Educational Leadership for a Catholic Principal in the 21st Century

Posted by Bernadette Murfitt, Principal, Sacred Heart Cathedral School, Thorndon, Wellington on 18 December 2019

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an essay presented for an M Ed Lead paper

“Educational leaders must guide their schools through the challenges posed by an increasingly complex environment. Curriculum standards, achievement benchmarks, programmatic requirements, and other policy directives from many sources generate complicated and unpredictable requirements for schools. Principals must respond to increasing diversity in student characteristics, including cultural background, and immigration status, income disparities, physical and mental disabilities, and variation in learning capacities. They must manage new collaborations with other social agencies that serve children. Rapid developments in technologies for teaching and communications require adjustments in the internal workings of schools. These are just a few of the conditions that make schooling more challenging and leadership more essential” (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003, p. 1).

This essay will explain and defend scholarly literature and integrate key understandings gained about educational leadership and how I will apply learnings as a practising Catholic principal in the 21st century. The roles and responsibilities of a Catholic principal in today’s educational landscape are varied. Leaders are tasked with maintaining the Catholic ethos of the school, leading and developing the school as a faith community accountable to the Bishops, the delivery of the curriculum as well as being a personal witness to the values and vision of the Catholic Church. I do not believe there is only one model of leadership for Catholic principals to follow. I have identified several types of leadership models: transformational, authentic, transcendent and spiritual, which I believe can be implemented by Catholic leaders who today face many challenges, particularly with globalisation and education reform, while preserving the Catholic identity of schools. Successful leadership in Catholic schools ensures all stakeholders are empowered with a united vision grounded in Catholic social doctrine.

Leadership literature of the last century has many models and definitions of leadership. Rost (1991) challenges the industrial paradigm of leadership that was widespread and was a very powerful form of leadership in the last century. Rost states that leadership concepts and practices have become dysfunctional. He believes there needs to be a dynamic interaction between leaders and followers, combined with the importance of values and ethics as variables in leadership. Unfortunately today, many school leadership teams are caught up in an industrial paradigm mindset. Leaders in schools today need to surround themselves with a broad range of staff, and employ a range of strategies when making decisions. Wheatley (1999) argues that the failure of many organisational change initiatives can be attributed to obsolete and out of date approaches which totally ignore the human dynamics of interconnectedness, trust and positive relationships.

The industrial model of leadership which was prominent throughout the twentieth century is no longer appropriate for the rapidly changing educational landscape of today. I believe a transformational, transcendental, authentic approach grounded in deep spirituality is required when leading in Catholic schools. In this essay I will outline what this could look like in practice.

Leaders need to be adaptable and know when the time is right to employ appropriate strategies and styles of leadership which will enable the best outcomes for staff, students and community. I view leadership as a combination of approaches, a collaborative relationship underpinned by a shared vision and moral purpose which will bring about change which will be embedded and sustainable over time, therefore making a difference to student lives. Relationships in schools provide fundamental foundations that ultimately underpin teaching and learning.

“Collaborative leadership will be one of the main engines that transform various nations and societies from around the globe from the 20th century industrial era to the 21stcentury postindustrial era” (Rost, 1991, p. 6). Rost outlines the importance of different collaborative strategies required to replace traditional hierarchical models. Successful leaders are team builders who embrace working in partnerships with stakeholders to provide opportunities to develop connected processes and opportunities for learning and reflection. Recognising and understanding the different constructs of leadership empowers a leader to perform more effectively by adapting different styles of leadership for different situations. Duignan and Bezzina argue, “Those in formal leadership positions need to let go of the idea that leadership is hierarchically distributed and commit to growing and developing leadership as a shared phenomenon.” (Duignan & Bezzina 2006, p4).

I believe genuine shared leadership requires a leader to have a deep belief in the potential of each individual, combined with high levels of trust, mutual respect, and effective communication skills. This type of leader will be able to take advantage of collective wisdom and intellect.

“The significant faith demands inherent in Catholic schools, coupled with the educational milieu of the 21st century, require Catholic school principals to exercise a leadership that goes beyond effective organization bases on collaborative, collegial work relationships.” (Lavery, 2012, p. 38). Leadership is a complex concept. Over time many scholars have come up with different definitions and approaches to leadership. Rost describes leadership as a relational influence through which collaboration can effect change. Leithwood & Riehl, and Duignan & Bhindi, both refer to influence and expand on this as providing direction and placing a real emphasis on human resource, in order to obtain growth and development.

