© Julie Boyd 2012

Traditional models and theories of leadership are not necessarily helpful in a contemporary world. One of the challenges for educational leaders is in the realisation that education can no longer be quarantined from our broader society and environment.

A theory of leadership derived from principles of ecology calls for a radical shift in our perspectives of leadership. It emphasizes individual responsibility, partnership and interdependence, a long term perspective, flow cycles and capacities within organizations, understanding and implementing the principles of natural systems, diversity, co-evolution, harmony with nature, and leading the way toward sustainability for future generations.

Just as ecology deals with the relationships of organisms among themselves and to their physical environment, contemporary leadership can be viewed as an ecological system involving the interaction of humans with each other and their more complex environment. This provides us with a new definition of leadership as a systemic relationship within context. It also means we need to understand how this translates into the ecology of our schools.

If leadership is viewed as a system, we must take into account not only the individual components of that system but the whole of the system itself. This helps explain why traditional efforts to develop leadership are often unsuccessful. Trying to improve an organization’s leadership by identifying leadership traits and then trying to train designated leaders to develop those traits is likely to be ineffective because of a fundamental misunderstanding of leadership. Leadership, in fact, evolves from the interactions of the system’s components. Thus effective leadership development needs to consider the skills of everyone who is involved in addressing whatever situation they face.

In order to develop an understanding of an Ecology of Educational Leadership, an initial review of what has and has not changed as far as factors which impact education is a useful dialogue for us to have as educators. For example, in 1995 in response to the challenge of understanding educational ecology, I first developed a list of forces which were driving educational change. Over the years it has proven useful to revisit this list on a regular basis and find that while the key elements have not changed greatly, what is included under each heading has. The examples included here are simply designed as conversation starters.


1.  Changing World

While this appears a particularly obvious force, and consultants have been telling teachers for years that they must prepare students for a future ‘we don’t yet know’, it is our responsibility as teachers to be as informed as possible. For example, the World Future Society has determined that the most sought after job for 2016 will involve data mining and learning analytics. This does not simply mean reading and interpreting NAPLAN results, rather it means being able to build algorithms which contribute to the most rapidly growing field of robotics and artificial intelligence. Already genuinely paperless offices exist where employees caught in possession of ink and wood pulp rather than silicon and plastic are fined by their bosses in an attempt to radically change their behaviour. In other places people are encouraged to play and be creative at work, or to locate themselves where they are able to best operate. Recent major global events such as the global financial crisis, the collapse of the economies of entire countries, climate change and increased population movements are providing massive daily challenges for governments already collapsing under the pressure of not knowing what to do. The question being asked daily is ‘where are our leaders? Who knows how to deal with this?’

Pretty soon all information in the world- every tiny scrap of knowledge, every little thought we’ve had that’s worth preserving over thousands of years will be all available digitally. This data can be read, searched and analysed by computers and value extracted from it in ways we cannot even begin to conceive. How we help students make discerning decisions on where to access reputable information and how to manage information are far more important than simply what to find. The very nature of privacy and identity is changing.


2.  Changing Work

The fastest growing category of jobs in the corporate field right now is coaching and mentoring. People are increasingly searching for others to help them improve both their professional practice and their life balance in order to achieve their personal grail. Public libraries now are no longer quiet places to read a book but have become community centres of learning and information access where office workers are able to base themselves rather than travelling hours to their traditional work places. Changes in our social ecology caused by shifts in governance structure, organizational cultures and gender roles pose adaptive challenges for leaders to understand and embrace the ensuing ripple effect. Adaptive challenges are not independent of each other. Rather, when these challenges interact, they result in an interesting set of emergent properties which have a significant impact on how we need to practice leadership.


3.  Health/Resiliency/Prevention

The realisation that the health of individual community members impacts extensively on the fiscal bottom line of Governments at all three levels, particularly when we are faced with an aging population, has become a crucial source of concern globally. In 1995 we were introducing the concept of resiliency to Australia and discussing what that meant for individuals, schools and communities. Now, the word resiliency has almost become overused but the concept has extended to concern for the resiliency of the human race and is linked closely to the study of various aspects of ‘sustainability’. Health workers, including home-based care and support is the second area of work identified as key for 2016.

