Research Roundup

December 4, 2017

The ‘Unfinished Selves’ of Canadian School Leaders

Highlights of a national study

“The quasi-religious belief in leadership all too often offers a Disneyland vision of organizations.”
—The Stupidity Paradox

In striving to better understand the changing nature of the work of Canada’s school leaders, the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Canadian Association of Principals embarked on a two-phase research initiative in 2015. The first phase of this initiative, which was undertaken by Linda Duxbury and André Lanctôt and is reported in A National Study of the Impact of Electronic Communication on Canadian School Leaders (Duxbury and Lanctôt 2017), attended primarily to how email is influencing principals’ work. One of the remarkable findings of the study was that, despite the ubiquity of catchwords in the leadership literature calling for “innovation,” “risk-taking” and “courage,” the typical Canadian school leader was spending 17 hours out of a 61-hour work week poring over email. Indeed, an earlier study indicated that Alberta principals were able to commit to only six hours a week in classrooms given the many conflicting managerial tasks they were increasingly called upon to do (ATA 2014).

If anything, these studies point to the often romantic vision we might have of school leadership—rather than a day marked by making critical decisions and rich pedagogical moments with students and teachers, a school leader’s day is too often dominated by the ubiquity of email, administrative details and other interruptions that draw them away from the highly relational human activity that might impact the quality of the school as an organization.

The second follow-up study, The Canadian School Leader: Global Forces and Future Prospects (ATA 2017) highlighted here, focused on the global influences and the future prospects shaping the work of school leaders. Of no surprise to the research team, these influences included the growing complexity and diversity of student populations, growing inequity, the influence of marketization and commercialization on governance and policy, and conflicting expectations related to narrowing accountability measures and advancing innovation in school development and professional practice. In these contexts, school leadership remains an elusive and ephemeral set of practices.

Picking up the conclusion from a previous national study of school principals (Griffiths and Portelli 2015), the preface to the national study evokes the work of Paulo Freire, who reminds us that, as with all who aspire to ethical and moral leadership, school leaders inhabit a brittle space in educational organizations:

Genuine educational leadership means being concerned about having ethically justified, equitable, socially just human relationships. But such matters are indeed controversial, hence the nature of “good practices” and “good conceptualizations” of educational leadership are still contested. This should not deter us since it is usually the case with all human matters since we are “unfinished beings.” (Freire 1998, 51)

The Stupidity Paradox

The national study reaffirms what ought to be an obvious (but too often forgotten) recognition of the quintessential moral character of the work of school leadership. While school leaders report high levels of commitment to the core values of equity and to the aspirations of public education and feel their school district shares this commitment, “worryingly, this (study) indicates that almost a quarter of school leaders do not believe their school district trusts the professionals working in schools” (ATA 2017, 5). In the study’s foreword, Carol Campbell, one of Canada’s leading leadership researchers, observes that given the growing tensions facing principals also identified in this and other recent studies, there is an urgent need to address the “increasing intensity, complexity and volatility” of school leadership (p. 4).

The national study also points to what Alvesson and Spicer (2016) characterize as the “functional stupidity” of organizational life in which too often innovation and initiative are rhetorically valued but are systematically marginalized by “bounded rationality, ignorance and other intellectual traps” (p. 17). The risk remains that Canadian school leaders’ work in rule-bound school systems where management tasks driven by accountability and surveillance infrastructures increasingly limit the possibilities that leadership might impact organizational effectiveness. Instead as the study concludes, presently, in a climate of increased school accountability, school principals are too often viewed as “key agents in the chains of accountability for student learning between governments and classrooms” (Leithwood 2013, 10, cited on p. 32).

Other external influences such as social and demographic changes also lead to more work and stress for principals. All of these influences have contributed to the rise of stress and the diminishment of work–life balance (Pollock 2016). Indeed as far back as a decade ago, psychiatric disorders (stress, anxiety) in Ontario accounted for 50 per cent of the cases on Long Term Disability leaves for principals (CPCO 2009, 8). As well, the high level of stress that is associated with the principal’s job was reported as a barrier to becoming a school administrator in two studies in Ontario (CPCO 2009; The Learning Partnership 2008).

