Complex Leadership in Twenty-First Century Schools: Facilitating collective leadership through the service of personal learning communities


This article explores the notion that the traditional one man leadership style centred in the paradigm that a school is simply another system to be managed is no longer an effective approach to educational leadership in the twenty-first century. A modern school leader faces a complexity of challenges in an era of opposing viewpoints in how schools should adapt to changing economies, the demand for high performance results, and diverse students and staff. In light of this, this paper discusses Mitchell and Sackney’s (2016) idea of a school as a living system, and that modern educational leaders need to see the human relational roots of schools in order to effectively lead them. Finally, in order to support their school environment and meet organisational goals, the contemporary leader must support personal learning communities through a combination of collective, distributed, and service oriented leadership styles.


Twenty-first century schools are complex environments full of tension set between traditional views of education and emerging views of how to address learning for a changing world. The certainty of our world and the path young people take through it is gone. Being able to possess knowledge in the way traditional learning has delivered it is no longer enough for our students. Twelve years ago Sir Ken Robinson (2006) advised the world that we should “rethink the fundamental principles” (17:40) of teaching and learning. The world and the education profession is still grappling with what this will look like. Leaders who are tasked with leading contemporary schools cannot be limited to one approach to leadership. Rather they should embrace a variety of approaches that reflects the complexities of the environments they are leading.

The research of Mitchell and Sackney (2016) showed that viewing a school as an ecosystem made up of the learned experiences of its members was much more effective for teaching and learning in the twenty-first century than a traditional managed paradigm (p. 854). A school that is facilitated as an ecosystem can leverage the complexities and connections of its members. Such an approach would reflect the relational aspects of a collective or distributed leadership approach to facilitating a school environment to achieve its organisational goals. The official leader would be the facilitator in the organisation by serving the needs of the individual members in order to make use of their strengths. The collective leadership would manifest itself through active personal learning communities within the organisation creating a positive feedback loop of collaboration facilitated by service oriented leadership. The purpose of this paper is to explore the idea that complex twenty-first century leadership should view schools as living systems, and utilise a servant leadership approach to support the collective leadership of personal learning communities to build high-capacity learning organisations.

School as ecosystems not hierarchies

germ-1525665_1920It would be a fair statement to make that teachers often can be heard complaining about the disconnect between their day-to-day challenges of teaching and learning and their administrators’ demands on their time. This could be explained by the fact that very often schools are run on an educational management model that has been lifted from the business community. Mar Rosas Tosas (2016) in her work about rethinking educational leadership, reminds us that top down management approaches used in profit oriented business models are “catastrophic for education” (p. 355). Educational leadership should first and foremost be about the facilitation of high quality progressive teaching and learning for children. Management of the school itself should be subordinate to, and be in service of, educational leadership (Tosas, 2016, p. 354). As an educator, knowing the importance of the complex multi-directional relationships across an organisation, it is no surprise that a learning organisation cannot effectively leverage those relationships and experiences in a vertically organized hierarchy.