Combining all those elements in my context as a leader in a Catholic school, the prominent force in being an effective leader is the power of the relationship and the way the leader promotes, influences and provides opportunities for collaboration across all areas of the school. This is often referred to as a new paradigm. “The new paradigm challenges these

old assumptions and seeks to create a different culture and learning environment. An environment characterised by mutual trust and respect is conducive to the generation of new ideas and reflective of a willingness to support and acknowledge others’ ideas” (Duignan & Cannon, 2011, p. 97).

Leadership is a relational activity which requires a commitment to understanding context and culture through highly developed interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. (Wheatley, 1999) Describes the essential element of relationships and their complexity in relation to what can be achieved. “No one can hope to lead any organization by standing outside of or ignoring the web of relationships through which all work is accomplished.” (Wheatley, 1999, p.16).

The relational approach to leading requires a collaborative and inclusive attitude. Authentic leadership is comparable to “First Nations Perspective” as it is idealistic in nature and excellent in theory, as the focus is on people and relationships and yet it can be challenging to execute. “The quality of the relationships greatly influences everything else that happens in organisations, including the quality of leadership.” (Duignan & Bhindi, 1997,p. 201). How teams operate and network, and the way they communicate with each other, solve problems, and challenge thinking, requires a climate where values are at the forefront. This takes into account the way leaders lead, teachers teach and trustees govern. Relationships are the backbone of authentic leadership. Leading in a Catholic school requires the bringing together of people in a spiritual, caring way, based on values and moral purpose. Implementing vision is critical to leading in a truly authentic way.

“Trusting and caring relationships are identified in many studies as central to the development of culture or climate where values relating to honesty, integrity, fair mindedness, loyalty, justice, equity, freedom and autonomy are internalised and find expression through everyday practices and procedures” (Duignan & Bhindi, 1997, p. 201).

When these conditions exist people desire to follow because the leader has credibility and is genuine and honest. When there is a collaborative leader, challenge is not only welcomed but is valued as a means of gathering other perspectives. An authentic leader will insist on finding different ways of thinking to address issues within an inclusive culture. Genuine collaboration empowers people because they feel listened to and feel valued for their input into the decision making process. They develop a shared sense of accountability for what they have done and for their influence in reaching decisions. In this environment, the culture encourages all stakeholders to take risks and make valuable contributions. ‘If influencing is central to leadership, then the very best way to influence others is to develop mutually rewarding relationships with them. Relationships are at the heart of influential leadership practice” (Duignan, 2008, p. 238).

It would be fair to say there is reluctance and hesitation in discussing the role that spirituality should take in an educational leadership context, mainly due to misunderstandings and doubt as to what spirituality means. However, for leaders in Catholic schools, it is integral and essential in carrying out our mission and purpose. Starratt and Guare summarise this as a type of leadership that "by its very nature is directed towards persons developing a greater understanding of themselves and their ways of being in the world. In leading, we are always engaged with the power of the Spirit performing over and over again some act of vision, of faith, of desire" (Starratt & Guare, 1995, p. 201).

These are empowering words for the leadership team in a Catholic school, as the spiritual dimension of leadership must always be recognised. With this also comes the great importance placed on relationships and the interconnectedness and collaboration which is “not simply energised by the spiritual leader or leadership group but by a spiritual source whose power is what drives the universe itself” (Starratt & Guare, 1995, p. 196). Wheatley (2002) reinforces this by encouraging leaders in the 21st century to move into a relationship with “uncertainty and chaos.” Management, organisational theories, control and administration will not be as effective as something that embraces who we are as people. 

Duignan & Bhindi capture why leaders today are utilising key aspects of spirituality through relationships and their deep purpose of meaning by incorporating values such as trust and honesty and employing a sense of social justice. This is helping leaders to nurture themselves and others and become more autonomous as they look beyond themselves for the benefit of others. “We interpret this concern for spirituality to, at least partly, reflect an attempt to understand the ‘connectedness’ of their work, their relationships, indeed their life, to something beyond self and to something that demonstrates to them that they do in fact make a difference” (Duignan & Bhindi, 1997, p. 198). Covey also makes reference to “spirit” and how we are ready for the age of spirit. This way of leadership, concerned with principles and values, encompasses the meaning of the whole person. People want to feel they are making a difference, they want to belong and they want to feel valued. People who feel safe and supported have a greater capacity to perform to a higher standard.

Effective leaders will not be threatened by others’ abilities and capabilities. They will encourage others to realise their potential by making them part of the process and ensuring they understand the outcomes. They know themselves so well that they are aware of their whole self, including insecurities, frustrations, limitations, imperfections and vulnerabilities Starrat (1999) refers to this as “knowing the darker side of our nature” and using this knowledge of self to be proactive in leading.

