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What type of leadership do schools need?

Education Matters

Canute Thompson

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It is the start of a new school year and a good time for us to ponder the type of leadership our schools have been receiving and the kind of leadership they need if we are to emerge from the dismal situation in which more than half of our schools have been found to be performing unsatisfactorily.

There is strong consensus that the performance of schools is dependent on the quality of leadership. One of the issues that this position invites us to ponder is: What are the essential ingredients in leadership that will make schools more effective?

In seeking to answer this question, I conducted a survey among approximately 100 teachers across Jamaica. These teachers were drawn from all levels of the education system. I found four qualities that teachers regard as reflecting effective leadership. The report of this survey was first published in the Journal of Organizational and Educational Leadership in June 2017 and is summarised here for the purposes of informing public discourse and behaviour change.



The first leadership quality that teachers look for in their principal is his or her willingness to recognise their effort and contribution, which they regard as the demonstration of their commitment. And this is true for workers generally, not just teachers. There is perhaps nothing more disheartening to a worker than being faced with criticism when doing your best, especially under trying circumstances. The worker wants to be affirmed and applauded.

The importance of recognising the contributions and accomplishments of workers has long been hailed by organisational psychologists as being vital to an employee's level of motivation (Herzberg) and well-being. In this study, teachers being recognised by the principal was found to be the single most important quality of effective leadership among the top four qualities which were identified.

According to the findings of the study, when a principal recognises the contributions and accomplishments of team members, he or she is also firm on those who fail to meet the expected standards of performance. This idea is fairly simple, but very insightful for what it suggests is that the leader places so much value of the hard work of others that he or she is not willing to allow stragglers to remain stragglers. For, in doing so, the efforts of those who are achieving much are likely to be undermined.



The second most important quality that teachers found to be an indicator of effective leadership is the willingness of the principal to facilitate participation in decision-making, not as a treat or an act of patronage, but based on the conviction that staff members possess the knowledge and experience that enable them to make meaningful contributions in the decision-making process.

According to the study, teachers felt respected when they are allowed to participate in decision-making. Thus, the reverse provides an important insight, when team members are excluded from the decision-making process they feel disrespected. A related component of participation in decision-making is that teachers saw this as a means by which the principal allows them to develop their skills and competencies. This is an exceedingly critical quality of an effective leader — the development of people. A poorly led school is one in which, among other things, no attention is paid to succession planning.

But I also found another moving insight in why teachers regard participation in decision-making as being a vital indicator of effective leadership. The study showed that “ensuring that low performers receive support” was an ingredient of the notion of participation. This suggests that part of the modus operandi of an effective leader is that he or she will ensure that the condition of low performance which may stand as an obstacle to meaningful participation in the ongoing planning and management of the school is removed. In other words, low performance is a natural denier of a voice, and since every staff member should be enabled to participate in various levels of the decision-making process, the obstacles to doing so must be removed.

But it is not only teachers and other staff members, as well as other categories of workers in other organisations, who desire to be included in decision-making. students and parents also have that need and desire. The Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning works with schools in developing their school improvement plans, and students are integrally involved in the planning process, as we hold the view, which the school administrators share, that we cannot plan effectively for students and not include them.

The schools of education of The University of the West Indies recently held their 13th biennial conference. The theme of conference was 'Envisioning Future Education: Cross-disciplinary Synergy, Imperatives and Perspectives'. One of the highlights of the conference was the youth forum in which students from across several high schools addressed the conference in an open plenary and shared their perspectives on the future of education. The School of Education, Mona, will be ensuring that the suggestions and perspectives offered by these students become part of the narrative for policy proposal consultations with the Ministry of Education.


Utilising diverse strengths

The study found that teachers rate a principal as effective when he or she demonstrates the discipline and insight of seeking to know the various skills that exist among the staff, and thus seeks to utilise them in ways that advance the interest of the school. When a leader seeks to tap into the not-so-well-known gifts and abilities of members of his or her team, the leader is unleashing unlimited resources into the school community as well as creating paths towards greater participation and opportunities for recognition.

Think of the last time your boss said to you, “I believe that you are good at so and so, could you manage this for me?” Think of what it does to your sense of self-worth, your confidence, and your commitment when you are given the space to bring your other gifts and abilities on the work of your organisation. In a networked world in which both people have access to information and other resources that can be used to build knowledge and skills, and the effective principal will be the one who is able to utilise the diverse strengths of staff and students.

Openness to accepting correction

The final of the top four qualities that the research found that teachers regarded as being among those possessed by effective leaders is the willingness to accept correction. Can you imagine that? So many leaders — not only US President Donald Trump — misunderstand the importance of acknowledging that they are only human and so make mistakes. When found to have made an error, the mature thing to do, the leader-like thing to do is not to double-down or fight back or try to make the other person look bad. The mature and leader-like thing to do is to accept that you erred and apologise.


Paradigm RePaDO

Leadership in the 21st century requires a new paradigm, one that is self-less and inclusive. Based on the sequence of the four qualities teachers regard as constituting effective leadership, as outlined above, I have constructed an acronym called RePaDo with “Re” referring to recognition; “Pa” for participation; “D” referring to diverse strengths and “O” for “openness to correction.

I conclude that effective school leadership is informed by paradigm of RePaDO. I challenge leaders, not only in schools but in all other spheres, to attempt to apply this paradigm in their leadership approach. I also invite leaders who have been applying this paradigm to share their experiences.


Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail. com.