pear population. Standardization makes us vulnerable to predators, bad decisions, misguided acts. It reduces the capacity of one species, person, or expert to learn from others over time. Standardization of any kind is the enemy of healthy diversity and of fundamental sustainability.
 
The current educational reform environment is inflicting serious damage on the school principalship. Our evidence shows it is turning leaders into managers. It is detaching good administrators from their staffs. Leaders are abandoning sustainable improvement so they can manage the imperatives of episodic and repetitive change.
 
All this makes our current era a very difficult one in which to be an educational leader — to fight for the sort of sustainable leadership that protects deep learning in schools, sustains teachers to promote and support that learning, and sustains leaders so they don’t burn out.
 
But I am optimistic nevertheless. I’ve seen the development of educational leadership over the past 30 years. We now know what it takes to sustain leadership for the long-haul. And we now have a rising generation of school leaders who come with much greater knowledge of and interest in diversity, shared mission, and social commitment. This is the kind of leadership we can all believe in. It will not only make leadership better for school leaders, it will also, I believe, create deeper, more sustainable improvement for all students in all our schools.
Author
Andy Hargreaves

Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. His latest book, Teaching in the Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity, has received Outstanding Book awards from The American Educational Research Association and the American Libraries Association. It is available from Teachers College Press.