Contradictions in Leadership Preparation
By Judith H. Berg
Associate Dean, Graduate Studies/Associate Professor, Department of Educational Studies
Leadership is a somewhat muddled concept, often equated with heroics and seemingly emerging through chance or accident. Most of us are uneasy existing in organizations without it and we keep waiting for it to make its presence known. We know we will recognize the good leaders: those who make things better; those who ease us through the often-painful process of rethinking what we are doing or where we are going and how we might get there. What seems less clear is how to “grow” it. In educational programs responsible for preparing and supporting directors, principals, and superintendents (as well as teachers, higher education leaders, etc.) we frequently appear unsure as to what knowledge, skills and dispositions will hold such leaders in good stead.
As a field, educational administration preparation has made multiple changes over the years in efforts to provide the most effective background of learning experiences for current and future educational leaders. Among the many reforms have been moves toward involving practitioners, a pendulum swing around the blending of theory and practice, advocating for full time internships, provision of credentialing paths for non-educators, updating the knowledge base through empirical research, and a proliferation of assessment tools and delivery mechanisms. Little however has changed in terms of providing leaders with the skills and dispositions for navigating macro and micro political realities, defined herein as “the use of formal and informal power…to achieve…goals in an organization” (Blasé, 1991, p.7) . In fact, one of the few points of agreement, if wide-spread silence is a measure, is that whatever else they may be required to do, education leaders must bypass politics. While we accept that educational leaders may be drawn to the “community relations” aspects of the job or the multitudinous “public relations” dimensions of the position, we rarely speak of “power and how (these leaders) use it to influence others and to protect themselves” (Blasé, p.7). While it is widely recognized that superintendents, principals, and anyone in a “leadership position,” must articulate a “vision,” build coalitions of support, and influence others, they are asked to do so while simultaneously “maintain(ing) a position untainted by political battles” (Blumberg, 1985, p. 46). This still dominant idea (Barnett, Berg, Hall, et al., 2001; Carter & Cunningham, 1997; Stone, 2002) completely overlooks the public and heated arena in which educational leaders often find themselves , a context dramatically charged; a context in which individuals and groups are inevitably struggling to assure the dominance of their values in an environment of scarce resources; a context, in short, that is highly political.
The following are the assumptions that guide what follows:
- “…[P]olitics is a creative and valuable feature of social existence” (Stone, 2002, p.8)
- Political processes can be discussed in non-evaluative terms
- Educational leaders are uniquely positioned to be politically relevant
- Engaging in political processes for such leaders is an inevitable and frequently consuming reality
- The effective principal, superintendent, curriculum director, etc. needs to be politically astute and have a well developed political acuity 
- Eschewing politics is an obstacle to moving an agenda (program, objective, reform, policy, etc.) forward
- Leadership is the art of enabling others to join you in a partnership or alliance to achieve a valued goal
This article attempts to suggest ways in which we may reconsider preparation programs for prospective educational leaders, as well as help practicing leaders (including teachers and college faculty) deal with the slippery and chaotic side of life in public education. Current research suggests (Barnett, B., Berg, J., Hall, G., et al., 2001; Elmore, R., 2000; O’Mahoney & Matthews, 2003) that while there is “some” match between required course work in preparation programs and what one needs to know and be able to do, there is not enough connection to the world of practice. In short, while that which is amenable to rational analysis predominates course work, and is extremely useful, the prospective administrator has little or no opportunity to formally engage with the “laws of paradox…that behave more like emotions than physical matter” (Stone, 2000, p.30). Although connections between leadership and student achievement remain “perhaps the most difficult to figure out” (Norton, 2002, p. 22.), one who has the political knowledge, skills, and dispositions to significantly influence learning and success for all children is highly advantaged. Still, development of a politically sophisticated educational leader gets perhaps the most inadequate attention. In 1994, Lindle referred to knowledge of “micropolitics (as)…a void…in educational administration and leadership” (p. 13). That void sill exists. At the very least, political acuity can be used as one buffer against falling into the trap of being “a highly vulnerable public servant” (Crowson, 1987, p. 64) who is forced to leave a position just as reform begins to take shape. This article opens a conversation about the dilemma of being political (in both the micro and macro arenas, although the emphasis here will be on the micropolitical) in an environment that still considers that “those intent on educating the public’s children…do so without touching or being touched by politics” (Johnson, 1996, p.153). Ultimately, this writer would like the Academy, at least, to give tacit permission to educational leaders to acquire and cultivate the skills and dispositions for political activity . Politics is not, we need to remind future leaders, synonymous with immoral or amoral behavior. Rather, as Bolman and Deal (1997) note:
The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have…Constructive politicians recognize and understand political realities. They know how to fashion agendas, create networks of support, and negotiate effectively with both allies and adversaries. …they will need to consider potential (strategies), and, most important, their own values and ethical principles. (p. 193)
Conceptualizing Political Leadership
The most straightforward and often quoted definition of politics is “who gets what, when and how” (Lasswell, 1936). Political leadership is in fact an “untidy” business, neither systematic, well defined, orderly, nor rational. Rather, it is a set of nearly indefinable abilities that start with the ability to recognize a “window of opportunity” (vision), enhanced by the disposition to exercise influence to bring individuals and groups together (to coalesce around a notion of reform). Simultaneously the leader must assess the opposition and pro-actively keep the agenda moving forward while skillfully exercising power and authority to bring about legitimate change. Stated more simply, successful educational leaders who are politically astute, much like leaders in any organization, move a vision forward by influencing others. To do so they must be adept at persuading critical players in ways that will withstand incredible public scrutiny. “Political fights are conducted…above all with words and ideas” (Stone, 2002, p. 34); they utilize artistry and make difficult choices (Bolman & Deal, 1997). Using words and ideas, ceremony and symbol, to move an agenda of teaching and learning forward is the business of educational leadership.
How and where do superintendents, principals, and higher education administrators learn the “words and ideas” that allow them to participate in the constant struggle that results in policy making? Do program outcomes include aptitude at recognizing political opportunity? Are candidates for administrator certification expected to demonstrate the skills needed to move an agenda forward? What knowledge, skills and dispositions are they expected to develop to “influence” others? What opportunities are provided during preparation for them to take control and exert “power?” How do they “grow” the disposition that will allow them to accept that politics is essential to getting the business of teaching and learning done? Are they prepared, at program completion, to be political in the micro and macro educational arena?
Currently, it would seem, political knowledge and skill is gleaned from folk wisdom, left to happenstance, and to learning on the job. What principals (superintendents, teacher leaders, etc.) need to be able to do to influence those within and outside their authority such that they will engage in collective action for a compelling purpose seems not to be an integral part of most administrative training programs. Nor is it a staple of later professional development. Educational leaders are, in this author’s perspective, haphazardly socialized into the political arena and into the political dimensions of their work.
Leading in a Political Arena
Educational leaders need to be prepared to be strategic and tactical if they wish to change an organization (and the people in it). Change does not simply happen, and failure to recognize political realities can be fateful for any leader’s efforts to move an organization (group or individual) forward. To a friend in a western state who reflects:
“[A]s I travel around the state peeking into high school classrooms, observing teachers teach, sitting in on meetings, and asking principals to help me with a particular student teacher who is having some trouble in a classroom, [I don’t see that] the political side of the educational endeavor…. Teachers get weekly mandates and updates from the department of education via the regional superintendents’ offices, some of which have had teacher input, some of which have not and many of which we have all read about already in the local newspaper (for instance, the new grading system which will be implemented in two years which changes significantly the way teachers will report to parents about student performance and which I know in my gut will have a huge impact on how people perceive the school and the tasks that they are doing, yet no teacher has had any kind (of) dialogue about this in school yet). These teachers are worried about kids who don’t show up to class, kids who are failing because they don’t or won’t or can’t do the work asked of them, kids who aspire to nothing higher than surfing in high waters (not that this task is easy to do, it’s just that it seems to lack import!), kids who lack any interest in information or content that is beyond their daily grind and living. Is this happening in classrooms because superintendents and principals are not facile at being “political?”
