Performatively Resignifying Leadership

Year: 2015

Author: Gowlett, Christina

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

What’s in a name? The Educational Leadership, Management and Administration (ELMA) field is heavily weighed down, like lead (hence the bold in the title), with the repetition of certain modes of thinking and analysing. “Doing” research from the same and/or similar vantage points will inevitably result in the (re)production of certain ideas and concepts. The ELMA field is hard to break into, especially for scholars whose work attempts to disrupt long-held traditions. In this paper, I intend to queer(y) leadership through the use of Judith Butler’s ideas. Butler’s work originates from gender and sexualities philosophy and is about unsettling normalised assumptions. Bringing Butler into ELMA is, therefore, seemingly radical. However, at the heart of Butlerian theory, is the idea that subjects (Principals/schools, for example) are constituted through a lens of pre-existing assumptions (and I would argue, so too is ELMA). The field of “leadership”, for example, has been plagued by a need to have a pre-existing idea of what to look for when researching, especially when trying to find models of “good” leadership. This, I argue, has constrained the methods of research used within ELMA.

In this paper, I make the case for jettisoning preconceived assumptions, what Butler would call “intelligibilities”, about leadership and call for an expansion of theoretical tools into ELMA. Instead of focusing on titles such as “leadership” or “management”, I make a case to rethink what they can mean, thus expanding the field. Using Butler’s concept of “performative resignification”, I will demonstrate how a case study school in Queensland, labeled as “disadvantaged” (re)works how school change can be enacted. I will use this case study to discuss how leadership is not about following, but instead reflecting, and how this can be many and varied. The case study school is a great example of the need to shed preconceived ideas about “what works” and instead embrace individualisation. By not conforming to preconceived expectations, this case study school has been enabled to find methods that work for its own particular circumstances. “Performative resignification” is an excellent analytic tool for openmindedly going into schools and seeing how they work to instigate change that suits their own specific context, despite the flurry of pressure to “do” leadership in particular ways.