Authentic leadership is more than management

Separating the roles of governance and management is fundamentally important to the effective functioning of every school.  It is also one of the most common areas of confusion.  Indeed, I have written about this at length in another article.

The nature of leadership defines the roles of both school boards and senior management.

At its best, leadership is a peculiar art.  It is also an endangered art.  Society cries out for authentic leadership on the one hand, but as we saw during the election campaign earlier this year, society can also be cynical about leadership in the name of egalitarianism.  A similar dynamic can often be seen in schools.

In our rational moments, we seldom need to be convinced that to be led is preferable to anarchy, even if we are less clear about who should be giving the lead and in what direction.

I suggest that a leader is not always someone with an impressive title, significant responsibilities and a reserved car parking spot.  A leader need not even be someone with rank, power or position.

Quite simply, a leader is someone who someone else is following.

This means that any of us can be a leader.  If our words direct and our actions inspire, we are leading.  If we cause another to follow our example, or to follow our direction, we are leading.  And at times, if our words and actions cause a reaction from those who disagree, then it is more than likely that we are not only leading but probably effecting authentic change!  Leaders are change-initiators who often find themselves surrounded by change-resistors, and the art of leadership is to effect authentic and worthwhile change within such a scenario. 

The question remains of course – in what direction are leaders leading? A person may have charismatic qualities and the capacity to encourage blind devotion, but they may be leading their acolytes into adopting values and behaviours that are unworthy and perhaps even dangerous.  Discernment of vision and a commitment to serving others are crucially important for any leader. 

This highlights the huge difference between leadership and management.  It was Ian Percy who commented “Managers count seeds in the apple, while leaders envision how many apples there are in one seed”.  Another writer, Abraham Zaleznik, wrote: “Leaders have much more in common with artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers than they do with managers”. 

leadership and management

In short, the difference between leadership and management is the difference between shaping and controlling.  Leaders yearn to create interdependencies; managers create dependencies.  Leaders seek to recreate the ways people frame their thoughts; managers seek to restructure organisations.

Leaders and managers are plentiful in the ranks of both boards and principals.  It is probably fair to say that school principals have leadership positions which are among the most complex anywhere. It is said that to be a successful Head of a school, one must have the friendliness of a child, the enthusiasm of a courting teenager, the assurance of a soccer player, the diplomacy of a wayward husband, the curiosity of a cat, the memory of an elephant, and the good humour of an idiot. 

School principals are expected, not unreasonably, to provide leadership by being committed contributors and exemplars.  They are expected to have integrity, be willing to speak out as individuals on behalf of others, whilst being a team member par excellence, fully conversant with precedents in the school while simultaneously being expected also to drive the school in new directions for changing times.  They are expected - rightly - to be interventionists, visible around the school, genuinely concerned about students in trouble, or lost, or weaker, or who simply need a listener, and yet they are loaded with mundane and routine tasks that take them out of circulation.

They are expected to be fearless in giving considered, balanced and thoroughly researched advice to the board, respecting the confidentiality of deliberations on policy and about individual members of the school community, even though in being loyal to policy they run the risk of losing intimacy with their colleagues, especially when unpopular stands have to be taken.  Nonetheless, it is a necessary and inevitable tension - it would surely be a mistake to court popularity and mistake it for respect. 

Most authentic leadership, whether in schools or elsewhere, is covert and unassuming.  It is to be found in the gentle word of encouragement, in helping others, in steering conversations, in offering a suggestion, or some other small service.  These are tasks that every person in a school community can and should fulfil, meaning that everyone should find themselves in positions as leaders from time to time. 

During my career in various schools in several countries, I have usually found that the most effective leaders are those in ANY positions whatsoever who guide, steer and direct others without them necessarily being aware of it.  As the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, wrote in the 6th Century BC (when all leaders were male): “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, his aim is fulfilled, they will say ‘we did this ourselves’”. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

The concept of leadership in schools, including a practical exercise to identify the balance of leadership strengths on the board and in the school, is developed in the workshop  OSG-S3 Future-Focussed Board Leadership.

Detailed advice on school leadership is provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at