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What does ‘great leadership’ look like?

The nature of international schools brings its own set of challenges and complexities around leadership, as Michael Fertig, Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath, UK, tells IB World magazine

We can all recall working with a ‘bad’ or ‘ineffective’ leader. Some of us might even shudder at the thought.

Mike Fertig, Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath, UK

“‘Bad’ leaders are ones that fail to see others as colleagues, and who tend to operate in a kind of leadership vacuum, where they make decisions without regard for the thoughts or feelings of those around them. Often lacking in empathy, they are loathe to give up any of their power through delegation and often seek to micro-manage activities within their own institutions,” says Michael Fertig, Lecturer in Education at the University of Bath, UK.

But, these qualities only limit long-term, sustainable success.

School leaders set the tone and the character of their institution and, also, act as role models for students. This is especially important within an international school setting.

International schools are presented as being committed to celebrating diversity, listening to others and encouraging openness and dialogue, which furthers their commitment to international mindedness.

A clear alignment between a school’s values and the behaviour of the leadership team is crucial for school success.

Barriers to success

A short tenure is a barrier to effective leadership in many international schools.

The average tenure is just 3.7 years, according to a research by Dr John Benson in 2011. In 1994, it was 2.8 years, according to a study by Dr David Hawley. Both studies revealed that a key factor was the relationship between the school leader and the school board. This was confirmed in a recent study by RSAcademics of over 100 international school leaders and board members from the Gulf Region and across Asia.

Governance is the number one reason that heads leave their roles, and seems to be the biggest issue facing international schools, said the vast majority of respondents. They reported varying degrees of dysfunction.

“This is incredibly complex in my area,” said one school leader. “I have five different groups that I report to and communication between those groups relies on me. Formal documentation that defines how these groups work together and interact is sketchy.”

International school leaders face varying expectations about their role from faculty, parents, students and other stakeholders, which can compromise creativity. Fertig says: “They also have to take account of differing demands within the local context, in terms of curriculum, employment legislation, as well as a potential plethora of attitudes among different stakeholder groups regarding student grouping and approaches to pedagogy, for example,” says Fertig.

Short tenures disrupt long-term planning, continuity and progress. “Such turbulence and churn at senior leadership levels has clear implications for the ability of these leaders to plan strategically, and to be in a position to initiate and support long-term school improvements in student learning.”

Fertig adds: “Given the relatively short average tenure of international school leaders, the problematic nature of developing a leadership and institutional culture that encourages innovative and creative pedagogical thinking becomes a key issue.”

However, the emergence of new forms of international school, as seen, for example, in the development of franchises have served to exacerbate tensions by widening the nature of governance and/or extending it to new stakeholders, says Fertig.

Distributed leadership

As well as overcoming short tenures, constraints of governance, international schools need to consider models of leadership.

“Anyone who has ever worked in an educational institution will be the first to agree that they are very complex organizations, containing a myriad of friendship and professional groupings,” says Fertig.

“This phenomenon of complexity within organizations in general has been evident for many decades and has led to the notion of ‘loose-coupling’ – a need for different elements within the school to be loosely connected to each other but within the over-arching parameters of the goals and the mission of the school.”

As a result, total control by one person becomes unattainable and differing levels of responsibility need to be devolved. This is known as distributed leadership.

Dr Alma Harris, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy, Department of Education, University of Bath, UK, and co-author of one study on this subject, says, “Leadership is ‘influence’ and every teacher influences young people every day. We need leadership at all levels – or distributed leadership – to transform schools and school systems for the better. Most critically, we need teacher leaders working within and between international schools to build the capacity for positive change.”

Transforming your school

School transformation can often throw a spotlight on areas of school practice that are problematic, but it also offers a great opportunity for change and improvement. It is important for leaders to sensitively encourage colleagues to get on board, which will minimize disruptions.

Fertig says: “International school leaders who embrace the idea of distributed leadership in some form, and who work with other colleagues in terms of developing role and responsibility clarity are likely to be able to make use of such an organizational culture in order to ensure an increasing clarity of purpose surrounding responses to the change facing the school.”

He adds: “Having an understanding of the views and values of colleagues is advantageous in these circumstances. The need for leaders to articulate a message to colleagues that eschews easy and trite answers to the nature and the implications of the change becomes central.

“Allied to this is a need for leaders to have an awareness of, and to present clearly to colleagues, the irrational and complex nature of the change process and, also, to respond as positively as possible to signs of resistance that often signal a concern from colleagues about stepping into the unknown.”

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