4. Human  Learning

We have learned more about how people learn in the past thirty years than ever before in human history. Teachers are now familiar with Intelligence/Body and Brain-based learning/Constructivist and Developmental Learning/Cooperative Learning/Evidence-based Learning, and many other concepts that were introduced in the 1990s or earlier. The issue for us is how we are integrating these to form a coherent basis for our current and future society. While we, in Australia fight the urge by politicians to take us down the American path of ‘management for test results at the expense of everything else to do with education’, the question we need to be asking ourselves is how are we, in schools, building the various forms of ‘capital’ on which the future of our society depends e.g. Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, Health Capital, Economic Capital, Cultural Capital, Financial Capital, Natural Capital and Reputation Capital?


5.  Visible Results of Learning

In 1995, we teachers were concerning ourselves with the expectation of outcome-based education, learning for results and performance-based learning. What Thomas Kuhn—referred to as “a constellation of achievements—This quickly morphed into evidence-based learning but the issue remains the same. How do we know students are learning? What is the most effective way for them to show they are learning? How do we, as teachers, use the data and information we gather about students from their work, our observations, and independent data collection to determine the most effective learning techniques and pathways for each individual, and for the collective group? In the race to reduce education to a series of measurables, we seem to be losing touch with what Einstein reminded us of i.e.

Not everything that can be counted counts

And, not everything that counts can be counted.


6.  Systems Thinking

Patterns arise out of one or more interacting, complex dynamic systems have many direct implications for leadership. For example, intelligence and thought are properties that emerge from the system of cells, blood, and connective tissue that make up the human brain and heart. The interactive effect of adaptive challenges triggers factors which combine to amplify the magnitude of change we will experience because these systems are interconnected. This requires leader-full communities and organizations with many individuals who see the larger picture and have the self-discipline to initiate action around the core values of the community, nation, and world.

7. Expanded Learning Environments and School-work-Higher Learning

Along with immigration and population growth, globalization creates a
significant increase in workforce and workplace diversity. Increased diversity in our lives will continue to challenge the assumptions many organizations have used to shape standards of practice. Diversity will need to be seen as a positive asset of our organizations and communities. It will require embedding of students and workers in local environments working together, using technology effectively, and leadership designed to implement processes which increase inclusiveness and diversity in decision making. High schools of the future will increasingly become places where teachers base themselves to coordinate coaching and mentoring for student placements, and where students use a combination of face to face learning, social media, technology and community based learning.

8. Communication

In recent years social media and mobile technologies have caused the greatest adaptive requirements for both students and teachers. Rapid increases in access to information and technological advances require that discernment is one of the key skills for students to learn. When you can connect directly with an author, or read minute by minute descriptions written by people involved in civil wars, access to information and people is no longer the issue, but management is. Human beings still read at the same speed as Aristotle did. The average America college student reads 450 words per minute. The really clever ones can manage 800 wpm. IBM announced last year they are building a new computer for the US government that can perform 20,000 trillion calculations per second. There is a physical limit to how much information we as a species can absorb. There is no limit to how much a computer can absorb.

9. Technology

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit- which basically means memory size and processing speed- will double every eighteen months, and the costs will halve. At CERN in the 90s a Cray supercomputer cost 15 million dollars delivered half the power a Microsoft xbox now gives you for $200.

In 2007 the British govt lost the records of 25 million people – their tax codes, bank account details, addresses, dates of birth, etc. But it wasn’t a couple of trucks they lost, it was 2 CDs.  Google will one day digitalise every book ever published. Project Gutenberg is already well on the way.

10. Environmental Consciousness

The United Nations has just released a report entitled Resilient People, Resilient Planet: a Future Worth Choosing, which contains 56 recommendations to put sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible.

The panel’s findings come 25 years after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, produced a landmark eponymous report that defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, and more than 30 years after economists such as Hazel Henderson, Paul Hawken and Paul Krugman began calling for new measures of societal and environmental health and success.

“Since then, the world has gained a deeper understanding of the interconnected challenges we face and the fact that sustainable development provides the best opportunity for people to choose their future,” says the report. “This makes ours a propitious moment in history to make the right choices and move towards sustainable development in earnest.”

