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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Working with Complexity in School Leadership

Schools are complex organisations. This much we all know. Something else all experienced leaders within education know, but are perhaps less willing to admit, is that the complexity of our work is ever-present, never-ending and often-frustrating. There are many reasons why we are less willing to admit the second part of this statement. One strand of thinking about why this is so goes as follows.

  • Leadership literature tends to give the impression that complexity can be tamed.

  • Leaders are therefore under pressure to perform as if complexity can be tamed.

  • Others expect leaders to be able to tame the complexity of their organisations.

  • Leaders expect others to expect them to be able to tame complexity in school.

This dominant mode of thinking, embedded in the dominant leadership discourse and embodied by leaders and non-leaders alike, is perfectly rational. That is to say, it is the product of the rationalism that underpins the enlightenment project, a rationalism that has 'cause and effect' at its core because of the application of scientific principles to thinking about human endeavours such as leadership within (and across) organisations.

There is, however, an alternative body of scientific thinking that recognises how complex systems act in non-linear ways, in which cause and effect have a more problematic relationship, and where the paradox of predictable unpredictability makes sense. These complexity sciences have been appealing to theorists of leadership and management for some time, but even here the literature can be challenging for school leaders by suggesting that the complex can somehow be harnessed for predictable ends. It can't.

My view (drawn from my research on a Doctorate of Management course shaped by the insights of Ralph Stacey) is that complexity sciences, particularly the work around complex adaptive systems, forms a very good and persuasive analogy for human processes of relating. But it is an imperfect analogy because in order to work (largely through computer modelling) theories of complex adaptive systems rest upon the notion that there is a bounded system that can, at some level, be controlled by an operator. There isn't.

Even when we speak of our schools as systems, they are never bounded, as any school leader who has spent Monday morning dealing with an online event over the weekend can testify. Nor can leaders fully step outside of the 'system' they manage, as any leader who has had a sleepless night worrying about the impact of their 'good' decisions can testify.

But, in spite of the above, this is not a counsel of despair. We are not doomed. The value we have for the analogy of a complex system, as well as the hope that we retain that we can come close to taming complexity, are important. They enable us to devise plans and tools that add the illusion of predictability into the complex world we work in, which in turn enables us to address seemingly (actually) intractable problems with energy and belief. This in turn gives those whose lives we shape through our leadership a sense of direction and of organisational norms and values as models for their interactions with others.

But it is important that we recognise that the illusion of predictability is created not by the tools we use to 'tame' complexity. Instead it is in the negotiation of how these tools are used with others, through others and by others that the work of effective leadership in complex and uncertain environments is done. Those norms and values facilitated by a rational approach to fundamentally non-rational human behaviour are crucial to our work.

And this is tough and unremitting work. It involves holding multiple others in view at all times and seeing them as ends in themselves and not just as means to an end. It involves potential conflicts and negative emotions that are often not seen as being a part of what it means to be a school leader and, as a result, the attempted repression of such emotions.

Working with others is inevitably a struggle with plurality, power relations and politics (the latter two of which are seen as being negative facets of organisational life even though they are inescapable features). Compromise, potentially another dirty work for some leadership literature, is also impossible to eliminate from what it means to be a leader.

But the buzzing, blooming confusion of school leadership (to paraphrase the pragmatic philosopher Henry James) can be at times (often) a joyful thing. It is why school leaders stick at it and, truth be told, often why they do it. I'm not sure how well we would cope with complete predictability in our schools. Which is just as well because, taking the complexity sciences as our analogy, total predictability leads to lack of evolution, then extinction.

All of which is why I am delighted to finally be able to take the learning from my doctorate into my work with school leaders. Working alongside Anita Devi and with the support of TeamADL, we have put together a programme for school leaders in Multi-Academy Trusts on the complexity of leadership. Whilst the programme does not aim to help MAT leaders tame complexity (that is impossible), it does strive to help them, through work with others, to make better sense of their experiences working within complex organisations.

So, if you are a school leader in a Multi-Academy Trust wrestling with the challenges posed by the complexity of your work, this may be the programme for you. To find out more about the programme, including further information about the six key strands shown below, please complete this Expression of Interest.

School Leadership Programme
Working with complexity in MAT leadership

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