Complexity and School Leadership: Exploring the Rabbit Hole

Posted on January 21, 2023


“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” Lewis Carroll

I have long been fascinated by the issue of complexity in school leadership. Indeed, I have blogged about it on numerous occasions on this site. Dating back to December 2012, I was fascinated by the implications of AGILE approaches to school leadership in this post. As a result, I began exploring the issue more fully and became persuaded by insights from the complexity sciences for school leadership, outlining these in my keynote for Pedagoo London in March 2013 which I summarised in this post, on Trojan Mice. As Headteacher, I sought to develop my thinking further, writing about the complexity of developing others in this post, from November 2016, on what we can learn from Boids about complexity in schools.

The key turning point for my thinking about complexity and school leadership came after an academic paper by Ralph Stacey and Chris Mowles was shared with me by a fellow headteacher, who was enrolled on a Masters programme with the University of Hertfordshire. This paper spoke to me about the limitations of a ‘systems approach’ to thinking about complexity in school leadership that bothered me in the final paragraphs of my post on Boids, that humans are fundamentally more complex than the most complicated computer programmes. As a consequence, I worked with the other headteacher to put together a programme for school leaders on Working with Complexity in School Leadership which I blogged about in this post from November 2017.

“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there” Lewis Carroll

With the support of my Chair of Governors, I made the decision to enrol on the Doctor of Management programme run by the Complexity and Management Centre at the University of Hertfordshire’s Business School. Founded early in the 2000s by Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw, the programme is a slow-open group (one where new students join an existing community of inquiry) of managers from a range of sectors and countries meet for residential weekends to take their experiences of leadership seriously together in order to make better sense of them.

Where the DMan programme differs significantly in its view of organisational life from many others is in the way it embraces the radical uncertainty that complexity brings for managers. The programme, and the theory behind it, eschews the systems approach that can persuade leaders that they can somehow ‘harness’ complexity by taking a position outside of the organisation they lead. Rather than seeing the complexity sciences as being directly applicable to organisations, the DMan programme views the insights from the complexity sciences as providing a helpful analogy for managers as players within the game of organisational dynamics (rather than programmers of those organisational dynamics).

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Lewis Carroll

To supplement the work of complexity scientists, the DMan draws significantly from three other domains in order to place more emphasis on organisations as a collection of ‘complex responsive processes’ rather than as being ‘complex adaptive systems’. These other domains include pragmatic philosophy (particularly the work of G. H. Mead and John Dewey), process sociology (notably the work of Norbert Elias), and group analytic approaches (primarily the work of S. H. Foulkes). Participants on the programme are required to submit to the discipline of the school of thought whilst, at the same time, being able to draw upon and integrate the thinking of others (for me, this was largely influenced by the work of Hannah Arendt).

One of the key attractions of the DMan for me was the radically social aspect of how students think about their work as managers and develop their theses interdependently. In keeping with its intellectual touchstones, the DMan prioritises collaborative inquiry through four four-day residential weekends per year during the programme of study, in which colleagues share their experiences of leading organisations with a focus on the specific events and phenomena that they encounter in their daily practice. The theses produced by students on the DMan are thus developed by the individual as a member of a community, with insights across domains (and even nations) providing the first line of generalisability for participants.

I will say more about the specifics of the programme, and how these have enriched my thinking about my leadership practices, in future posts. For now, I would point interested readers to a few further sources of information. Firstly, the full text of Complexity and Management by Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw who founded the DMan programme. Secondly, this paper, by Professor Chris Mowles, who more cogently than I could manage in a blogpost (or in any other forum), outlines his insights from running the DMan Programme. Finally, for those of you who are interested, there is a summary of my thesis in a chapter in Complexity and Leadership, published by Routledge in 2022 and, if you have the stomach for it, you can access my full Thesis on ‘The Struggle for Plurailty and Politics in School Leadership Practice’.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Lewis Carroll

The main purpose of this post, however, is to advertise a Complexity Management Weekend – Leading in Education on 11th and 12th March 2023. This weekend is being run by Complexity and Management Centre at the University of Hertfordshire in conjunction with the Roffey Park Institute. Open to school and college leaders, the programme is the first of its kind in providing a domain-specific introduction to the work of the school that runs the DMan programme. Alongside input from academics from the Complexity and Management Centre, I will be bringing insights from my thesis and my practice more generally in order to help participants think about their practice. As the blurb for the course runs:

Education is a complex, messy, unpredictable undertaking, never linear, rarely logical, sometimes two steps forward and one step back. It involves complex relationships. We have so much hope invested in schools and colleges and what they can do for our young people, their families and communities that it can feel like an enormous burden for school staff.

And yet the guidance we have for leading and managing schools, and the way that they are judged, is based on logical, linear thinking which assumes a predictable progression towards an idealised end state. The mismatch between theory and practice doesn’t help leaders and managers in the sector.

What would it mean for school and college leaders and managers to consider more fully the challenges of managing complex organisations when logical theories dominate the sector? How can we better understand the imperfections of school or college life when simplified metrics and powerful leadership fads (often imposed by local or national politicians) invite us to prioritise the ideal? What unhelpful patterns can we get caught up in with staff, students and families when we assume that there is a linear connection between cause and effect? How might reflection and reflexivity help us to understand what it is that abstract frameworks for school and college planning and evaluation cover over?

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll

Much of what has been written about complexity and educational leadership gives managers in schools the sense that they can somehow fully control the complexity of their organisations. This is certainly the case for the dominant discourses in management theories including, for education professionals, the work of writers promoting ‘transformational leadership’ (more on this in future posts). It is hard to find educational leadership literature that recognises the radical uncertainty of our work that does not fall back on simplistic solutions to that complexity. This leaves managers constantly feeling that they are somehow failing in their work with others. Drawing upon collective consideration of participant’s experiences (“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”), my hope is that participants on this programme can, as part of a community of inquiry, make better sense of their work with others. Together, I hope that we can pay better attention to the paradoxical norm of school leadership which leaves participants as managers who are both ‘in control’ and ‘not in control’ at the same time.

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