I say, “Yes” to my friend and fellow traveler. The absence of teacher input in policy development, the naïveté of believing it all “happens” in the classroom are closely related. Teachers (educational leaders sans title) are absent from policy-making tables in part because they eschew being political. The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards for School Leaders, produced by a consortium of states and major school administration organizations in 1996, and the current coin of the realm for administrator preparation programs, demands that principals and superintendents be competent in “responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.” It is this author’s belief that to achieve this standard those who would be educational leaders must recognize and be skilled in dealing with the following realities :
1. Politicized Agendas - complex, multi-party, politically charged public or covert disputes.Skills
- Communication with stakeholders (e.g. school boards, teachers, parents)
- Consensus building - developing areas of agreement
- Coalition building
- Political mapping
2. Scarce Resources –there is never enough to meet everyone’sagendaSkills
- Creating support in response to multiple interest group demands
- Understanding and manipulating the economics of education
- Keeping the focus on “the” agenda
3. Values Conflict - the values of efficiency, equity, liberty, and security are always in competitionSkills
- Networking/building coalitions to create political group action –
- Systems analysis
- Bargaining, coercion and compromise
4. The Policy Process - local, state and federal policy making and implementationSkills
- Exercising influence
- Building loyalty and trust
- Sharing information and power
- Engaging in the politics of problem definition (which leads to problem “solutions”)
- Sustaining the moral high-ground
- Planning for the gap between policy making and policy implementation
5. Power - a scarce resource with many possible sources (positional, knowledge, personal, reward and punishment, reputational, etc.)Skills
- Assessing who holds power and why (for a partial list see Bolman & Deal, 1997, pp. 169-170)
- Analyzing struggles for power
- Brokering power
- Nurturing the disposition to exert power
6. Political Systems, Political Thought, Political Science – processes of decision making, party systems, relationship between social class and a political systemSkills
- Problem analysis
- Political constituencies
- Channels of public and private communication
- The gap between decisions and actions
- Feedback to political constituencies
- Political strategizing – political mapping
- Utilizing the above while recognizing the ethical minefields
7. Local Politics – schooling, state centralization, federal mandatesSkills
- Negotiating and bargaining with gatekeepers
Taking up the Challenge: Revising Preparation Programs
We know that leadership positions are heavily verbal and that interpersonal relationships play greatly in the indirect control these positional leaders often must rely upon. We know too that “...political participation is, in many of its forms, composed of social acts” (Lane, p. 164). Conflict too is a given, as is the ability to sustain an agenda in the face of sometimes open conflict. What are the implications of this for counseling individuals who consider educational leadership roles? What are the mechanisms, during the admissions process, for assessing applicants’ disposition for such activity? Are interviews sufficient? Are admissions committees of one worth-while?
Extant processes  are generally cumbersome and costly. It remains incumbent upon educational researchers to look more closely at the relatively uncharted area where educators exercise political leadership. Their work will need to describe the knowledge and skills that form the perceptions of superintendents and principals regarding the day-to day political activities and behaviors in which they must engage. This information can assist programs of preparation in determining who may or may not succeed in educational leadership positions.
“[S]uccessful leaders maintain power and influence over long periods of time because they are conscious of how power is developed ... (and as a result) they obtain allies and supporters, ... (and thus) have more opportunities to exercise influence (and) ... get things accomplished” (Pfeffer, J., 1992, p. 137). Is it not then incumbent upon preparation programs, and/or other formalized pre-service experiences, to insure nurturance of these capacities? This implies an increasing focus on how a political course of action is formulated and implemented, and encouraging “a more dialectical perspective... (that) highlights the political nature and effects of activities that are routinely required of…educators” (Ginsberg, 1995, p. 33). More unique than routine, a slow movement towards this kind of thinking is in evidence.
