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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Learning Leadership and ELT today

Adrian Underhill, adviser to Embassy CES, UK

[you may well want to read this piece in conjunction with a sister article Adrian published in HLT January 2004: The Learning School.]


Aim of this article
Reality is too complex for the dominance model
The unquestioned canon of heroic male leadership
Who is a leader?
The demand for meaning through work
The leader as learner
Learning as living
Leadership and being
Relationship and trust
Leadership and the feminine
Practical implications


Teachers may not think of themselves as leaders, but a new leadership discourse is emerging out of the complexity of modern living that puts a new view of leadership alongside the old, and that invites teachers to participate through their living and their work. So, alongside the traditional dominance view that aims to direct and motivate people, is placed a meaning-making view, that aims to develop frameworks in which people's actions make sense.

The traditional dominance and influence model is not entirely rejected, though to be relevant, effective or sustainable it needs drastic reshaping in order to respond to the needs of interconnected living at individual, family, school, community, national and global level. That reshaping starts, as we shall see, with surfacing the hidden assumptions that usually drive it. And then, in reconstructed form, it will take its place within the new model.

And there is a practical urgency to this, expressed in the view that the only way out of the mess we are creating for ourselves at every level, is primarily through connectivity rather than primarily through domination.

And in the new view the question of leadership development changes to become "How do we learn to develop everyone's ability to participate in the process of leadership?" And one of the several answers to this is that life-long learning is now very high on the agenda of essential leadership qualities. One way that teachers can affect leadership is through their own example of being 'learning teachers', who can value and transmit the attitudes of life long learning along with their subject teaching, and who extend their notion of seeing themselves as educators to also seeing themselves as influencers and meaning-makers.

Within this new view there are of course new definitions of who is a leader, and these definitions tend to include all sorts of people who are not high profile leaders in the traditional sense, but who are simply and purposefully trying to make a difference within their own sphere of influence.

Aim of this article

My aim in this article is to throw light on these issues and to identify some key characteristics of this emerging new paradigm of leadership. I believe that this has much to tell us, not only about leadership in institutions, and about academic leadership and leadership in classrooms, but about the role of teachers in education, and the role of the education we offer for the future. What follows is a simple guided tour of some of the features of the new leadership paradigm, illustrated with quotations from leadership literature so you can get the feel for it.

There is an enormous volume of literature on management and leadership. It is said to be the most written about topic in business and the social sciences in the last few decades. But for a long time there was no breakthrough in understanding the essential qualities of leadership, nor how to develop such qualities. For decades it failed to discover and articulate a set of principles of leadership that are practical, generalisable, and learnable by leaders in preparation.

In 1985 Warren Bennis, well-known leadership writer, trainer, and commentator, wrote

'Decades of academic analysis have given us… no clear and unequivocal understanding …as to what distinguishes leaders from non leaders… …never have so many laboured so long to say so little' (Bennis and Nanus)

And much later still, in 1999, Howard Gardner in his book "Leaders' Minds' said that in spite of the endless stream of books, articles, seminars, and courses on leadership, testifying to the widespread belief that leadership is important

...there is still vast ignorance in larger society about leadership and the ways it can be effective….and a continuing 'orphan status' for leadership knowledge. (Gardner)

Reality is too complex for the dominance model

One of the problems is that the descriptions of desirable leadership behaviours and qualities are so often taken out of context, referring to neat un-real situations, while the real situations in which leadership is most vividly exercised are in those 'white water' moments of rapid change, complex demand and incomplete information. So let's start with glimpses of these real situations.

First there is the sheer complexity and inter-relatedness of issues and problems in modern living. Leadership is required to make decisions based on incomplete data, to learn from unpredictable outcomes including disconnection between causes and effects, to maintain intelligent awareness of the interconnectedness of so many variables, and to try to keep both the detail and big picture in view all the time.

Secondly there are the demands of finding and maintaining a direction in these ever-changing circumstances, of developing a vision that is shared and therefore that can motivate others by enabling them to tap into what really matters to them, and of finding the human meaning and purpose which would mobilise them to participate.

Thirdly there are the demands on the personal qualities of leadership, the need for self - knowledge that might pre-empt the tendency to see problems that are not there, or to misinterpret events through personal bias and filter, etc.

Finally there is the increasingly urgent call that leadership should actually serve people, that higher priority be given to social justice, environmental concern, the state of the planet that our grandchildren inherit, and so on.

Margaret Wheatley, a writer on the new paradigm in leadership concludes that:

Most of what we know about leadership doesn't apply…the great thing is to realise that leaders' work is essentially very different from the past (Wheatley)

And in each of the new issues for leaders that I described you can see the core role that must be played by constant continuous leadership learning.

