The latest ThoughtMeet (TM) from the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory (ARC) featured conversations with Steve Munby and ARC delegates exploring “imperfect leadership.” Munby facilitates ARC events and is a member of the ARC Secretariat, and Visiting Professor at University College London Centre for Educational Leadership. Munby’s talk drew from his recently published book with co-author Marie-Claire Bretherton, Imperfect Leadership in Action: A practical book for school leaders who know they don’t know it all. This post highlights the key ideas and issues that were discussed in the meeting by representatives from the seven ARC member systems and its global partners. A summary, videos, and other resources from the March 25th ThoughtMeet: A Focus on Leadership. Summaries and materials from previous ThoughtMeets are available on the ARC Education Project website. This post was written by Mariana Domínguez González, and Daphne Varghese, ARC Research Assistants and Trista Hollweck, ARC Project Director.
“Nobody is ready for leadership. It is always a big step up. Imperfect leadership is neither a set of competencies to be mastered nor a body of knowledge to be memorized. It is a mindset to be embraced.”
What is imperfect leadership? According to Steve Munby, imperfect leadership goes beyond how effectively a leader responds to ever-changing and dynamic work conditions to encompass who the leader is as a person– their personality, expertise, how they motivate others, respond to stress, etc. Leaders are not finished products; rather, they should strive to be endless learners which he describes as grown up & restless (as illustrated in the quadrants below). Munby reminded ARC delegates that “walking into a leadership role is a new playground for everyone. There is no such thing as perfect leadership when we step into a leadership role.” Thus, strong self-awareness is crucial for imperfect leadership.
In order for leaders to stay restless, Munby stressed the importance of developing and leading an open-to-learning culture. Leaders should review and reflect on events or situations that haven’t gone well, practice self-compassion, and use feedback processes (such as 360 degree feedback) in a focused and time-specific way to improve their leadership practices.
How can we help educators to improve and to develop as leaders? Munby stressed that all members in a team have the potential to be leaders. The key is to provide them with the confidence to step up and take a leadership role. Creating an imperfect leadership culture requires an investment in others, especially early career leaders. As the more experienced leaders, he explained “it is our responsibility to support the leadership development of others. We must support future leaders and provide them with opportunities to take on challenging tasks and feel supported to take risks. We also must be conscious to not reinforce one simple stereotypical view of leadership, but encourage potential leaders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to lead.” Munby added that an imperfect leadership culture provides opportunities for experienced leaders to take on new and challenging roles in an effort to renew and re-energize them.
A Q&A panel discussion followed the ARC talk and delegates asked Munby about the role of diversity in leadership, the importance of co-leadership and distributed leadership models, how to deal with negative organizational cultures, as well as how to balance risk-taking and learning from one’s failures against stakeholder expectations:
What role do you think diversity plays in leadership? Munby noted that organizations need to go beyond the notion that diversity is solely about fairness. Rather, diversity creates better teams characterized by numerous perspectives and expertise. Organizations also need to steer away from a singular approach to leadership, as it can encourage specific group members to be leaders and deter others from stepping into a leadership role. Munby emphasized that conceptualizations of talent are narrow and fixed, and we need to find ways to challenge them.
How do we “row together” to create an expectation of sharing power and decision-making? Munby described how stakeholder engagement is an essential collaborative strategy for systems to develop imperfect leadership and promote progressive policy leadership.
How do leaders cope with negative organizational cultures? According to Munby, it is always important to try to find a way to internally influence the work culture. However, in some cases, if the negative culture becomes too fixed and unlikely to change, it may be best for the leader to switch to another workplace.
Follow-up reflection questions for system leaders:
- What does imperfect leadership mean in a virtual post-Covid-19 context?
- What is the difference between leadership and management?
- How do we further develop adaptive leadership in our systems so that leaders are not only aware of their individual strengths and default styles but equally aware of how to respond when a situation needs a different approach?
- How do leaders balance the system/political aspect as well as the personal side of leadership?
- How do leaders manage the very real external pressures and expectations and also provide conditions for aspiring leaders to grow and make mistakes?
- How do we prevent or avoid burnout in leaders at all levels? What kind of support is most needed?
About the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory:
The (ARC) is an international policy learning network that was established in 2016 to advance educational change based on eight guiding principles: equity, excellence, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy, sustainability, human rights, and professionally run systems. Headquartered at the University of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) since 2019, ARC brings together senior public officials (i.e ministers and deputy ministers of education), professional association leaders (i.e. unions and inspectorates) and other key stakeholders from its seven education member systems (Iceland, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Scotland, Uruguay and Wales), global partners (International Confederation of Principals) and international experts and scholars to discuss, debate and exchange knowledge about educational policy issues and to formulate responses suited to their contexts. One of the founding ideas behind ARC is to tear down the walls between countries and regions, as well as between educational researchers and politicians, in order to pursue the most fundamental ideas of what it means to be educated in today’s world for the mutual benefit of all ARC-systems and future generations of students worldwide. Every year, ARC members meet at the annual Summit hosted by one of the member systems. However, since 2020, in addition to a virtual summit, ARC has also hosted bi-monthly virtual ARC ThoughtMeets (TMs) for its members. The TM outreach series was designed to stimulate and support a global educational movement for equitable, inclusive and sustainable educational solutions to COVID-19.