Leadership for Mortals: Developing and Sustaining Leaders of Learning


Dean Fink

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  • Leading Teachers, Leading Schools

    Series editor Alma Harris


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    To Louise Stoll and Andy Hargreaves

    Your help, friendship and encouragement have made my third age a joyous and stimulating adventure


    To express my appreciation to all the individuals who have helped me over the years to assemble the material for this book would require a separate book. I've therefore identified a few specific people and groups of friends and colleagues in the hope that I have included everyone in one way or the other. I am indebted to all my former colleagues with the Halton Board of Education, particularly Wayne Burns and Garry Crossman, for nurturing my leadership aspirations and providing me with excellent models of leaders of learning. To my former colleagues of the Thursday breakfast club who are among the finest educational leaders I have ever encountered, your collective example has deepened my understanding of leadership in action. To the thousands of school leaders in many different countries that I have encountered in the past ten years, I am inspired by your example of courage and perseverance in the face of challenging and often contradictory expectations, and to the many academics that have assisted my growth as a public scholar I remain in awe of your wisdom and humbled by how much there is to learn. To Brent Davies, your support and friendship have opened many doors for me.

    I am particularly appreciative of the friendship of Corrie Giles, Carol Brayman, Jane Creasy, Andy Hargreaves, Louise Stoll and Paul Chung who have read some or all of the manuscript. Your advice was invaluable, even when I didn't take it. I, of course, take sole responsibility for the contents of the book. Marianne Lagrange, together with Sage Publications and Alma Harris, the general editor, has also provided enormous help and support.

    To my family, as always, your love and encouragement keep me going. To my mother, Marjorie, your energy and optimism are a daily inspiration. You have certainly proven that age is a state of mind. To my daughters, Danielle and Tracy, who I am proud to say have followed in their father's professional footsteps, your daily adventures keep me grounded in reality. To my young learners, Zachary and Riley, you keep me connected to the purposes of education and to my love of teaching, and to my wife, Ramona, your love, support, and fortitude throughout the years have made any successes that I may have had, or will have, possible.

    Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge all the copyright owners of the material reprinted herein. However, if any copyright owners have not been located and contacted at the time of publication, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.


    It seems that no modern concept has been more powerfully received in the consciousness of those concerned with school reform and improvement than leadership. The contemporary literature highlights and reinforces the importance of leadership in generating and sustaining school development and change. Effective leadership, primarily in the guise of the head-teacher, has long been identified with school success. Over the last three decades, the sheer volume of literature on the subject has grown and leadership is centre stage in efforts to transform schooling.

    Yet, those who write about leadership do so from many different perspectives and traditions resulting sometimes in competing, if not contradictory messages about successful leadership practice. Also, some of the books about leadership fail to fully engage with its human dimension and avoid dealing with the messy, complex emotional terrain that inevitably faces all leaders whatever their context or position. ‘Leadership for Mortals’ is a welcome departure from this trend. Not only does it give leadership a voice but it acknowledges the centrality of certain human values and qualities that shape the leadership endeavor.

    This book is both refreshing and rare because Dean Fink draws upon his own leadership practice to reflect upon and illuminate the realities of leading schools and schools systems. His forty years as a practicing school and school district leader in Ontario plus his ten years as a consultant and academic provides a unique and powerful backdrop for a contemporary tour around leadership theory and practice. One of his main messages is that leadership does not require superhuman heroes; rather he suggests that most of us have the capacity to assume an important direct or indirect leadership role through the appropriateness of our invitations to others. Leadership, he suggests is everywhere, it is not the preserve of one individual but is a form of collective influence which involves the many rather than the few.

    The book focuses on the centrality of core values that shape leadership practice. It explores the potential of personal invitation, trust, integrity, respect and optimism as fundamental components of successful leadership. Through examples, stories and reflections the book illuminates and celebrates the human dimension of leading. The book explores the way in which reason, ethics, common sense, imagination and intuition interplay to create an intricate personal tapestry of leadership knowledge and understanding. There are no tips for leaders in this book, no toolkits, checklists or competences. Instead, attention is paid to the challenges of leadership that go beyond the superficial ‘designer leadership’ to address the deep moral issues that face all leaders in schools or school systems at some time.

    Fink suggests that successful leaders make connections by developing firm knowledge by: understanding of their context; developing political acumen; understanding learning; critical thinking; making connections; futures thinking and developing emotional understanding. Each of these is explored in the book along with the central issue of how leadership is nurtured and sustained, particularly in the most difficult contexts. The final section of the book deals with the trajectories of leadership – inbound, outbound, peripheral, insider and boundary trajectories, in other words the ways in which leadership interfaces and connects both within and outside the organization. It also deals with the important issue of succession and how potential leaders are identified and recruited pointing to the fact that serendipity often plays a major role in successful leadership succession.