The unquestioned canon of heroic male leadership

If these are some of the broad challenges facing the new leadership, then what stops leadership today from seeing the challenges, taking stock, and working towards meeting them? Australian leadership researcher Amanda Sinclair proposes that the problem is that

...our conceptions of leadership are locked in a time-warp, constrained by lingering archetypes of heroic warriors and wise but distant fathers (Sinclair)

Her research indicates that the ways we think about leadership, and the way most leadership writers write about it, and even studies of leadership, all tend to focus on 'masculine' values. In fact, suggests Sinclair, masculine aspects of leadership have been assumed as the norm of leadership, and these assumptions are deeply embedded outside our awareness. They are taken for granted rather than made the focus of attention.

Amongst the characteristics of these deeper masculine leadership values Sinclair lists
physical toughness,
emotional toughness,
and independence.

Characteristic rituals include
long hours,
rarely taking sick leave,
accrued annual leave,
the sacrifice of personal and family time as being part of the job,
travel at short notice, and so on.

Further characteristics include a tendency or preference for hierarchical and coercive ways of working, a reluctance to share or to develop relationship as a working tool, or to use dialogue and open discussion, or to leave people space and to trust them or to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, or to use genuine listening and understanding as ways of working.

Men, she says, have been almost exclusively the subject of leadership studies, and women's leadership has not been recognised as leadership within the largely male constructed canon of leadership theory. And in this respect Sinclair says that we won't get change in leadership until we make explicit the connection we have constructed between leadership and maleness, allowing us to understand the resistance to change in leadership.

Robert Greeenleaf is author of the concept of Servant Leadership. No less an authority than Peter Senge tells people

'not to bother reading any other book about leadership until you've first read Robert Greenleaf's book Servant Leadership … I believe it is the most singular and useful statement on leadership I've come across…' (Senge)

Greenleaf says that the traditional hierarchical approach to leadership coming to be seen as seriously flawed, but the authoritarian bias that supports it is so entrenched that it is difficult even to discuss alternatives. (Greenleaf)

It is not necessarily that people don't want to discuss entrenched notions of authoritarianism and hierarchy, but that such notions are so woven into the fabric of our experiencing that we do not see there is anything to discuss.

Now let's have a look at some of the things that are changing in places where there is change.

Who is a leader?

The first is in the area of what is leadership and who is a leader? A broader more recent definition sees leadership as something that

includes indirect leadership exerted through support and networking …and that extends to direct leadership of the sort that is exercised by world leaders... On that continuum each of us can find a place and a means of expressing ourselves (Bennis)

So anyone can see themselves as a leader without being labelled as a leader by others. This is in keeping with the informal, participatory ways of leading and influencing that we can see breaking out everywhere today through networking, the web, the rapid rise in numbers of non-official organisations and NGOs, of social and individual rights movements, of different ways of convening meetings and empowering people, etc. We no longer have to be at the 'top' to have the right to influence.

The demand for meaning through work

In recent decades we have seen increasing resistance to the old idea that work is only an obligatory evil, and a corresponding demand that people be enabled to work in ways that respect and are congruent with deeper human values. This is sometimes put in the form of 'taking one's values to work', so that one's work adds value to society as well as earning a living, that one's feeling and passion can enhance rather than oppose one's work. And when this does happen we may experience something special

When people are aligned to their purpose, when the gap between values and behaviours closes, what people experience is a stream of ease (Lewin)

Neal puts it this way

People are saying that's enough. We're more than just a cost to the organisation. We have spirits. We have souls. We have dreams. We want a life that's meaningful. We want to contribute to society. We want to feel good about what we do (Neal, in Delbecq)

Employers are beginning to see that desirable people will be drawn to places where work has personal meaning and significance. People Management October 2000 explored this trend and concluded that

Employees as they wake up will migrate to companies that foster a deeper relationship with work. (People Management)

What all this is saying is that people are increasingly averse to having to sacrifice their integrity in order to meet the goals of the organization. And according to the Financial Times, companies are slowly realising that

Human beings want to love their organisation - they don't want to work for a set of bastards. People seek meaning in their work and will start to creep out the door if they find none... ( Stephen Overall, Financial Times, September 2001)

The leader as learner

In places and contexts where the idea of hierarchical leadership is found to be too rigid to deal satisfactorily with the complexity of the situation, we find a move towards a more horizontal kind of leadership, where leadership functions are dispersed through the whole system, more of a network structure.