Leaders are not effective when they use power to dictate or have power over others. Rather, giving power to all the people so they can work co–operatively and collaboratively is more effective. Starratt (2004) also describes the convincing result when power empowers other people to work together to achieve great things. This highlights how leaders have to commit to the reciprocal nature of relationships, thus ensuring a balance in status. “Authentic person disarm the powerful. They are not intimidated by power. They deal with the issues around which power may need to be exercised. For the authentic person, real power is the power that people who work together have to make good things happen or to oppose harmful things” (Starrat R., 2004, p. 73).

Leaders who model integrity and fairness while encouraging and supporting others, have high expectations based on solid relationships in which having people work together for a common purpose will be respected by all stakeholders. These attributes align with both authentic and transformational styles of leadership. The work of Eagly is advocating for “authentic leadership” where leaders’ goals are grounded in shared values, and they intend that their actions promote goals that benefit the larger community.” (p.460).

I am in a Catholic Principal Professional Learning Group and privy to witnessing many attributes of an authentic leader. I have observed the following in my colleagues and I believe these are the attributes and skills required by Catholic leaders to cope with the educational landscape now and in the future. An authentic leader is committed to the mission of the school (Fullen). They show genuine respect for people and are at ease with all types of people. They build up knowledge of their team by acknowledging great work and celebrating success. Leaders are able to draw the very best out of their staff, they know when to steer and when to give explicit directives. They enjoy warm, interactive relationships with all stakeholders, are genuine and not afraid to show care (Duignan, 2008). People trust, respect and listen to them because they are aligned to the core values of the school. They have a deep knowledge of themselves. They know their weaknesses and play to their own strengths. They spend time rising above their fears. They are committed to building community because they genuinely care about other people and developing those around them. (Starratt R., 2004). They commit to excellence and raising the standard while making their school a better place for future generations.

Authentic leaders “know who they are, what they believe and value, and act upon those values and beliefs while transparently interacting with others” (Avolio, Gardner, Wulumbwa, Luthans & May, as cited in Eagly, 2005).

Transformational leaders are able to articulate their vision in such a way that it can be embraced and owned by all. These leaders are able to convince others to strive for a higher level of achievement as well as higher levels of moral and ethical standards, by making people feel heard, valued and respected.

In my experience, individuals respond to leaders who build trust with a community and are collaborative and motivated. During times of change, when leaders are implementing a wide range of strategies and approaches for the good of others, energy is created. “We know the sources of energy creation: moral purpose, emotional intelligence, quality relationships, quality knowledge, physical wellbeing - all mobilised to engage the mind and heart in attempting to solve complex adaptive challenges” (Fullan, 2005, p. 38).

Leaders articulate a vision focused on the future by inspiring others. They create contagious energy to influence future direction for all key stakeholders. Effective leaders can also create meaning for all stakeholders through the co-construction of shared expectations. This promotes a sense of cooperation as all stakeholders’ work contributes towards the common good. Transformational leaders will also carefully monitor progress, through reflection, feedback and action. They will communicate with multiple stakeholders to ensure a productive discourse and will employ strategies to solve problems while being transparent, involving others and collaborating. This greatly helps the leader to shape and achieve shared goals and address concerns.

Leaders who are transforming are totally authentic as they place such a value on human resource. They develop a culture based on mutual understanding and trust encompassing norms, beliefs and attitudes. They encourage reflection and help staff to see the endless possibilities that will benefit teaching and learning. Transformational leaders scaffold change and show a deep appreciation of staff feelings and needs.

Being a leader in a Catholic school often requires going beyond what other school leaders would do because of the faith dimension. This encompasses the notion of faith and service as being key components of the role carried out. Transcendental leadership highlights this as leaders are called to serve others, be inclusive and encourage participation while building trusting relationships through active reflection. “Catholic school principals are called to be servant leaders in the spirit of Jesus (Mt 10:45; Mt 23:11; Lk 22:26; Jn 13); their leadership is based on deep reflection; they practise the social doctrine of subsidiarity to ensure genuine decision making opportunities for all members within the school community; and the spiritual standard by which they act is grounded in the wider notion of Catholic social doctrine,” (Lavery, 2012, p. 36).

A transcendental leader focusses on the body, mind, heart as well as the spirit. Gospel values are permeated into daily interactions. By concentrating on what will make a difference for the good of others a transcendental leader will intrinsically motivate followers in preserving the common good. The main difference from other forms of leadership is the spiritual component with the deep understanding of self and the reflection of strengths and imperfections. “What transcendental leadership adds to the continuum is the internal motivation of the leader to serve, linked with an overarching appreciation of the importance of spiritual reflection and action” (Lavery, 2012, p. 39).

