Leadership in Education: Legitimacy

Note: This article forms part of a series of papers that were written as part of my OU M. Ed degree.

Legitimate Leadership

by Tim Van Der Merwe

Legitimacy is a common point of discussion across the literature concerning strategic leadership. Using Moore & Kelly’s (2009, p. 229) definition, legitimacy is understood here as “professional credibility and accepted authority”. Denis et al. (2010) view successful leadership action as being reliant on the cumulative experience of a leader, but also the legitimacy they have garnered. Johnson et al. (2011) highlight how legitimacy is most commonly established with rational, top down models of leadership, but also note how legitimacy can also be established through discourse. Moore & Kelly (2009) add to this by stating that legitimacy is earned, and can be achieved through professional dialogue. Davies & Davies (2010, p. 89) concur, arguing that a vital part of the “influence building process” is establishing legitimacy with those you are leading, and highlight not only the roles that a leader’s expertise and character play in the process, but also clearly communicating a passion for education.

In breaking down the strategic process, Davies & Davies (2010) highlight the role that strategic conversations, oral and written communication play in the strategic process. It can be concluded that communication, through both oral or written forms, while seemingly straight-forward, presents opportunities through which leaders can establish legitimacy with those they are leading. To establish legitimacy is to establish trust, and trust is the foundation upon which real strategic change can be implemented in schools (Riley, 2009; Bottery, 2003).

Legitimacy is also linked to the empowerment of individuals and the development of ownership (Moore & Kelly, 2009; Thomson & Sanders, 2009). Ideas of power and discourse are closely linked, and Johnson et al. (2011) refer to the use of discourse in reproducing and reinforcing power within an organisation. Power is often a problematic feature that often disrupts change (Hinde, 2004). It is important the leaders, as those in positions of power, seek to build the capacity and capability amongst those they lead, to fulfil long term strategy (Davies & Davies, 2010). An effective tool in the building of capacity to meet the requirements of a strategic change, is staff ownership of the change (Hinde, 2004).

Ownership is an active involvement in the change process, around a shared idea of “what is worth achieving” (Elmore, 2004, p. 73, cited in Thomson & Sanders, 2009). It is important that leaders understand the potential of staff ownership as a tool for building capacity to bring about change. Leaders must also understand that this requires the empowerment of staff, and the creation of platforms and opportunities in which staff can express themselves and engage with the change, the leadership and the proposed strategy (Thomson & Sanders, 2009; Davies & Davies, 2010). It is therefore critically important that leaders understand how power is reproduced through the decisions they make, and the discourse they partake in, if they wish to lead successful strategic change.

This is not to say that all existing leadership structure must be put aside in embrace of a bottom-up approach, but rather that leaders should introduce organic approaches to leadership. These are more productive and effective forms of leadership and lead to better responses from followers than bureaucratic approaches, provided they are supported (Moore & Kelly, 2009). However, an organisation has criteria that need to be met, and staff ownership needs to be directed in service of the organisations goals, hence the need for leaders to paradoxically embrace both top-down and bottom up approaches to leadership (Davies & Davies, 2010; Watson, 2013).

In attempting to empower staff and create ownership, the values and culture of an organisation need to be considered by leaders. The underlying assumptions at the root of an organisation’s culture and the overtly expressed values, need to be compatible with a proposed change to avoid resistance (Hinde, 2004). Davies & Davies (2010) highlight the importance of reflection in the initial stages of the strategic process, so that leaders may be more aware of the organisation they lead and the culture that exists. The culture of an organisation informs the actions of staff, and these likewise influence the culture (Hinde, 2004). It is important to note that leadership occurs in context, and that leaders are representative of the values of the organisation, and will therefore influence the organisation’s culture (Denis et al., 2010). The task of leadership is to bring staff in alignment with the values of the organisation (Denis et al., 2010; Davies & Davies, 2010). For strategic change to be successful, leaders need to engage with the values and culture of an organisation and seek to move them forward (Hinde, 2004). This is accomplished by leaders creating the space for dialogue and attempting to empower and create staff ownership. This is the key idea behind the first strategic approach presented in Part 1-A.

Furthermore, a leader’s influence is no longer delineated by clear boundaries, and it is important to understand the relationship that exists between an institution and the local community (Riley, 2009). Pont & Hopkins (2008) claim that leaders can raise achievement in their institutions by engaging, learning from and projecting influence within and beyond the borders of their schools. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that the community can become a strategic resource, via collaborative partnerships. This would require common goals, and a cultural fit. A cultural fit is best achieved by shared language and values, and a trusting relationship (Davies & Davies, 2010; Riley, 2009). By seeking to understand the community they are in, leaders may be able to make use of social capital and strength of the community to lift achievement (Pont & Hopkins, 2008; Riley, 2009; Spillane, 2009). This is the underlying rationale for the second approach in the strategic plan presented in Part 1-A. It is admittedly somewhat idealistic, as are both articles by Riley (2009) and Pont & Hopkins (2008), and Bush and Glover (2014) urge caution when regarding systems approaches to leadership due to the limited evidence available.

To conclude, leaders must recognise the limits of their experience and capability, and understand that they are positioned in situations that they cannot completely control (Johnson et al., 2011; Denis et al., 2010). Leadership actions rarely have uniformly positive effects, and it is important that leaders understand this and prepare (Denis et al., 2010). Davies & Davies (2010) point to effective staff relationships as being a key consideration in leading effective strategic change. These are fostered through leaders who seek to harness legitimacy as tool to build trust and empower staff, who are aware of the power dynamics in play in both communication and action, and seek to use both to create conditions that will allow for staff to take ownership of the changes. Leaders must make the most of every strategic resource available to them, both within their organisation and in the local community.