Mitchell and Sackney (2016) have identified that high-capacity schools function more at the level of a living system when people and their experiences are made to be the priority (p. 855). They identify that the traditional managed system is built on the notion that the system itself is stable, predictable, regular in its function, and can be seen through quantitative measures (p. 854). The managed system works to make a school a hierarchical organisation that orders teaching and learning into centralized and isolated compartments, while limiting successful results to being quantifiable test scores and tangible products (Mitchell & Sackney, 2016, p 854). Relationships are naturally limited and isolated in such a structure. A school believed to be a living system prioritizes the people and their relationships that shape it. In a living system, the organisation is more complex and consists of interconnected and reciprocal relationships amongst its members (Wheatley, 2007 as cited in Mitchell & Sackney, 2016). Mitchell and Sackney (2016) make visible the relationship of how a school functions when leadership puts structures at the forefront, versus when a school puts people and their experiences as the priority of ruling relations (p. 855). The core of what Mitchell and Sackney (2016) are saying is that to have high-capacity schools in the twenty-first century is to respond to the lived experiences of teachers and students (p. 865), and to recognize that each of those experiences is a unique learning journey of individual growth which creates an authentic context to work in (p. 854-855). Their findings show that leaders who frame their schools as a living system see leadership expressed in the following ways. First of all, Mitchell and Sackney (2016) discovered that leadership emerged naturally from events, concerns, and issues around teaching and learning that would collaboratively bring the school together to move forward (p. 858). Secondly, they found that the Principal supported the talents and respected the professionalism of individual members of the organisation (p.858). Finally, the Principal valued the individual life experiences of each member, empowering them to be role models in the school (p.858). The Principal contributed to these factors by facilitating ongoing collaborative communication, and providing space for teachers to connect and build relationships (p. 858). The end result was that the majority of teachers felt a “collective responsibility” (Mitchell & Sackney, 2016, p. 858) for the leadership of their school community. It is vital that educational leaders in the twenty-first century examine the nature of the leadership models they have been saddled with, and reframe their thinking to consider the human centred nature of a school. Furthermore, their response should be to amplify these authentic experiences of a living system by facilitating the collaborative practice of building personal learning communities (PLC) within their organisations.

Personal learning communities as capacity builders

lego-2310286_1920To honor the natural flow of learning as a lived experience, leaders need to find ways to gather and build the experiences of their members into effective actions that lead to the organisational goals focused on teaching and learning. To effect this kind of change, leaders can consider Alma Harris (2010) who focuses on the potential for PLCs to change how teachers and leaders connect, collaborate, and communicate (p. 202, 204). Harris (2010) reflects the ineffectiveness of command and control leadership discussed by both Mitchell and Sackney (2016) and Tosas (2016) when she says that schools need to move from managing compliance to managing improvement, and in doing so build collective capacity amongst the organisation to unleash the potential of its members (p. 200). Personal learning communities open up the opportunities for teachers to work collaboratively together to generate new knowledge and approaches to their practice (p. 201). She cautions that though a PLC can be effective, it must be purposeful and focus on the real challenges of teaching and learning in a school building (Harris, 2010, p. 201). Building on Harris’ (2010) view of the importance of PLCs, Williams, Brien, and LeBlanc (2012) state the importance of recognizing that future work will be “networks driven by individuals and collaborative learning [which are referred to as] learning organizations” (p. 2). To better serve students, schools can become learning organisations themselves, or in the educational paradigm, personal learning communities (Williams et al., 2012, p. 2). The collaborative nature of the PLC will be the beginning of a shift towards a focus on the teaching and learning experiences of teachers, who, in turn through collaborative inquiry, can create more authentic learning for their students. The essential elements of PLCs for leaders to exploit and build on are the “shared leadership and professional collaboration” (Lambert as cited in Williams et al., 2012, p. 25 ) that comes from the process. Leaders who harness and organize the PLC must consider effective ways to support them.

Distributive leadership

The story of leadership has traditionally been male and focused on the “heroics of leadership” (Spillane, 2005, p. 143). As we have seen above in Tosas (2016), Mitchell and Sackney (2016), Harris (2010), leadership in schools is more effective when it is shared, collaborative, and focused on the human experience of learning. Distributed or collective leadership offers more opportunities for shared leadership and professional collaboration to be established and supported in PLCs. Spillane (2005) defines distributed leadership as a leader’s practice, as opposed to their assigned role and the administrative structures around it (p.144). He sees practice as the the situational interactions between leaders and members of their organisation (p. 144). telephone-1822040_1920Therefore Spillane (2005) is moving the definition of leadership away from the results of a leader’s knowledge and skill towards a “distributive perspective [of leadership that] defines it as the interactions between people and their situation” (p. 144). The important piece here is that Spillane (2005) sees leadership as relational, and the actions that come from the interactions among leaders and colleagues become the practice of leadership (p.145). When viewing distributed leadership action as the support of collaborative PLCs, not only does it give opportunities to build on the strengths of members in general in an organisation, it offers an inclusive opportunity to amplify women and their strengths.