    In the opening section of the book, Dean Fink says ‘I hope the academy will deem this book to be respectable’. Given that the academy has produced many books that simply have not succeeded in bringing together leadership theory and practice in any meaningful way, possibly they are not best placed to judge. Following September 11, Rudolph W Giuliani wrote, ‘Leadership does not happen. It can be taught, learned, developed. Ultimately you will know what techniques and approaches work best – those you hope to lead will tell you. Much of your ability to get people to do what they have to do is going to depend on what they perceive when they look at you and listen to you. They need to see someone who is stronger than they are, but human too.’

    Leadership for Mortals reminds us that leaders are human too and that leadership is fundamentally about values, principles and ethics. It challenges many of the traditional beliefs about leadership, particularly superhero leadership, to bring us back to the reality of leadership as individual connection and personal compassion. This is not a book to put on your shelf but one to read and re-read to ensure the moral purpose and human dimension of leadership are not forgotten.



    Developing and Sustaining Leaders of Learning

    I've read a lot of books and articles on leadership over the past forty years. Some of these works have been wonderfully informative and inspirational, some have been patronizing drivel, and others so turgid and filled with exclusionary language that they left me clueless as to what the authors were talking about. Regardless of type, virtually all the authors began their efforts with an explanation of their reasons for writing about leadership and why they felt qualified to do so. So! Why am I writing a book on leadership and what qualifications do I bring to the task? I have contributed chapters and articles here and there on leadership, but the obvious answer is that I've never written a book exclusively on leadership before. Now, after forty years as a practising school and school district leader, and ten years as a consultant working with leaders in over 30 different countries, I'm confident that I have learned something useful about educational leadership that present and prospective leaders might find helpful and even motivating.

    I hope the academy will deem this book to be respectable. To that end I will call extensively on the work of international leadership scholars, my own recent research, and that of others. I have, however, written this book first and foremost for practising and prospective leaders. The renowned Canadian novelist and teacher W.O. Mitchell always advised potential writers to find their own voice. The ‘voice’ in this book is the same ‘voice’ that I have used to conduct my many seminars with practitioners over the years. If the book has a conversational tone and is easily accessible then I have succeeded. I've also employed endnotes rather than APA style to maintain the flow of my narrative and to make this work more comprehensible for busy leaders in schools and districts. In some ways this book is autobiographical because leadership is a very personal thing, and one's view of leadership reflects ‘who’ you are, ‘what’ you are, and ‘where’ you are in time and space. Since I like to tell stories that connect leadership insights to my personal experiences and those of international colleagues, pose thought provoking questions, and employ humour and case studies to illustrate ideas and concepts in my seminars, I have included these approaches in the pages that follow.

    What really inspires me to spend the time and energy to write this book, however, is my conviction that the contemporary state of education internationally, and of educational leadership in particular, limits student learning, stultifies teacher creativity and professionalism, and discourages people that have the ability and passion to lead our schools and educate our children for the emerging knowledge society.1 Ironically, leadership within the present international policy context has become a growth industry. Politicians demand more of it, academics decry the lack of it, and potential school leaders are deciding ‘to hell with it’. A combination of disenchantment with leadership roles as a result of the standards/standardisation agenda, and demographic changes as the baby boom generation moves on, have produced, and will continue to produce, a rapid turnover of school heads and other educational leaders in the schools of most Western educational jurisdictions.2 I would submit that we are making the business of leadership so complicated that we seem to need ‘super heroes’ to run a school.

    In fact as I look back on my own leadership career, I am amazed that I did as well as I did considering that many of my decisions and actions were based on intuition, common sense, acquired experience, reason and fairly strong convictions about what constituted good and ethical practice. I often had to make decisions without all the evidence available and hope that my instincts were accurate. I did not, however, have to conform to the ‘laundry lists’ of ‘best’ practices that plague contemporary leaders, or measure up to the latest leadership model ‘du jour’. Like most educational leaders and potential leaders, I was not heroic, particularly charismatic, or even uniquely visionary. But with guidance from my mentors, considerable training, experience, and careful succession planning, I was reasonably successful. Because most of us involved in educational leadership are just ordinary people who are just trying to do the best we can with the tools that we were born with, I have chosen Leadership for Mortals as the title for this book.

    As I reflect on my years as an educational leader, I marvel at my good fortune. I found each of my various leadership roles personally rewarding and professionally enriching. I would like to think that we can recapture, or in some cases capture, the kind of passion for educational leadership that most of my contemporaries and I brought to our work. The overriding intention of this book, therefore, is in some small way to inspire practising leaders and potential leaders to renew their commitment to and enthusiasm for educational leadership and leading for learning. This is the reason for the subtitle, Developing and sustaining leaders of learning.

