Updated: Sep 10, 2020
The context of this article is inspired by education activist Louise Van Rhyn whose tireless commitment to the education-leadership nexus in South Africa is extra-ordinary. I also draw upon Gruenter & Whitaker’s statement that “The culture of an organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate”. This article focuses on educational institutions and their efficacy in the service of their educational missions; however, the concepts are pertinent to any sector or organisation.
The role and responsibility of education in society speaks for itself. However, the scope of the educational environment and its influence on students and staff reaches far beyond the curriculum and faculty. All members of the staff, regardless of role, influence the campus culture through their behaviour because it illustrates what is valued. Consequently, the role of the Vice Chancellor, Principal, Dean, CEO, or other most-senior delegation cannot be overemphasised in its influence on the institutional culture. Importantly, a values-based leader has a far greater likelihood of facilitating an institution of thriving that progresses knowledge, opportunity and the citizenry of all constituents (not only students).
This may seem self-evident. However, the applied practice and lived-experience of leadership and culture are lessons in complexity. What is leadership anyway? What is culture? Like most words and contexts, ‘leadership’ and ‘culture’ have crisp definitions that a dictionary or quick Google search provides. The late Warren Bennis articulates it succinctly, "Leadership is like beauty. It's hard to define, but you know it when you see it." To this end, what is required of senior leaders in educational institutions to facilitate an environment of thriving?
Despite their key influence, the senior-most person in an institution cannot, and is not required to, achieve these leadership and institutional culture objectives on their own. In fact, if they try to, they will likely exhaust themselves and disengage staff and students, and thereby achieving the antithesis of thriving. The institution’s educational mission and value proposition should be the true north of what is valued and committed to academically and institutionally. If these are not clear, there is no foundation upon which the institution’s culture can be built and measured, for itself and its constituents. A lack of clear direction negatively affects staff morale, student experience, and educational outcomes. In most education institutions, the focus is on the student experience. Significantly, in many of these environments, the staff experience receives far less attention. Why? If all staff, faculty and support services, are valued beyond lip service, then surely the educational experience and learning outcomes will thrive for students and staff alike? If staff do not believe they are valued, then innovation and the excitement of teaching and learning will surely not continue.
Evan Robb suggests that “The school principal sets the tone for a school, such as a tone of intentional risk-taking and innovation, or, a tone of rigid compliance. It is the principal who can stifle creativity, imagination, and risk-taking, or, empower staff to find their greatness.” Robb is effectively referring to the difference between innovation and rote (business-as-usual). Equally, I believe that while compliance is non-negotiable, it does not automatically denote excellence.
In an institution of thriving, concepts like lifelong learning, diversity, academic excellence, innovation, etc. are a lived-experience (culture), and not simply buzzwords on a plaque in the corridors. Conversely, noble-sounding values and missions that are not employed create far greater damage than if they didn’t exist at all. Adam Grant notes, “Judge leaders by the values they enact, not the values they claim.”
So, what can we do as educational leaders to authentically achieve our institutions’ educational missions? Here are a few to consider;
- Management making all of the decisions; you are not the consumer – get out of the office and boardroom and into the campuses, student canteens and streets
- Underestimating the discernment of your students, colleagues and greater society – they know far more than they’re often given credit for, and should be included for their insights and lived-experience in planning and review
- ‘Strategic plans’ that are often wish lists with unmeasurable outcomes – always remain SMART!
- Assumptions that past years’ relevance and impact of programmes and systems still holds – employ annual review, regardless of regulatory requirements that may only require less regular review cycles
- Being future-focussed and not merely competitive. Pay attention to your competitors, and even closer attention to your students, staff and recruiters for valuable insights that go beyond fads, anecdote, and PR spin
- Crafting strategic plans that are accessible, through inclusion of multiple perspectives (not just management!), use of simple language, short and succinct. Remain SMART. SMART includes discernment to achieve the often-elusive balance between academic and commercial institutional imperatives
- Being sure that every component of a strategic plan relates directly to the institution’s mission and values – how does each component of the plan progress the institution’s relevance and impact, academically and commercially?
- Identifying and sharing your own life journey and development of your leadership values
- Listening more, assuming less. Magic is often found in the most unlikely places
As ever, please contribute to this conversation as it is not only relevant for educators and educational leaders. Education, directly or indirectly, impacts and influences every member of society.