Grogan and Shakeshaft (2013) suggest that leadership can be understood as the “purposeful harnessing of collective knowledge and ideas” (loc. 2899). They present the idea of diverse collective leadership, and argue that it has emerged in the literature based on leadership approaches that are directly attributed to women (2013, loc. 2737). Grogan and Shakeshaft (2013) present those attributes as the following; the departure from top down control, its relational nature, and the activist nature of the approach (loc 2899). These characteristics are said to be attractive to women in their leadership approach (loc 2899), and were discovered through stories of “women’s lives and experiences as leaders” (loc 2737). The emergence of diverse collective leadership as having an inherently female approach is important and needs further inquiry. For the purposes of this discussion, it demonstrates the potential of diverse collective leadership to be inclusive. Further, the fact that the female attributes associated with diverse collective leadership emerged from the experiences of women in leadership, further reinforces the importance of recognizing the lived experiences of those in an organisation and the relationships that drive those experiences. An essential element of the distributed or collective approach to leadership is collaborative communication. A twenty-first century leader cannot ignore the fact that to follow a distributive approach one needs to effectively communicate collaboratively. Contemporary digital tools available to all schools are an important element for the facilitation of collaborative networks in busy school environments.

Facilitating collective leadership through digital tools

With the advent of the Google’s free G Suite for Education , digital tools are readily available to all educational organisations with an internet connection. Considering that the theme running through this discussion is relationships, digital tools can play an important role in binding those interactions together. social-3064515_1920The evidence generated by James and Figaro-Henry’s (2017) study on the effectiveness of digital tools in a post graduate education course showed that digital tools not only built collective leadership capacity, but also did the following: built substantive curated collective knowledge, improved technology skills, and created new insights that supported mutual practice (p. 532). With this in mind contemporary leaders need to learn to understand and leverage these tools for the benefit of the organisation.

Servant leadership in the mix

Being that relationships are the keystone of distributed leadership, personal learning communities, and living schools, I would like to put forward that the approach which should be taken by leaders in this context is that of service to their organisations members. Leadership dispersed among an organisations members is important, but cannot function at its best without support and the creation of the proper relational conditions. Educational leaders can support a model of PLCs as a form of collective leadership that honors human centred organisations through service to the organisation’s dispersed leadership roles as they contribute to the school’s mission and goals. Robert Greenleaf (1977) established servant leadership as a way to approach organisational success by enabling those followers to be healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous all the while inspiring those followers to serve others (p. 22). By focusing on the needs of members those individuals would in turn pass on that service to others in the organisation. This kind of holistic, intrinsic approach to developing people can be seen by some as unsuited to the management of an organisation. Despite the fact that servant leadership was established forty years ago, and it is often seen as contradictory to traditional command and control styles, Gandolfi, Deno, and Stone (2017) have established that servant leadership is a relevant, viable, and important leadership style that can be “examined, understood, and applied from a holistic perspective, philosophically, tangibly, and…qualitatively” (p. 351) in the twenty- first century. Because of the often misunderstood nature of servant leadership, it is important that it is stated and understood what servant leadership is not.

waldorf-astoria-169387_1920According to Gandolfi et al. (2017), a servant leaders are not “disengaged or weak” ( p. 353). They differ from most traditional leaders in that rather than focus on the organisational mission first, they focus on serving the members who follow them so they can “collectively” (p. 353) accomplish their mission. What servant leadership does do is believe that if a leader maximises the potential of each individual member, this will in turn maximise the performance of the organisation (p. 353). Servant leadership works because it uses a proven element of effective leadership; it is highly interactive (Northouse, 2007 as cited in Gandolfi et al. , 2017, p. 354). In fact it is the most interactive leadership style because it is based on the need for interactivity between follower and leader (Gandolfi et al. , 2017, p. 355). In a school the intense interactivity that servant leadership entails would happen multi-directionally between teachers, students, and leaders themselves. This phenomena could create a positive feedback loop in which school faculty would be in a cycle of continuous development of themselves, colleagues and students. It is not difficult to imagine the servant oriented leader facilitating this kind of cycle within the PLC as part of a school managed as a living system. As Mitchell & Sackney (2016) discovered, the role of the leader is to give “spaces” (p.858) for teachers to communicate and collaborate.