The implications for education of this report are far-reaching and do require a systemic understanding of interconnectedness between education and other elements of society to benefit students. What will this mean for jobs, work, geography, population movements, are but a few of the considerations we need to explore. A national curriculum is a start, but falls way short of the mark in providing a vision for educationalists as community system leaders.


11. Useful Assessments and Accountability

All of this raises the question of the appropriateness of our assessment and accountability systems. As the United Nations call upon governments to implement appropriate measures for determining sustainability and resilience, we too need to heed this call. Standardised testing is a minor aspect of student assessment and needs to be contextualised as such. If this becomes the singular focus, as in America, right now, and worse – a measure of teacher ‘success’ – the true purpose of education is lost, the rationale for change becomes primarily financial and the ensuing outcomes too appalling to contemplate for students caught in the middle. A child’s ability to survive and thrive through, rather than in spite of, their schooling experience needs to be our primary dialogue, and a focus on how to best equip them for a world that we all struggle to understand, with the best tools we can provide them with.

12. Increased urbanisation

The urbanisation of westernised cultures is creating as many opportunities as it is concerns, right now. The move toward ‘smart cities’ is enabling architects and designers capacity to re-vision buildings through re-skinning and retro-fitting them. Changes in technology access is altering the internal workings of businesses and companies, and the external application of new knowledge is also enabling buildings to be described as ‘holistic, digitally aware entities with minimal carbon emissions.’ Features such as computer controlled systems  adjusted lighting in harmony with the daylight outside, windows open automatically to regulate the temperature, funnels on the roof drew in fresh air to remove the need for airconditioning in all open spaces, the ground source heat pump system, the rainwater recycling unit. Voice recognition systems could differentiate between regional accents in multiple languages will all become standard in the next decade.

Urbanisation is also however creating human issues where limiting personal space can create tension and increasing geographic and psychological distance from water and food production sources, endangering biodiversity and sustainability, and where created communities are full of neighbours who do not know each other. Our ability to adapt and live well in such circumstances is yet another challenge for schools to assist students to navigate.

13. Politics

The macro-political climate of many countries around the world is now subject to challenges previously unheard of, to the degree that some writers are now beginning to refer to a ‘post-political’ world, which may be a utopian vision for some (this writer included). The threats to effective government at all levels include:

– speed- a 24 hour news cycle which is corrupting journalism by precluding effective investigative reporting, and promoting gossip as opinion, and opinion and fact

With recent occurrences in America, and with arguments in Australia about funding for public and private schooling, it could be argued that finance is beginning to play a much more significant role in education – in America, particularly, in threatening public education. The privatisation of services in schools is being extended and schools are increasingly being run as profitable businesses, with those which do not fit the bill being closed.

The issue is that schools must either change to become a more integral part of societal systems, or risk becoming irrelevant anachronisms.

So what do we do in schools and as educational leaders? A fuller exploration of responses to these challenges will be available in future articles and on my website, however a brief beginning includes:

  1. Understand the ecology of your own school. I developed this model in 1995 and has stood the test of time in terms of having educators understand how schools work, where blockages, opportunities for more effective flow, and where changes can occur.


  1. Be aware that as a Principal your role is to not only interact with the community on a superficial level, but to take a systems leadership role within your community.
  2. Expect your teachers to explore the latest innovations and research in their particular fields, and spend time dialoguing around the interconnectedness of their learnings.
  3. Embed a ‘glocal’ consciousness in your students which increases in complexity with their developmental levels.
  4. Seek innovative ways to turn your school into a total learning environment which uses every available space and resource available to your staff and students.
  5. Raise awareness in yourself and your staff of ‘ripple effects’ and the interconnected nature of everything they do.
  6. Hold the big picture but remember to attend to detail.
  7. Note that while bureaucratic systems are the most resilient organisational structures created by humans, they can also change rapidly (for the better and the worse!) when appropriate triggers are activated. Collectively identify the triggers!

The point of this brief article is to propose that we live as an integral component of a number of systems and it is not until we develop a conscious awareness of how these interactions occur that we can contemplate trying to influence the systems. However if we do not try, all we are doing as teachers is contributing to the chaos in which the world currently exists. As educators we need to see ourselves as system leaders, who are assisting the preparation and development of other system leaders in order to make our most effective contribution. My long-held belief is that we must not accept anything less than this as a clear educational purpose.


© Julie Boyd