Turning Leadership from ‘Ego to Eco-System’

What remains striking from the national study of principals is the wide gap between the complexity of their work of and the effort to recognize the limitations of the position called “the principal.” The evidence from the study points to the end of the omnicompetent and omniscient leader shared by a growing body of organizational change research. This theme is also reinforced by Kellerman (2013) who heralded in The End of Leadership, a growing recognition that the age of the leader as the expert in addressing public policy is giving way to the need to consider the deeper and more nettlesome challenge of garnering community support through civic engagement and a commitment to developing community and “followership.” From the failures of the Obama presidency to the growth of the leadership development industry, Kellerman argues that we have forgotten that sustainable leadership is a highly contextual and relational exchange where a public emerges around a leader to build a shared commitment to address increasingly complex challenges.

In all of this mix the paradox persists: in our western culture we consistently overestimate the capacity of leaders to save us all while at the same time underestimating our capacity to make a difference as individuals. As we grow more and more focused on the hope that leadership is the key to organizational success, we are blind to the fact “that 70 per cent of corporate performance is driven by situational factors rather than CEO characteristics” (Fitza cited in Alvesson and Spicer 2016, 121).

It is time to move past the popular literature that continues to “mystify leadership” (Alvesson and Spicer, 119). We can also do better to engage the longstanding problem that four basic approaches characterize the strategies for developing leadership capacity in the education sector: “planful alignment, spontaneous alignment, spontaneous misalignment and anarchistic misalignment” (Mascall et al 2008, 215–216). These four categories are self-explanatory and speak to the need to better develop a more systematic approach to leadership development in Alberta’s education sector.

It is in the context of the brittleness of our eco-systems that the necessary work of crossing boundaries between self and other, between them and us, has been offered as one approach to breaking the impasse of our current practices that mystify the work of the school leader. With apologies to Maxine Greene (1973), who conceived of education as the project of making us “strangers to ourselves,” the moral imperative for school leaders is to become boundary crossers who might move the tidy boxes of fixed identities and institutions in order to better understand the complex ecologies that shape their lives.

In partnership with the Canadian Association of Principles and the Council for School Leadership, the Association will consider the implications of The Canadian School Leader – Global Forces and Future Prospects (ATA 2017). One key conclusion is that school leaders are called to move from ego-systems to eco-systems (Campbell 2015). This invitation is one of the key drivers of the Association’s international partnerships and the global reach now in place with conferences such as uLead. These efforts and a number of other research initiatives that demonstrate the power of demystifying leadership will help to address the complex and nettlesome challenges of how to create a great school for all.


Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2017. The Canadian School Leader – Global Forces and Future Prospects. Edmonton, AB: ATA.

Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2014. A Week in the Life of Alberta School Leaders. Edmonton, AB: ATA.

Alvesson, M., and A. Spicer. 2016. The Stupidity Paradox. London: Profile Books.

Campbell, C. 2015. A Great School for All: Moving Forward Together. ATA website. (accessed November 8, 2017).

Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO). 2009. Census Survey Report 2009. Implications for Succession Planning. Toronto, ON: CPCO.

Duxbury, L., and A. Lanctôt. 2017. A National Study of the Impact of Electronic Communication on Canadian School Leaders. Edmonton, AB: ATA.

Freire, P. 1998. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Greene, M. 1973. Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Griffiths, D., and J. P. Portelli. 2015. Key Questions for Educational Leaders. Burlington, ON: Word and Deed.

Kellerman, B. 2013. The End of Leadership. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins.

Leithwood, K. 2013. Strong Districts and Their Leadership. Toronto, ON: Council of Ontario Directors of Education and Institute for Education Leadership.

Mascall, B., K. Leithwood, T. Straus and R. Sacks. 2008. “The relationship between distributed leadership and teachers’ academic optimism.” Journal of Educational Administration, 46, 2: 214–228.

Pollock, K. 2016. “Principals’ work in Ontario, Canada: Changing demographics, advancements in information communication technology and health and well-being.” International Studies in Educational Administration 44, no 3: 55–73.

The Learning Partnership. 2008. Succession Planning: Schools and School Boards. Final report prepared for The Ontario Institute for Educational Leadership, Toronto, ON.

J-C Couture is the associate coordinator of research for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Also In This Issue