The Struggle for Plurality and Politics in School Leadership Practice: Exploring the Importance of Thoughtful Action in Conditions of Uncertainty
This thesis draws upon relational explanations of human action to understand the author’s experiences of school leadership in conditions of uncertainty. The central arguments arrived at in this inquiry recognise the importance and inevitability of plurality (Arendt, 1958) in organisational life, the co-constructed nature of shared responsibility for political action (ibid) within this plurality, and the importance of a professional community of inquiry (Peirce, 1955) for helping school leaders to engage in thoughtful action (Arendt, 2005) in uncertain times. This involves a paradoxical understanding of time, with the thesis concluding by stressing the importance of the human capacity to make promises and forgive as crucial to the emergent ethics of school leadership. These insights emerged from the author’s critical engagement with taken-for-granted insights about leadership in education. The research for this thesis involved ‘taking experience seriously’ (Mowles & Stacey, 2016), with the author inquiring into narratives of unexpected and disturbing events in his practice of school leadership with others. Taking an autoethnographic approach supported by other members of the DMan academic community of inquiry, the author has gained reflexive insights about his practice as a headteacher. In making sense of the disturbances, the author has revisited and critiqued theories that previously shaped his practice as a headteacher of an English secondary school. This thesis shows how theories of ‘distributed leadership’ (Gronn, 2002; Harris, 2003, 2004) and ‘relational trust’ (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 1997, 2000, 2009, 2014) make claims which do not appear to explain the experiences of headship described in the empirical narrative material. As a result of these findings, the author questions the assumptions of transformational leadership; the dominant managerial paradigm in education. It is argued that transformational leadership discourses offer magico-mythical thinking (Elias, 1956) that creates myths to solve the mystery (Stacey, 2007) of routinely conflictual and contingent experiences of organisational life in school leadership. The three myths of distributed leadership and relational trust theories are identified as ‘enduring harmony’, ‘complexity reduction’ and ‘positional authority’. In deconstructing the mythological assumptions of transformational leadership, this thesis concludes with reconstructive counterarguments. Rather than expect enduring harmony, a community of inquiry is conflictual. Instead of seeking reduced complexity through idealised values, thoughtful action involves the unpredictable functionalisation of those values with others (Mead, 1923). Rather than rely on the sovereignty of the headteacher’s positional authority, thoughtful action in a community of inquiry offers a social process of human relating in pursuit of school improvement. The human ability to forgive and be forgiven, and to make promises and try to keep them (Arendt, 1958), are integral to the counterarguments presented in this thesis. This thesis makes a number of interrelated claims for a contribution to knowledge presenting, from the perspective of a headteacher, a nuanced critique of some of the myths underpinning transformational school leadership theories. This thesis offers a phenomenological understanding of the implications of these myths for practitioners and suggests that thoughtful action within a plurality, seen as a community of inquiry, represents an ethical practice of school leadership for headteachers and other managers.
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