This involves a move away from the idea of the heroic leader who does it all, retaining the power while operating through other people by delegation, towards getting things done through and with people, not through their compliance but through their participation in bringing their own creativity and world view and knowledge to participate in the act of leadership. But it goes further than that, it is not just a matter of getting things done with and through other people, (the claim you often hear summarised as "…people are our most important resource") but getting things done through the learning of people.

A sea change is occurring in organisational leadership, from the heroic to the post heroic. While the heroic leader achieves by his own Herculean efforts - knowing all and doing all - the post heroic leader seeks to solve problems and achieve outcomes through developing the capabilities of others. (Sinclair, paraphrasing Handy)

This thinking has led in the last 20 years to formulation of the ideas of the learning company:

'The new kind of organisation will be committed to support the full development of each employee, and the person's reciprocal commitment to the organisation. (Senge)

But we hit another problem when we discover is that, in the words of another leadership writer Peter Vaill:

We have not learnt learning as a lifelong activity. Our schools have been concerned to produce graduates rather than learners, so a learning company has to help us to come to learning again, in a different way and for a different purpose. (Vaill)

Vaill concludes that good managerial leadership is not learned, it is learning! Bennis' own research into leadership and learning indicates that

...good leaders are perpetual learners, highly proficient in learning from experience
…learning is the essential fuel for the leader
…leaders use the organisation as a learning environment

Learning as living

Such leaders lead through their own learning and involve the learning of others in meeting, framing and managing the situations of the day. When I am with a leader who is learning it is quite different from being with a leader who is not. When I am taught by a teacher who is learning, it is quite different from being taught by a teacher who is not. Something about the openness to learning a situation seems capable of having a transformational effect on the situation itself. We participate, with our attitudes, in drawing a situation into being. It is not just - "…ah, now there is a situation… with what attitude do I approach it…?" but "… look how my attitude actually helps to shape the situation that is currently coming into being…"

Leadership and being

Jaworski claims that the kind of leadership that could effect lasting change is centred around the 'being' aspect of leadership. He talks of shifts of being taking place as part of leadership learning. In the first shift we come to see ourselves as an essential part of the unfolding situation, that situations have different possibilities according to the inner state we are in.

(we see) … that possibilities are actually much more fluid than they seem to be when we are overwhelmed by our usual sense of resignation... (Jaworski)

And through this kind of experience we come to realise that

we bring forth the world through the process of living itself. (Jaworski)

Relationship and trust

All of this is a far cry from traditional constructs of leadership with their hierarchic and static relationships, their view of work as a matter of getting things done, and their less than enthusiastic embrace of trust. Systems built on lack of trust rely on overt or covert coercion to get people to do what the management or leadership wanted them to do. In the new paradigm this constitutes a gross inefficiency for the individual and for the entire system, not least of all because of the consequent loss of individual commitment, creativity and intelligence. Wheatley and others espousing the new leadership paradigm assert that

New relationships create new capacities... (Wheatley)

This simple statement almost masks a crucial insight. In the old mechanistic scientific paradigm, objects, things, whatever was measurable, were the primary stuff of the natural world, and the nature of these 'things' gave rise to the relationships between the things. Relationships are what go on between 'things'. In the new scientific paradigm relationships are the primary focuses of study, and it is relationships that bring 'things' into being! This means that 'things' are what go on between relationships! Thus to say that new relationships create new capacities is to say that our potential is shaped by our relationships. Wheatley goes on to propose that relationships

… offer us the possibility of becoming something different and greater than anything we had been. (Wheatley)

If we are given the spaces, the opportunities and the encouragement we are able to reach out and make the relationships we need in order to do what we are moved to do. This in turn requires trust

In systems of trust, people are free to create the relationships they need. (Wheatley)

And the essential problem here is that hierarchical systems distrust the capacity of people to self-organise, they don't want to encourage self-organisation. However in horizontal systems, that kind of coercion is replaced by trust, and delegation is replaced by self organisation. And the organisation is held together by shared values, and you have new kinds of stops and checks, including transparency, information flow, accountability and reporting to enable this complexity to flow as a connected up, intelligent, responsive system.

In life the issue is not control but dynamic connectedness (Jantsch)

And this means that the new paradigm is shifting away from the leader-of-followers view and towards a leader-of-leaders view. When you do not see dominance and influence as the primary activities of leadership you no longer need to see leadership in terms of leaders (influencers) and followers (influenced).