As example, one forward thinking program in the Midwest offers:
MICROPOLITICS OF SCHOOL COMMUNITIES
[3 hours] Course focus is on the day to day politics of school work that increase the complexities of educating. Using case studies and problem-based learning, students will practice skills that support democratic practices in school communities. Prerequisite: School-Community Relations; Adv. Grad Standing
An Ivy League institution in the Boston area considers the following as imperative:
Teachers, Leadership, and Power: School Reform from the Classroom
… schools are looking to teachers for new forms of leadership. This course examines the many forms of formal and informal teacher leadership and explores the role that teachers must play in the reform of our nation’s schools. It analyzes the barriers to teacher leadership created by the structure of schools and the culture of teaching and assesses teacher leadership in relation to the developmental needs of a rapidly changing workforce. Central to our study will be an examination of power in schools and a discussion of the dilemmas that are posed for administrators and teacher unions when teachers alter their roles and assume new forms of leadership.
The Broad Foundation has instituted a preparation program for urban superintendents. Well thought of, and the learning crucible of several well regarded educational administrators, the Broad “program of study” includes courses such as The CEO: Effective Organizational Leadership in Education, The Politics of Urban School Leadership and Planning and Leading Systems Change.
One urban university, as example, requires future education leaders to examine school change and improvement in a course entitled Leadership in the Adoption of Innovation. Electives in this same program are chosen from among such courses as Politics of Education, Politics of Multicultural School Communities, Decision Making and Leadership, Education Law, Finance and Budget Management, Application of Computers to Administration, School Business Administration, and Demographic Analysis and Long-Range Educational Planning.
Finally, a university known for its connection to the ISLLC standards movement has embedded a course entitled “Politics and Political Leadership in American Education” and another titled “Educational Change.”
There is a matrix of realities in the district/school context that demands the utilization of skills not overtly included in traditional preparation programs (see Appendix A), skills of long-range planning, critical listening, negotiating, persuading, compromising, and artfully communicating for purposes of organizational change and future influence (Bolman & Deal, 1997; Bush, 1995; Hoyle, 1986; Johnson, 1997, Stone, 2002). Field experiences should include “shadowing” dynamic leaders who are proficient at exercising these political leadership skills for purposes of organizational change. These leaders should include but need not be limited to educators. Students should be afforded opportunities to examine the dilemmas of micro and macro political leadership and watch those who are adept at shaping and influencing policy. In brief, preparation programs must consciously and holistically infuse into both the theoretical and clinical the art and craft of coordinating and directing influence such that leaders enter the profession embracing the positive aspects of being political, the determination to choose to use authority and power to make a difference for students, teachers, and the community.
Deborah Stone (2002) suggests that those who would influence policy must begin in the “community” because astute political leadership often results in policy making, which must ethically begin in a community context. Here, membership is defined by formal and informal rules and structures of governance. Behind every policy issue lurks a contest over conflicting, though many would say, equally plausible conceptions of the same abstract goal or value. A major task of the politically astute educational leader wishing to influence policy in his/her organization is to reveal and clarify these underlying value disputes. What Stone calls the “collective will and the effort” (p.18) must then be discerned, understood and promoted by those who would influence the learning of the young of that community. This does not happen from inside a school building, a district office, or at a parent-teacher event. This happens in the community.
In many nations, including the United States, the political community includes diverse cultural communities, and policy politics entails profound dilemmas: how to integrate several cultural communities into a single political community without destroying or sacrificing their identity and integrity. (Stone, pp.19-20)
Preparation programs (especially leadership preparation programs) need to prepare individuals to be community leaders, strengthening and sustaining relationships between the schools and organizations within the community. Courses entitled something akin to, School, Family, & Community Relations abound. Do these courses forthrightly provide opportunities for future or current educational leaders to gather education and youth and family development organizers in one room? Are candidates learning the skills to influence these otherwise disparate entities to join in common conversation? Do programs (including core education programs) provide learning experiences that model ways to leverage the community to be supportive? It is this educator’s belief that we need to infuse into the learning experience for prospective educational leaders the opportunity to learn and practice the fundamentals of beginning and sustaining a conversation and crafting an agenda with the community and its leaders. Prospective educational leaders need to understand their role as educators of their community.