Leadership is no easy task. In my own experience the leaders I am most drawn to are openly flawed, and willing to acknowledge and work within the often ‘messy’ school environment. The leaders who I’ve found less effective are those who continually try to contain the messiness of school life inside structures, policies, and rules. Mitchell and Sackeney’s (2016) idea of the living school, challenges a leader to see the school environment for what it is: a complex web of interactions, relationships, situations, and experiences that are real and valuable to the learning community. Adding to this is the tension that traditional educational structures and approaches are no longer viable in an emerging “knowledge economy” (Hargreaves, 2007, p. 223). With these forces in mind a modern educational leader needs a clear and honest viewpoint about what school is, and multiple leadership strategies to leverage the strengths, weakness and challenges within their school environment. The first step is to acknowledge the humanness of an educational organisation. It is to know that a school is not policies and curriculum, but instead a “living” (Mitchell & Sackney, 2016, p. ) entity made up of people’s experiences and their relationships. It is to know that the humanness cannot be tamed by policy alone. To know this humanness is to value leadership as relational actions. Grogan and Shakeshaft (2013) call this approach diverse collective leadership (loc. 2737). A distributed model of leadership asks that leadership be the situational interactions amongst leaders and members (Spillane, 2005, p. 144). Therefore, the second step would be for the leader to be willing to wade into the affairs of the living school with the purpose of understanding the complexity of interaction in order to support and understand the needs of organisational members. Next, as the leader is knee deep in the messiness that makes up the complexities of school interactions, they would want to corral the diverse energy of the school’s members into collaborative learning communities. Finally, the leader would support those communities through a service leadership model, and the use of collaborative digital tools, to then leverage the collective knowledge and talent in the service of the organization’s mission. There is no doubt that this discussion proposes a messy and complicated approach to educational leadership; however, the complexity and diversity of human experience is the strength that modern educational leaders need to exploit to continue to make school relevant in our contemporary paradigm.


Gandolfi, F., Stone, S. & Deno, F. (2017). Servant leadership: An ancient style with 21st century relevance. Revista De Management Comparat International, 18 (4), 350-361. Retrieved from

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership. United States: Retrieved from,%20Servant%20 Leadership.pdf

Grogan, M.,& Shakeshaft, C. (2013). A New Way: Diverse Collective Leadership. I n M. Grogan (Ed.), Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership (3rd ed.) (Kindle version). Retrieved from .

Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable leadership and development in education: Creating the future, conserving the past. European Journal of Education, 42 (2), 223-233.

Harris, A. (2010). Leading system transformation. School Leadership & Management, 30( 3), 197-207.

James, F., & Figaro-Henry, S. (2017). Building collective leadership capacity using collaborative twenty-first century digital tools. School Leadership & Management, 37 (5), 520-536. doi:10.1080/13632434.2017.1367277

Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2016). School improvement in high-capacity schools: Educational leadership and living-systems ontology. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44 (5), 853-868.

Robinson, T. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from

Tosas, M. R. (2016). Educational leadership reconsidered: Arendt, Agamben, and Bauman. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 35( 4), 353-369.

Spillane, J. P. (2012). Distributed leadership. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Retrieved from[SITE_ID ]/detail.action?docID=694355

Williams, R. B., Brien, K., & LeBlanc, J. (2012). Transforming schools into learning organizations: Supports and barriers to educational reform. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, (134), 1-32.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s