Concentric Management: A Team Approach to Educational Leadership

Presented to the Association of Northern Territory School Educational Leaders (ANTSEL) Conference 2008
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Concentric Management: A Model of Cooperation
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Much is written and said about leadership. Of all subjects, writings (and sayings) about this subject are probably more prolific than about any other. A sub-set of leading in general terms is the specific comment directed toward leadership within the educational domain.

School leaders are offered more in terms of oral and written comment than most. To pick and choose and to digest between models that are promoted as being superior to others is almost a full-time occupation. In fact, it is possible to become so involved in the naval gazing that can go with leadership consideration, that one can forgets to lead!

While theoretical considerations and the underpinnings of leadership models are important, to overlook the practicalities of leadership makes for very poor application. It is leadership in practice that makes the leader a leader, because that is what others see in outcome terms.

When considering leadership, matters of methodology and style come into play. Leadership models and types offered by proponents of the technology run to myriad proportion. It seems there is a style available for all occasions, alternatives than can be shaped to meet the needs of all situations. Again, it can come to a point of leaders being so busy considering leadership that they fail to lead.

Over time, and down the years since Samuel Taylor began the formal processes of writing about leadership typology (in the modern era), it seems that the key focus has been on hierarchal constructs. There have been variations within that model, with distance either maximised or minimised in terms of member identification within the leadership group.

Embracing the pyramid: hierarchical leadership

Hierarchical leadership is perhaps the most common, in wrapping around leadership modelling. In total hierarchical terms, there is the leader who sits atop the organisation in splendid isolation from everyone else. Such a leader is typically an autocrat’s autocrat – an out and out dictator! Leaders of this ilk may be where they are in part because of charisma, but more often because of singular, bloody-minded jackbootedness.

This leadership style is typified within various republics and totalitarian governments. That level and degree of hierarchical leadership, fortunately, does not pervade within education. It is however, all too apparent within countries whose populaces are tortured by such leaders.

Lone leadership is somewhat of a rarity. Much more common – and perhaps the most pervasive of all leadership models is that of shared hierarchy, with leadership layers going from top management echelons to middle then to lower level management. Accountabilities are generally upward toward the pyramid pinnacle, with accountability requirements generally being directed downward.

Below the levels of the pyramid containing the leadership group (who may or may not be a team) are positioned the workers, those within the organisation who make up its base. In other words, they are the foundation upon which the pyramid rests. This is a model of dependence and reliance, but may be one that minimalises respect and trust. It all depends on the linkages that exist between people within the organisation.

A fallacy of the pyramid is that those atop the structure (even those only half-way up as they look down) is that self-righteousness, self-importance and a sense of inflated personal self-worth can take over. Those within the leadership domain separate from those they are supposedly supporting through leadership and grow away from the team. Those they lead, in turn, come to look upon them with disparagement and with a lack of respect for them in the positions they occupy. Rather than working together, the group tends to pull apart. In organisations where the fabric is rent, the centre fails to hold, with hollowness replacing wholesomeness.

This is not fanciful discourse but an indicator of what can happen if those within primarily use the organisation for the sake of personal and individualised gain. Successful people organisations – and schools are critical people developers – work best if those within focus on togetherness and sharing. That can happen better if traditional hierarchical structures are restructured, flattened and shaped to reflect a concentric leadership approach.

Concentric leadership

Concentric leadership discounts hierarchy by flattening the pyramid. The leader remains the leader, those within the leadership structure occupy their positions, but all become part of the structure in terms of equality that cannot exist within the separation imposed by traditional hierarchy.

From above, a concentric organisation is best represented as a circle. In the middle of the circle, symbolising the cohort of souls that make up that place is a series of dots, representing the leadership group. That group are set ‘one apart’ from the majority but are in no way magnified or accentuated in the way traditional organisations describe and transcribe leadership. The majority of those within the organisation are signified as boundary riders who stand side by side to make up the organisational circle.

Mathematically speaking, a ‘circle is a series of dots. Symbolically speaking, each dot represents a member of the group standing side by side (left and right hand) with peers. That is a ‘bird’s eye’ view of a concentrically lead institution.

From the side and applying the principal of a circle being represented by a series of dots, a concentrically configured organisation is seen as shown below. In a school like mine, the biggest dot represents the principal, flanked by two assistant principals and two senior teachers.

Mathematically speaking, a ‘circle is a series of dots’. Symbolically speaking, each dot represents a member of the group standing side by side (left and right hand) with peers. That is a ‘bird’s eye’ view of a concentrically lead institution.

From the side and applying the principal of a circle being represented by a series of dots, a concentrically configured organisation is seen as shown below. In a school like mine, the biggest dot represents the principal, flanked by two assistant principals and two senior teachers.

Everyone else within the school community stands on the same plane and at the same level as the leadership group. Such an organisation is one priding itself on offering equality of recognition, with everyone being on the same plain. This model does not identify people on the basis of subordinates looking up and superordinates looking down. Everyone looks at each other is terms of simple sideways or ‘across the circle’ eye movement. Concentric leadership in principle and practice is designed to promote feelings of equality and togetherness in a way that would be frowned upon by traditional hierarchal adherents.

Respect-based leadership

My purpose in writing this piece is not to uphold one leadership style in a way that denigrates other models. It is rather an attempt to outline an approach which, if right for an organisation and if practised, can work to bring a group together in a way that releases powerful and positive organisational synergy.

