Essential dispositions for leading education systems - Education Matters Magazine
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Essential dispositions for leading education systems

Dr Stephen Brown

Managing Director of the Brown Collective Dr Stephen Brown examines the nature of leadership in education systems and explores emerging themes highlighted in the Brown Collective’s System Leadership Program that defines system leaders as: boundary spanners, meaning makers, weavers of conditions; and much more.

System leadership is concerned with how to lead and manage a complex system with fluid boundaries in an increasingly volatile world, yet somehow still creates outcomes that achieve cherished values, and important results, ideally within trajectories of continuous improvement (Brown and Duignan, 2021).

It would appear that tensions, challenges, dilemmas and paradoxes are endemic to the work of system leadership in education systems, and they are often characterised in education systems and schools by the following:

  1. The narrowing of the schooling agendatowards an emphasis on testing regimes and result as the primary measure of performance.
  2. Leaders of schooling systems responding to government policies and debates.
  3. Agency, which represents the ability and authority for system leaders to enable
    and lead reform within the reality of the authorising environment-balancing their roles of implementing and aligning policy direction determined by governments with degrees of discretionary decision-making.
  4. Increased expectations of performance within intensification of systemic complexity emerging from the cybernetic, economic, political, social dislocations and social movements.
The Brown Collective’s flagship System Leadership Program will be delivered in September 2023.

The education sector, like all aspects of society, has been confronted with the magnitude of challenges never experienced before. COVID-19 along with the increasing complexity of the issues facing schooling system described above have amplified the need and ‘hunger’ for quality system leadership-a need for leadership to be able to respond to the adaptively to the scope, depth and breadth of work required.

Given the perceived pivotal role of system leadership and leaders in contributing to system direction setting and responding to the adaptive work typified by the ever-creasing dynamic context of their work, there is minimal and focused formation of individuals for system leadership.

It can be argued that everyone who is a part of any schooling system is a leader and their contribution should be valued. With this caveat, the term ‘system leaders’ can be defined as those individuals who undertake roles in non-school- based-positions, such as stakeholders who influence the direction, support, accountability, and advocacy of the education system.

Professor Andy Hargreaves, 2020 in Brown and Duignan, Leading Education Systems, 2021.

What is the essence of the work that are undertaken by system leaders, including the dispositions, mindsets, core capabilities and behaviours, are common to the work of the broad group of system leader actors described above.

By working with system leaders, seven key themes emerged that provided insights into such individual capabilities required to undertake the work of a system leader. System leaders are viewed as sense makers and translators; distributors of leadership within and across systems; weavers of conditions which nurture learning, performance, and connection; network architects, builders, boundary spanners, energisers, and brokers; agile pilots connecting micro and macro system levels; contextualisers, partners and strategisers of policy growth and enactment; and reminders or connectors back to touchstones of system purpose.

These themes are examined in greater detail in the think piece ‘The Nature of System Leaders in Leading Education Systems.’ (Brown, Gregson, Pain, and Walker, 2021) .

The Brown Collective’s flagship System Leadership Program will be delivered in September 2023. For more information, visit:

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