Emotional Intelligence (EI) filters through all leadership perspectives described and is an essential element in leadership as it can affect thinking, judgement and energy levels. EI influences the way leaders handle themselves, the way people interact with each other, control emotions, and deal with anger and frustration. Leaders who possess high levels of EI are skillful in inspiring others, leading change, thinking positively and promoting a community of exceptional practice. When all this is in place there is an established climate in which sharing feedback, trust, healthy risk taking and learning flourish.

“Emotionally intelligent people have a deep rooted sense of self which helps them in understanding other people, keeping things in proportion, retaining focus, and understanding what is important. They also retain a positive viewpoint almost all of the time, are successful in whatever they choose to do, have high work performance and personal productivity levels, and consequently enjoy greater job satisfaction” (Modassir & Singh, 2008, p. 8).

Leadership requirements for the 21st century for those involved in Catholic Education need to be nonlinear and fluid. They have to focus on people and relationships. The emphasis has to be on the collective rather than individual enterprise and everyone needs to be kept informed by a shared understanding of vision. In today’s landscape change is complex. It is nonlinear and people have to work together for the benefit of others. Those in leadership need to realise that a variety and combination of strategies need to be employed to engage all stakeholders and be committed to the pursuit of the vision in a fast-changing turbulent world. Such leadership requires sophisticated abilities at an individual level as well as being in tune with the relationships and interactions of the group. We need leaders today not only in Catholic schools but across all schools who are authentic in thought and action, committed to moral purpose and who aspire to being responsive to the Spirit by walking alongside others, listening, nurturing and encouraging all stakeholders. I do believe that effective educational leaders labour at influencing educational tasks that create value and make a difference for student learning and therefore improve student outcomes for all learners.

“Authentic leadership links assumptions, beliefs about, and actions related to, authentic self, relationships, learning, governance and organisation, through significant human values, to leadership and management practices that are ethically and morally uplifting” (Duignan & Bhindi, 1997, p. 208).

Reference List

Covey, S. (1992). Principle Centred Leadership. London: Simon and Schuster.

Duignan, P. (2008). Building leadership capacity in Catholic school communities: Is distributed leadership really the answer? In A. R. Benjamin, Catholic Schools Hope in Uncertain Times (pp. 234-247). John Garratt.

Duignan, P. (2015). Authenticity in Educational Leadership: History, ideal, reality. Leading and Managing, Vol.21, No 1, 1-21.

Duignan, P., & Bezzina, M. (2006). Building a capacity for shared leadership- teachers as leaders of educational change. University of Woollongong, (pp. 1-14). Sydney.

Duignan, P., & Bhindi, N. (1997). Authenticity in leadership: an emerging perspective. Journal of Education Administration, 195-209.

Duignan, P., & Cannon, H. (2011). The Power of Many- Building sustainable collect relationships in schools. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Leadership.

Eagly, A. (2005). Achieving relational authenticity in leadership: Does gender matter? The leadership Quarterly, 315-495.

Frawley, J., Fasoli, L., D'Arbon, T., & Ober, R. (2010). The Linking Worlds Research Project: Identifying intercultural educational leadership capabilities. Leading and Managing, Volume 16 , 1-15.

Fullan, M. (2005). Leadership and Sustainability- System Thinkers in Action. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Maximum impact on learning. London: Taylor and Francis Ltd .

Lavery, S. (2012). The Catholic school principal: A transcendent leader? Journal of Catholic School Studies, 36-42.

Leithwood, K., & Riehl, C. R. (2003). What we know about successful school leadership. Laboratory for student success.

Modassir, A., & Singh, T. (2008). Relationship of Emotional Intelligence with Transformational leadership and Organisational Citizenship Behaviour. Intenational Journal of leadership Studies Vol 4, 3-21.

Mulford, B. (2008). The Leadership Challenge: Improving learning in schools. Australian Education Review, 1-80.

Schoen, L. T., & Fusarelli, L. (2008). Innovation, NCLB and the Fear Factor. Education Policy, 181- 203.

Starratt, R. (1999). Moral dimensions of leadership. In The Values of Education Administration (pp. 23-37). London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Starratt, R. (2004). Ethical Leadership. San Fransisco: Jossey- Bass.

Starratt, R., & Guare, R. (1995). The Spirituality of leadership: Planning and changing .

Wheatley. (1999). Leadership and the new science. San Francisco: Berret- Koehler.

Wheatley M, J. (2002). Leadership in turbulent times is spiritual. Retrieved from http;//

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science- Discovering order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco: Berrett-koehler.

Authenticity: This assignment is my own work, with references taken from texts outlined in the bibliography