    Chapter 1, Challenge, sets the scene for the book by describing the policy environment within which existing and potential school leaders currently operate. For many in the academic community this explanation will not be new, but as a historian I find it useful to contextualise my leadership model ‘for mortals’ in both time and space. Historically, changes in education have moved at a glacial pace and have tended to nibble around the edges. Critics of education when I was a practising leader contended that it took 15 years from the time an idea was initiated until it was implemented in schools. Substantive changes inevitably foundered on bureaucratic inertia, political timidity, community nostalgia, and teacher resistance. The organisational structures of most schools around the world are fundamentally unchanged since the beginning of the century – the twentieth century that is. I'm always astonished at the similarity between the contemporary secondary schools that I visit internationally, and the school I attended as a student, and the schools I taught in as a young teacher in the 1960s; they are for the most part hierarchical, bureaucratised and balkanised.3

    While the historical structures have remained intact, recent policy efforts by governments usually described as ‘New Public Management’ have attempted to focus schools' efforts on results as opposed to inputs and processes through the use of market forces, standardised high stakes testing, and stringent curriculum requirements. These policies have placed unique pressures on leaders, and in the process undermined educational leadership and replaced it with a form of instrumental managerialism that undercuts the very purposes of schools. While ‘New Public Management’ can claim short-term gains, large questions remain as to its efficacy in sustaining important changes over time. As a result, a third form of public policy dialogue that focuses on organisations as ‘learning communities’ has emerged. A learning community aims to enhance the learning of all the participants in an organisation as a way to advance and sustain its purposes. Moving schools in this direction will require leaders who are ‘leaders of learning’ who can engage their colleagues in a shared commitment to improve the learning opportunities for all students. For contemporary leaders, dealing with the fallout from ‘New Public Management’ while developing their schools as learning communities creates unprecedented but not impossible challenges.

    Within this policy context, the remaining chapters of the book outline and develop what I consider to be a realistic model of leadership that puts forward a way to develop and sustain existing and potential leaders that does not require superhuman heroes, self-sacrificing martyrs or compliant government messengers.

    Figure 1

    Figure 1 visually captures the five components of the model developed in this book, that I believe have the potential to provide a structure for succession management within educational jurisdictions, that can connect the identification, recruitment, preparation, selection, and on-going professional growth of educational leaders to become leaders of learning in their schools and school districts.

    For most of my career in state education in the Canadian province of Ontario, I have held some kind of leadership role. While it may sound simplistic and perhaps naïve, I always believed and acted on the premise that my job as a leader was to ensure the learning of the students in my care. If this meant mobilising community support for the school, raising funds to purchase computers, dismissing an incompetent teacher, modelling good classroom practices, taking on the district office on behalf of my school, or supporting a troubled colleague, it all added up to my trying to create a situation that enhanced the learning of my students. These activities were means to an end, not ends in themselves. It seems to me that there is only one purpose for school leaders and that is to enhance the learning of students. I constantly challenge leaders to ask one question of their schools' decisions, practices, customs or policies – do they enhance the learning of their students? This question powerfully focuses attention on what matters in a school. The very best of the thousands of educational leaders with whom I have interacted over the years were, and most still are, passionately, creatively, obsessively and steadfastly committed to enhancing ‘deep’ learning for students – learning for understanding, learning for life, learning for a knowledge society. It is this overriding dedication to ‘deep’ learning for students that is at the very heart of Leadership for Mortals, which I describe in Chapter 2Commitment.

    In the past ten years I have had the good fortune to visit with school leaders in many different countries who are doing a magnificent job of leading learning for all their students in far more challenging conditions than I had ever experienced in my leadership career. There is Jane in Australia, for example, who heads up one of the most challenging schools in New South Wales, with quiet dignity, passion, and effectiveness. Then there is Allan who has turned a gang-ridden school in the heart of the most troubled section of Belfast into an oasis of safety and learning. Elena in Piscu in Romania, is the principal of a small school in a pre-industrial village, who inspires her staff daily to achieve great things with children, with virtually no support from government, and infrequent pay cheques. Then there is Charmaine in Ontario who refuses to adopt quick fix remedies for the language problems of her racially and ethnically diverse school. She has challenged her staff to promote literacy across the curriculum, and in the process raised her school's achievement on the provincial ‘high-stakes’ literacy test from below the median to second place in her very large school district – ahead of all but one of the middle-class schools in the leafy suburbs.