Instead, you can think about leadership as a process in which everyone in a community, or group, is engaged. This is a way of viewing leadership as part of a context. Leadership, instead of being a … force that that a leader can apply … to a group of people, becomes a community specific process that arises in various forms … when people work together (Drath and Palus)

It seems that control is working less and less well as a tool for getting things done in complex systems like classrooms, offices, businesses and public organisations. Wheatley states that

Controlling the system is not the aim - rather we should increase intuition about how the system works in order to interact with it more harmoniously (Wheatley)

This may require us to use wider kinds of knowing, which include intuition, hunch, emotional knowing, insights into complexity etc. And qualities such as genuine concern for others…

Leadership and the feminine

It looks as if the style of management practice that most effectively enhances business success is going to include close attention to relationships and webs of interdependence. Perhaps initially women may find it easier to work in this way than many men. Men will have to let go of the traditional macho mask as lone ranger, and uncover this more feminine faculty in themselves. One prediction is that women leaders will not only be a greater force than now, but will be a major force.

According to the research of Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe at Leeds Univesity the number one variable that equates with successful leadership in this new model is

Genuine concern for others' well-being and development (Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe)

Practical implications

In this article we have travelled quickly over a large territory, viewing it from a high altitude. I hope you have been able to find some provocative lines of questioning for your own practice as teacher, academic manager, trainer, writer, principal, etc. I'd like to finish by sharing with you some of the concrete suggestions that I make to myself, by way of putting some if this thinking into everyday practice.

1. Discover that leadership, like teaching, has everything to do with learning
- Demonstrate your own learning through the way you teach and related to your colleagues, students and clients. By modelling continuous learning you are modelling a crucial aspect of leading. This means not only learning about stuff out there, but learning about stuff in here, and how I shape events and relationships by my assumptions and outlooks.

2. Classroom or school as a learning environment for leadership
- Use your whole classroom as a huge learning environment, as a play school, an adventure park for learning.
- Value, and practise, and be seen to practise, the art of learning from experience.
- Appreciate that learning from experience is an essential fuel for the teacher and for anyone to cope competently with life.
- Give up trying to appear right.

3. Notice how solutions are temporary events, not fixed things 'out there'
- Work with what is happening, rather than with what you wish was happening.
- Be wary of trying to predict what will happen, or of wanting things to happen to conform with your plan. Don't over rely on prediction.
- Notice how stability is only a chance, temporary phase. Planning innovative change may not be as possible as we like to think. Instead, 'changeability' must be built into our classroom or school or organisation, and our daily living

4. Make plans but don't expect them to work out
- A realistic leadership must create conditions conducive to a process of continuous emergence, so that outcomes are a surprise…
- Ensure your school and class is a place that encourages people to voice destabilising questions.
- Encourage creative instability as the new form of stability…
- At the same time cradle and protect those who are more vulnerable to instability.


Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. 1985. Leaders - Strategies for taking charge. Harper and Row
Bennis, W. and Goldsmith. J. 1997. Learning to Lead. Nicholas Brealey
Delbecq, A. 2000 Spirituality for Business Leadership. Journal of Management Inquiry
Drath, W. and Palus, C. 1994 Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-making in a Community of Practice Centre for Creative Leadership, North Carolina
Gardner, H. 1999 Leaders Minds
Greenleaf, R.1998. The Power of Servant Leadership. Berrett Koehler
Jantsch, E. 1996 The Self-organisisng Universe
Jaworski, J. 1996. Sychronicity & the Inner Path of Leadership. Berrett-Koehler
Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. Doubleday
Sinclair, B. 1998. Doing Leadership Differently. Melbourne University Press
Wheatley, M. 1992. Leadership and the New Science. Berrett Koehler

Adrian Underhill

I was for some years director of the International Teacher Training Institute at International House Hastings. One of my focuses was the development of courses that offered teachers a practical grounding in facilitative learning and interpersonal and group dynamics skills. Then I became interested in the whole question of ethical business, and how work and commerce might contribute to the health of society and of the planet, rather than depleting both. I studied on an excellent Msc programme in Responsible Business Practice, which led me to the question of what kind of leadership is needed to meet these challenges at local or global level. I am now working with schools and organisations on leadership learning, and for the Public Service Leadership Scheme in the UK. I am also following a marvellous PhD programme that focuses on what are the qualities of professional learning that could make a real difference.

Currently I am training adviser to EmbassyCES, and this summer I am delighted to be offering an intensive training course on the Pilgrims programme. The course is titled Leading as Learning, Learning as Leading, and will be a practical exploration of how to put these ideas into practice in schools and classrooms. It runs from 17 - 22 July in Canterbury. Details from the Pilgrims website.

Please check the Adrian's Leadership course at Pilgrims website.

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