In all situations and regardless of model, leadership is either ‘ascribed’ or ‘acquired’.

Ascribed leadership is the authority vested in a position by its creators and recognised by its holder(s). It is a power based leadership with expectations ‘commanded’ by superordinates. If the position holder doesn’t comply with expectations held of the position by those above, tenure can be short. An ‘upside’ from the viewpoint of the occupier can be that the incumbency offers the occupier a chance to wield power.
Sometimes that authority can be applied indiscriminately, but usually in the knowledge that the position holder will be protected from subordinate reaction by superordinate protection. A lot of middle level managers relish the power and authority vested in such positions.

Ascribed leadership authority is a perfect fit for the hierarchal model, where positions are (or can be) filled by those supplicating upward while operating quite intransigently in a downward direction. Ascribed authority is popular among those who want to get on, because it can offer guarantee of upward mobility by key decision-makers if the job is done to expectation at the level of occupancy.

Acquired authority is earned on the basis of perceptions held for leaders by those around him or her within the organisation. It grows from perceptions held of leaders that are respect based. Such authority is not conferred but is earned by way of the recognition that is shown to members of leadership teams by those being lead. Without doubt, it is the harder but more meaningful and everlasting of the two authority types that are in play.

The two can be conflictive. Respect is not necessarily earned by those leaders who play the power game, through adhering strictly to the demands and expectations of the position which come from above.

Neither is the leader who earns subordinate and peer respect necessarily highly regarded by those above, for the perceptions attaching to acquiring respect based recognition may infer a certain weakness in the character of such leaders as seen by superordinates. They may believe that respect has been offered because the leader is compromising, vacillating or too giving. Such a perception might threaten the ‘management on the basis of tight ship’ principle.

Trust, accountability and concentric leadership

Concentric leadership is not a model that will work well in distrustful situations. It may be that those at top leadership levels do not trust a leader further down the organisation, who advocates concentric practice because he or she may be seen to be less authoritative than desirable. There are also concerns that leaders who consult and fully engage with others in the organisation are weak, in not being able to make up their minds without considering the opinions of others. There is also suspicion that such consultation will be responded to in a selfish and narrow manner by those who are asked opinions by the leadership team.

There can be issues that arise from within organisations where a desire by leaders to be concentric, is signalled. Those within the structure may suspect that statements of intent are empty rhetoric, words without meaning. To sell the concept of concentrism, leaders must act and ‘live’ within a way that encourages trustful responses. This is perhaps best helped if leaders are available to their teams, avoiding being seen as remote or aloof.

Concentric leadership is in my opinion, anathema to the principle of ascribed management but sits comfortably in a context of acquired leadership. If leaders are on the same plane and operate at the same level as all within the organisation, then trust has to be a quality in place. By the same token, the leadership team does have an organisational accountability setting them a little part from others within the team. That context is shown by the elevation and the magnification of the dots, central to the linear structure as indicated in my first diagram.

There should be and there will be an identification of the concentrically positioned leadership group by those outside the organisation, meaning that the prime focus of accountability will be honed in from above, to where it belongs. There will also be an appreciation by those within, that the leadership team has a job to do. With everyone operating on the same level, communication should be enhanced because those within the organisation don’t have to crane their necks in ‘looking up’ to the leadership group.

Rather the ‘looking up’ is inward and soulful being based on the respect and trust that developed within a group in which everyone is on the same plane. True concentric leadership gives a new and positive meaning to the concept of the ‘level playing field’.

Quality leadership: never utopian but constantly striving

No organisation anywhere can boast leadership panacea, because organisational equilibrium constantly changes. However, in striving for the best that can happen within an organisation, I strongly commend an approach that takes concentric leadership into account. The advantages are there, provided that trust is a quality that exists and which can be factored in to strengthen through concentric practice.

While concentrism may fly in the face of the hierarchically inclined, it can be promoted and shown as building a character and strength that is positive and enhancing. In a school context, the trust and respect growing from such an approach adds hugely to internalised values. Vesting confidence in such a model is helpful to the macro-organisation in achieving its goals because of the micro-satisfaction of its parts. Happy and well functioning school units mean that DEET Corporate is enhanced.

If those within schools are happy, satisfied and achieve organisation balance that in turn is good for the superstructure that is our Department of Employment, Education and Training. If the system is going to build and develop, then the genesis of positivism has to come from its foundations. Schools are the foundation on which DEET is built. Concentric leadership may well influence, in a positive way, ‘from the ground up’. If that happens, with an enhancement of trustfulness upon which the model is predicated, then all augurs well for future system developments.

Be warned, however! There are those to whom such a model is anathema, because the one thing they don’t want is for their positional power and ascribed authority to be wilted.

Concentric leadership is for those who believe in collectivity and togetherness. It can be organisationally fulfilling because it satisfies all those within, who have genuine stake and interest in the school or situation they are leading. It will never suit those whose aim is to pontificate, dictate and lead by command from the great heights of hierarchal pyramids.

Discuss presentation
* Please contact the author for the diagrams that were supplied with this paper (these could not be published in a web-based format).

28 March 2008

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr Henry Gray was (at that time)Principal of Leanyer School, in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Email address henry.gray@bigpond.com

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