Thinking about educational leadershipWhat do we understand by leadership? Do you become a leader by holding a position of authority or is it your actions, irrespective of authority, that make you a leader? And is leadership consistent across all domains? Is corporate leadership the same as educational leadership? The literature on leadership is as vast as it is old. Leaders and the problems of leadership have shaped and continue to shape our communities, social orders and histories. It is important that we critique our understanding of leadership, for the work our leaders do shape the future of things to come.
What do we understand by leadership? Do you become a leader by holding a position of authority or is it your actions, irrespective of authority, that make you a leader? And is leadership consistent across all domains? Is corporate leadership the same as educational leadership? The literature on leadership is as vast as it is old. Leaders and the problems of leadership have shaped and continue to shape our communities, social orders and histories. It is important that we critique our understanding of leadership, for the work our leaders do shape the future of things to come.
Leadership is situational in that different circumstances and different tasks will probably require a leader with a different set of skills, values and ethical codes.There are some similarities between military leaders like Alexander, Ashoka and Genghis Khan and political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, but the contexts they operated in, the kind of world they wanted to shape and the way they went about achieving these goals suggest the differences are far greater. More recent writing on leadership suggests that it is a characteristic that varies in its scope and approach within the contexts that leaders operate.
The most prominent of leadership literature in today’s world comes to us from the business and corporate world. This practice of leadership, while geared towards building organisations and allowing them to achieve organisational goals, is useful but should not be assumed to fit all organisational contexts. The business leader’s primary impetus is the bottom line—the profitability of his or her company is the central rationale for all actions and strategies. This context cannot be translated to all organisations. An educational institute cannot measure its success and effectiveness based on the income it generates or even the number of students enrolled. This makes it necessary for us to look at leadership within the contexts of the institutions within which it is practiced.
In an educational setting, success is measured not by an institution’s profitability but in the realisation of the potential of the students that it nurtures and supports. There can be a debate on sustainability in this regard—that educational institutes should be self-sustaining—but this is a question in terms of social make up. What do we as a society see as the purpose for our educational institutes and how do we perceive the role of education in shaping all our children? Aren’t educational institutes there to educate and shape societies of tomorrow and they are not like corporate entities built on the foundation of creating material wealth? Their outcome is not as tangible and immediately evident as an increase in your bank account.
The other thing to note is business leaders tend to create cults of personalities—from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezo—they instill a particular way of working and achieving that makes sense to them. There are not that many educational leaders comparable to them. The reasons for this requires us to reflect on our social values, but it does not prevent us from understanding the fundamentally different role that an educational leader plays within our communities.
The first two days of this year’s US Embassy’s Book Bus Innovation in Education Fair encouraged a free flowing conversation on what exactly is educational leadership within a Nepali context. As a country adopting a federal structure, leading to changes in educational policy and structure, the leadership in our educational institutes will have a strong say in how they adapt to these changes. During his Keynote Speech at the fair, Dr Tulasi Prasad Thapaliya, a Joint-Secretary at the Ministry of Education, put forward that our educational leaders are central towards building effective schools and learning environments. That educational leaders have to be learners themselves and that their schools are the sites for creating future possibilities.
If the task before us is to teach students and not subjects, as put by professor Bal Chandra Luitel from Kathmandu University School of Education during his presentation on STEAM education at the fair, then the challenge is to cultivate them as learners, inventors and problem solvers who are not just passive recipients of knowledge of different subjects but active co-constructors of knowledge. It is about moving away from approaching education as the ability to memorise and reproduce answers within each subject. The educational leader within this context is a practitioner of learning, he or she creates learning environments for herself and for her team of teachers, not just for their students.
Historically in Nepal, educational leadership has largely been centralised, the central government prescribed and school management implemented. Partly as a result of structural changes and partly because of the limited success of the traditional model, it has increasingly become evident that school management cannot take on a passive role, but must actively respond to the contextual needs of the students, teachers and communities they serve. There isn’t a singular answer to this, each problem and context will require its own solution. There isn’t a singular person for this either—each leader comes flawed with incomplete knowledge, but needs the courage to take action and learn from their failures.
Educational leadership is fundamentally different to other forms of leadership in that at its core, it’s a leadership philosophy built upon the belief of realising the potential of others. It is built on enabling others to learn in an equitable and inclusive environment, where it is not just the bright students that learn—all students learn. It is about leading educational institutes in such a way that teachers are consistently learning and growing. It is about educating communities and shaping the possibilities for a better tomorrow.