A renewed and voluble interest in the effects of leadership on educational improvement is everywhere evident. Foundations, newspapers, legislators, schools of education, are engaged in conversation, argument, and competitive efforts to find the Rosetta Stone which will unlock the mysteries of effective educational leadership. This focus on leaders has simultaneously surfaced recognition that there is a dearth of capable, willing administrators who can move an educational system forward. While “consensus has emerged across education, governmental, and philanthropic groups on an urgent need to address what many see as a scarcity of strong leadership in public education…. a dominant belief, (is that these new leaders be) leaders of instruction- dynamic, inspirational educators focused almost exclusively on raising student achievement” (Olson, 2000). “Raising student achievement” is the education analogy to “motherhood and apple pie” yet the realities these “dynamic inspirational educators” encounter while attempting to achieve this goal challenges their best efforts.
That public education suffers from scarce resources is a reality. Moreover, decisions about what to fund is immersed in conflict caused by, among other things, perpetual value differences among stakeholders. Increasing tension among local, state, and federal entities speaks to multiplying dimensions of influence that grow exceedingly more irrational. The imperatives for political activity are certainly in place. Schools are “alive and screaming political arenas” (Bolman & Deal, 1997, p.163) and those who would be instructional leaders will certainly have to negotiate and bargain, build coalitions of support, network assiduously, communicate widely and use “power” wisely. They must be competent strategists, persuasive communicators with a well developed sense of timing that enables them to capture the attention of stakeholders while allowing them to be open to and competent in creating alternative goals. They need to be familiar with political models (not community relations theories) that can enhance the odds they can make sense of a complex and messy world. They need to be intentionally strategic and politically astute about how they are going to move an agenda forward. Yet, the profession has barely evolved past the notion that education is too moral an enterprise to be linked with politics (Blumberg, 1985, Johnson, 1996). Stone (2002) suggests that academic writing disparages politics, and that preparation programs continue, through their near worship of challenges more amenable to rational decision making (law, fiscal planning, school facilities as example), to ignore the need for political preparedness.
The traditional sentiment that education should be separated from politics, its moral ideals shielded from the rough and tumble of political activity, must be overcome. It is both empirically and theoretically inaccurate to claim that educators’ activities are apolitical when the dynamics surrounding schools demand that educational leaders be “political.” A paradigm shift is occurring. Preparation programs, if they are to provide practitioners with realistic role expectations and demands, and enable them to acquire the acuity to impact processes and outcomes that germinate in the political crucible, should take heed. We can still hold to the non-partisan nature of the political tasks, but we are adhering to a limited notion of these tasks if we conceptualize them primarily in terms of “rational” choices.
It is, moreover, disingenuous to speak of the social and political milieu absent direct dialogue about the central features of political models. If we agree that people in educational organizations, as in any complex people-centered enterprise, will disagree and that this diversity often leads to conflict, then we also need to recognize that, on many occasions, this “tension must be resolved through political means” (Morgan, 1986, p. 148). And, as schools, school committees, and local education efforts get swept up again and again in factionalism and the increasing tension between local, state, and federal control of schools, questions arise as to the capacity of school leaders to analyze these political realities, strategize means to maintain or extend their influence, cope with the ambiguities of recurrent goal conflict, and engage in processes of bargaining and negotiating. The development of these positive political skills, utilized in the best tradition of public service, should not be restricted by limited preparation. Routine opportunities to formally develop the skills, competencies, and proclivities necessary to get things accomplished in a political arena must be included in programs that prepare these professionals. Political engagement must not be disguised in “visioning” or “community relations.” Most of all, it must not be regarded as a negative activity such that our leaders get caught in a discomfort zone where being politically sophisticated on behalf of teaching and learning is negatively regarded.
Finally, should we not consider the possibility that administrator preparation programs nearly singular attention to rational and collegial models of governance, and the relative absence of explicit political models, as a unit of analysis for school leaders, may account in some measure for why in election year 2000, the education agenda was primarily controlled by non-educators, business leaders and politicians.
Barnett, B., Berg, J., Hall, G., Male, T., McGrevin, C., Vandenberghe, D., & Walker, K. (2001). Beginning principals: International comparisons of their understanding and ways of interacting with organizational boundaries. Symposium at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.
