This interview with Professor Dr. Alma Harris appears as the fifth installment in a year-long series on the public scholarship of women in education leadership.
Dr. Harris is internationally known for her research and writing on leadership and school improvement. She started her career as a teacher in South Wales and has held senior academic appointments at five UK Universities, most recently as Professor of Educational Leadership at the Institute of Education, University College London. In 2010-12, she was seconded to the ‘Welsh Government’ as a Senior Policy Adviser to assist with the process of system wide reform which involved co-leading the National professional learning communities program and developing a new Masters qualification for all newly qualified teachers. During her career, she has worked with various governments and government agencies around the world to assist with school and system improvement. Alma is currently Past President of the ‘International Congress of School Effectiveness and School Improvement’ which is an organisation dedicated to quality and equity in education. She is currently Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership, University of Malaya, Malaysia and is leading a major research project focusing on leadership policy and leadership practice in seven systems in Asia
In this interview Dr. Harris shares her experiences of leadership and underlines her belief that our conversations about school leadership can more accurately reflect the real-world practice of leadership if they are much more inclusive of women’s voices.
On developing an interest in education leadership
I want every little girl who is told she is bossy, to be told instead she has leadership skills.
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook.
In some respects my entry into academia was rather unconventional. Even though I was a secondary school teacher, a long time ago, I also went into business development very early on in my career. I worked for the Welsh Development Agency for four years and during that time, I worked with young entrepreneurs and also set up my own business. Academia was not even on my radar. At that time however my interest in entrepreneurship and leadership grew and grew and that, prompted me to undertake a PhD at the University of Bath. That decision radically changed my career pathway and in many respects, my life. Suddenly, I became much more interested in researching leadership and organizational change rather than just its practical application. I’m an economics graduate, so in a sense I’ve always been interested in the interface between theory and practice but being an educational researcher suddenly brought theory and practice together in a more immediate and powerful way.
That first step into academia changed everything and took me away from supporting new businesses ventures to setting up new research projects that focused largely on the processes of organizational change and development. During my time at the University of Nottingham, University of Warwick and latterly the University College London, I became increasingly interested in finding out what type of leadership matters most in transforming schools and school systems. We know that leadership matters, there is 30 years of research to confirm this, but we are less certain about what type of leadership matters most. The leadership field is cluttered and as such is often, quite confusing with competing concepts and approaches. It can be difficult to navigate. One thing that stands out, even now, is a preoccupation with individual leadership, with leadership as role and responsibility.
There are literally thousands of studies of school principals, which are interesting to read, but do they fully represent and fully account for educational leadership practice? In 2001, I read the work of James Spillane and his colleagues, from Northwestern University in Chicago. Their idea of ‘distributed leadership’ was for me, such an important missing link. At last, someone was talking about the practice of leadership not just the roles and leadership functions. Again, this was another significant moment of change for me. From that moment on, the distributed leadership lens gave me the opportunity to take a new and different perspective on leadership and organizational change. The idea of distributed leadership has shaped my subsequent thinking and writing and also afforded a great personal and professional friendship with Professor James Spillane who continues to be both intellectually generous and inspiring.
My interest in leadership has also encouraged me to take on a number of leadership roles within various Universities. It is difficult, I believe to write about leadership without actually experiencing it. Very soon, such experiences taught me that leadership is relatively easy in theory but hard in practice. It is messy, frustrating and complex work which requires, at times, almost superhuman patience, focus and self-reflection. As Winston Churchill said, “Leadership is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm,” and I certainly endorse this. For certain, I have learned more from my failures than my successes, and I hope I have done so with humility and also kindness, particularly to myself.
As other leaders will have experienced, the most fundamental challenge of leadership is facing yourself and accepting who you are as a leader. Often, leadership decisions for the benefit of the organization are different from those for the benefit of individuals. Dealing with underperforming staff, for example, requires an organizational response but also a response in terms of the individual. In my experience, actions to deal with such difficult issues tend to be framed, by others, in a wholly personal and personalized way. I have also witnessed how the exact same leadership decision can evoke very different responses, to a male or female leader.
I have always tried to do the best for the organization and as such, this has meant making really hard choices. When a woman makes tough decisions, she is often seen as ruthless or cold hearted, when a man makes such decisions he is often seen as determined or tough minded. I have learned that the issue is not inherently one of gender but rather that of perceptions and expectations of gender. It is not intrinsically the case that women and men lead differently, although some have argued that it is in fact the case, the reality is that their actions are viewed and interpreted by others through completely different lenses.
On the emergence of a conversation about women in education
There are two dimensions to this debate. The first is the absence of women on many education conference panels around the world. There is a question mark over why that is the case in the 21st century. If you look at school systems there is largely a balance between genders, as leaders and teachers, so why should it be the case that one gender is consistently missing at the table? That second issue is the one that’s more intellectually interesting. It is the issue of women’s leadership and women’s voices, as leaders, in the ongoing discourse about global leadership. I think there is a blurring sometimes on social media of those two dimensions, and it’s is certainly the second issue that I feel is more interesting.
When we look at much of the writing on leadership, it has been argued, that it often comes from the male perspective. The ‘great man theory of leadership’, for example, characterizes those features and factors associated with individual leadership. In contrast, women’s leadership, and the books on this topic, tends to be a sub-set of the broader literature, almost taking a back-seat, position. As Gillian Hamilton said [in an earlier Esteem interview] there is not really a special thing that is “women’s leadership,” just a breadth of leadership practices and the fact that women leaders have important stories to tell. In short, this is not an issue of gender, it is a leadership issue, a global leadership issue.
On using Twitter to develop awareness
I became involved in a conversation on Twitter in response to seeing largely all-male panels at education conferences. I simply wondered where the female voices had gone and I wondered what this omission actually said about women in leadership. I started a conversation about that on Twitter and people started saying, “Is this acceptable in the 21st century?” It soon turned into a much richer debate about women in leadership. One of the amazing things about Twitter is that very soon you will find a community of practice to continue any discussion. An international debate was soon triggered about women in leadership followed by an international conference. I realized very soon that this was not just an issue about conference speakers but the fact that many women leaders, around the globe, feel very strongly that they are not being represented or heard.
Recently, there was an all-male panel and a panelist gave up his seat for a woman. While this was a powerful and a generous gesture, it made me wonder about the past history of feminism and gender politics. Having a seat at the table is of course important but I had believed this was a fundamental right rather than a matter of invitation. In talking about global leadership we need to ensure all voices are heard, all perspectives are included, all cultures represented. This is the real task of all those involved in educational leadership irrespective of the context or gender.
Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also the Managing Editor of International Ed News, a Research Assistant for the National Center for the Restructuring Education, Schools & Teaching (NCREST), and has taught Literacy and English Ed courses at Hunter College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about Esteem. Visit www.deirdrefaughey.com to learn more about her work.
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