Beyond Leadership: Towards A Relational Way Of Thinking

Year: 2015

Author: Eacott, Scott

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Educational leadership, management and administration have long recognised the importance of context and relationships in understanding the organising of education. Traditional orientations, arguably grounded in systems theory, towards relational thinking have considered relationships from the standpoint of individual, independent and discrete entities. This has enabled policy rhetoric and mainstream studies to establish constructs (e.g. leaders, followers, institutions, stakeholders, the environment) as variables open to manipulation – the underlying generative principle of policy interventions. Significantly, the notion of “leadership” has become the contemporary solution and key entity in explaining organisational performance. In this chapter I argue that a relational, rather than an entity, ontology enables scholarship to move beyond an ontological complicity with orthodox thinking and challenge the spontaneous understanding of the social world advanced through everyday language. Particularly, I ask questions of the value of “leadership” as an explanatory entity. For the most part, the idea of “leadership” reflects a pre-existing normative orientation towards organisations and empirical evidence is used, at best, to support this a priori assumption. My argument, couched in the relational approach to educational administration scholarship I am advancing here and elsewhere is marked by the following features: i) the centrality of “leadership” in everyday discourses creates an ontological complicity that makes it difficult to epistemologically break from our spontaneous understanding of the social world; ii) rigorous social “scientific” scholarship would therefore call into question the very foundations on which the contemporarily popular label of “leadership” is constructed; iii) the contemporary social conditions cannot be separated from the ongoing, and inexhaustible, recasting of organising labour; iv) a relational ontology enables the overcoming of the contemporary, and arguably, enduring, tensions of individualism / collectivism and structure / agency; and v) in doing so, there is a productive – rather than merely critical – space to theorise educational administration.

The primary point of departure I make with mainstream educational leadership, management and administration scholarship is in breaking down the fallacy of the universal entity believed to be the key to overcoming all organisational performance obstacles. The alternative is the provision of theoretically grounded accounts of the situated practice of organisational actors. In doing so, descriptions of organisational performance are grounded in the particular time and space in which they occur and belief in a universal context-resistant “leadership” is brought into question.