Blase, J. (Ed.) (1991). The politics of life in schools: Power, conflict, and cooperation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Bolman L., & Deal, T. (1997). Reframing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Blumberg, A. (1985). The school superintendent: Living with conflict. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bush, T. (1995). Theories of educational management. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Carter, G,. & Cunningham, W. (1997). The American school superintendent. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Crowson, R. (1987). The local school district superintendency: A puzzling administrative role. Educational Administration Quarterly, 23(3), 49-69.
Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. The Shanker Institute: 7.
Ginsberg, M.B. (1995). The politics of educators work and lives. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Hall, G, Berg, J., & Barnett, B (2003). Beginning principal studies in America: What have we studied what have we learned? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Chicago.
Hoyle, E. (1982). Micropolitics of educational organizations. Educational management and administration,10 (2), 87-98.
Johnson, S. (1996). Leading to change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lasswell, H. (1936). Politics Who Gets What, When, How: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Lindle, J. (1994). Surviving school micropolitics. Lancaser, PA: Technomic.
Mawhinney, H. (1996). The dilemmas of exercising political leadership in educational policy change. In S. Jacobson, E. Hickcox & R. Stevenson (Eds.), School administration: Persistent dilemmas in preparation and practice. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing.
Morgan, G. (1986). Images of organizations. CA: Sage. (pp. 146-164).
Norton, J. (2002). Preparing school leaders: It’s time to face the facts. (SREB Leadership Initiative Conference Report). Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.
O’Mahony, G,. & Matthews, R. (2003). Learning the role: Through the eyes of beginning principals. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.
Pfeffer, J., (1992). Managing with power. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Stone, D. (2002). Policy paradox: The art of political decision making. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Wimpelberg, R. (1997) Superintending: The undeniable politics and indefinite effects of school district leadership. American Journal of Education 105, 319-345.
Educational Administration Program
|Techniques of Research||3|
|Social Foundations of Education||3|
|Practicum in EDAD||3|
|Human Resource Management||3|
|School Business Management||3|
|Intro Educational Administration||3|
|Supervision of Instruction||3|
|Legal Bases of Education||3|
Ivy League Eastern University
|GENERAL ADMINISTRATIVE MASTER'S DEGREE PROGRAM|
A. Required Course Work -36 HOURS
501* Research Methods in Education
*These courses are prerequisites to all other courseslisted.
** This is an exit course and must be taken last
Small Private College (with an “experiential” program)
Through an experiential process, a small college in New York State, xxxxx, incorporates each aspect of the principalship training model into a six (6) semester experience. Utilizing the concepts of adult learning as an essential foundation, this experience allows school leaders to work together in an intensified cohort group environment. The essential elements of the curriculum include:
- Personnel Evaluation and Development
- School Community Relations
- Teaching Personnel and Support
- Elementary and Secondary Curriculum Development
- Pupil Personnel Administration
- Building-based Scheduling
- School Law
- School Finance
- Cultural Awareness
- Report Writing and Record Keeping
State University (ISLLC Standards Based Program)
Licensure Program for School Principals and Superintendents
|EPL 846||Introduction to Educational Administration|
|EPL 845||Politics and Political Leadership in American Education|
|EPL 726||Educational Change|
|EPL 949||Collective Bargaining and Contract Administration|
|EPL 955||Staff Personnel Administration|
|EPL 956||School Finance|
|EPL 957||Business Administration of Schools|
|EPL 952||Legal Aspects of School Administration|
|EPL 963||Legal Aspects of Special Education|
|EPL 953||School Community Relations|
-  Both conflictive and cooperative processes are part of the realm of micropolitics.
-  The macro and micro political environments frequently interact and influence one another. Macro politics occur in the environment external to the organization.
-  Political acuity is defined here as the ability to understand the political landscape and positively and energetically move an education agenda across that landscape.
-  The use of the term “politics” or “political activity” is never meant to construe partisan politics.
-  What follows is unabashedly incomplete - an outline searching for a dialogue.
-  National associations have a long history of providing procedures for determining levels of readiness of administrative applicants.