What’s your school leadership style?

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Do you lead by throwing your weight around? Or are you more of a role model who gains the respect of others by knowing everything there is to know about education? Ryan Campbell weighs up the pros and cons of each approach

What's your leadership style?

The dizzying array of educational leadership theories and approaches in the fields of academic literature and leadership training conceals the fact that there are only two broad leadership styles you need to know about: dominance and prestige.

In part, this is because these two strategies subsume all the others. But it’s also because they apply across all human organisations and because they will inform not only our work with students but may also have implications for teacher career advancement.

Yet these two very different approaches are rarely discussed directly in education.

Role model vs role enforcer

Dominance is, undeniably, the most primordial leadership pathway of them all, even to the extent that it is apparent in the behaviour of our primate cousins. Dominance is a route to influence that encompasses any leadership approach based around implied threat, aggressive competition, coercion, positional intimidation and generally throwing one’s weight around.

It’s often overlooked by the leadership literature and training industries, which tend to overly accentuate – to the point of mythologising – the positive, feel-good aspects of leadership. That’s probably because dominance is the strategy most associated with the dark side of leadership, which generally includes any forms of workplace bullying and other signs of a toxic workplace culture.

In these fractured times, it is also the most relevant politically as we see the emergence of dominance-based leaders around the globe in positions of prominence.

This leadership style is most commonly adopted in schools when there is an external threat. When that threat does not exist, dominance leaders turn their attention inward and may even go as far as to derail the careers of potential rivals and promote weaker candidates over stronger ones to ensure their longevity at the top of the greasy status pole.

Yet leaders whose rule is based on dominance do not have things all their own way. Indeed, there is some evidence that when the inevitable mistakes occur, dominance-based leaders can fall as rapidly as they rise. The reason for this rapid fall of the once dominant from grace? We are far less likely to forgive the transgressions of a dominance-based leader than we are those of the leaders from our second major leadership strand: prestige.

Probably unique to humans, and arising from the relative sophistication of human cultural transmission, prestige-based leadership is when the group confers status on a leader in exchange for his or her expertise. It is generally associated with servant and professional leadership. While almost certainly a slower pathway – after all, genuine skill and experience do take time to acquire – prestige is certainly the more wholesome one. The prestige leader elicits rather than demands deference and is more role model than role enforcer.

Yet despite prestige appearing more admirable, we must keep in mind that both approaches are equally viable routes to the top. Indeed, there is still much research to be done as to the pros and cons of each, and education and educational leadership seem particularly fertile grounds for investigation of the two approaches.

Practical value

Prestige is probably more domain-specific than dominance – to be a prestige school leader you need educationally relevant skills – but we don’t know this for sure.

There are some fascinating hints in the literature and from professional wisdom that dominance-based leaders may offset their greater risks of career catastrophe by networking externally among dominant peers and spending less time at school. Similarly, the prestige approach may predict more internal networking, and may even carry some mental and physical health benefits.

Alongside the general principle that it is important to see school leadership as it is rather than how we would wish it to be (there are probably more dominance-based leaders in education than we might like) – and aside from the inherent entertainment value of attempting to classify leaders you’ve worked with into the two categories – awareness of these two approaches has some practical career value.

First, do not despair if you tend to have a prestige approach but see your more dominant peers shooting up the career ladder ahead of you; they may just find that the ladder isn’t secured as firmly as they might think. Instead, focus on really developing your skills through experimenting and active reflection on how to improve.

Be collegiate with your peers and identify the micro-problems in your practice that the true expert needs to solve. You could do this by setting yourself external benchmarks that you can measure your professional development against.

And above all else, remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare: dominance may be the quicker route to the top but it is almost certainly shorter term, whereas a prestige approach, based on genuine skill and knowledge development, is likely to stand you in far better stead throughout your career.

Ryan Campbell is high school vice-principal for curriculum and learning at Jakarta Intercultural School

This article originally appeared in the 8 November 2019 issue under the headline “Dominance or prestige: what’s your leadership style?”