    Nice stories, but what is the point? Leaders of learning such as those described, come in all shapes and sizes, genders, races, religions, backgrounds and contexts. These are not heroes, or even people uniquely blessed by the Almighty with leadership abilities, although they have these capacities in abundance. Rather they are ordinary people who through extraordinary commitment, effort, and determination have become extraordinary, and have made the people around them exceptional. Educational leadership is more art than science; it is more about character than technique; it is more about inspiration than charisma; it is more about leading student and teacher learning than the management of things.

    Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at the time of the Twin Towers disaster stated, “Great leaders lead by ideas.” I would alter this slightly and add – “Great leaders lead by great ideas.”4 Leadership begins with a story5, a philosophy, a set of core values, a point of view, an educational ‘stance’ that passionately motivates a leader and engages his or her followers. In previous publications6, my colleagues and I have carved out our ‘story’ around a ‘great’ idea called ‘invitational leadership’. An invitation is “a summary description of messages, formal and informal, verbal and non-verbal, continuously transmitted to others to inform them that they are able, worthwhile and responsible.”7 From this definition of an ‘invitation’, Louise Stoll and I stated that invitational leadership “is about communicating invitational messages to individuals and groups in order to build and act on a shared and evolving vision of enhanced educational experiences for all pupils.”8 As this definition suggests, and as Chapter 3 will elaborate, our ‘story’ is not so much a definitive leadership style in competition with academically defined leadership approaches, but rather a values-based approach to leadership and life that promotes life-affirming policies and practices in schools and school districts. Chapter 3, Values, therefore develops this ‘story’ line and encourages leaders of learning to promote learning, teaching and caring in schools by inviting themselves and other personally and professionally.

    While there is no magic template for educational leadership, most of us have the capacity to assume an important direct or indirect leadership role in a school or district through the appropriateness of our invitations to others. To do so, we must use all of the intellectual qualities that each of us possesses. While few of us are born leaders, each of us is equipped from birth with a set of intellectual qualities or ‘tools’ that are vital to leadership. When we walk out the door in the morning, we all carry an intellectual ‘tool kit’ that serves us throughout life.9 These tools or qualities include our reason, memory, imagination, intuition, common sense, and ethics. Some ‘tools’ are well developed, while others are underused. How we develop and use these ‘tools’ determines our leadership potential. Successful leaders develop and employ all of these qualities in a balanced way to meet the challenges of contemporary leadership. Chapter 4, Qualities, addresses each of these tools, describes their power and limitations, and outlines how they connect to the ‘learnings’ required by ‘leaders of learning’.

    Like Jane, Allan, Elena, Charmaine and other leaders of learning, we can identify and master a set of crucial ‘learnings’ that go across time and space and are at the heart of the leadership that promotes student learning.10 Taken together they provide a conceptual framework for the identification, recruitment, training, selection, and ongoing professional development of school leaders. Recently my colleagues Louise Stoll, Lorna Earl, and myself argued that

    Leadership for learning is not a destination with fixed co-ordinates on a compass, but a journey with plenty of detours and even some dead ends. Effective educational leaders are continuously open to new learning because the journey keeps changing. Their maps are complex and can be confusing. What leaders require for this journey is a set of interrelated ‘learnings’ looking at school leadership in a holistic rather than reductionist way. These ‘learnings’ can be deepened, elaborated, nurtured, abandoned, and connected and related to other ‘learnings’ as the journey progresses.11

    We suggested seven sets of ‘learnings’ for leaders of learning that we think go across time and space and apply to all educational leaders. These learnings are:

    • understanding learning
    • critical thinking
    • contextual understanding
    • political acumen
    • emotional understanding
    • making connections
    • futures thinking.

    Chapter 5, entitled, Learnings, develops each of these and connects them to leadership development and succession planning.

    Leadership in a school does not rest exclusively on the shoulders of a few formal leaders. Leadership is everywhere. It is like culture; it is intangible, non-rational and non-linear. You see it only in its results. Every person in the school exercises some form of influence over others and directs in some way the daily course of events – from the master teacher mentoring a neophyte, to the staffroom lawyer actively undermining the school's formal leaders. Some informal leaders, for example, have a powerful effect on colleagues, while other formal leaders are mere placeholders with little real influence. Some leaders are part of the school's community of practice, and others are on the periphery or even marginalised by the teaching staff. Wenger12 tells us that prospective leaders and others follow fairly predictable trajectories to become part of a community of practice whereby they can influence a school's direction. How and in what ways one exercises leadership will depend on a person's trajectory. For example, first year school leaders on an ‘inbound trajectory’ will have to find ways to move from the periphery of a school's community of practice to an ‘insider's trajectory’ if they wish to ensure substantive and sustainable changes. Conversely, leaders on an ‘outbound trajectory’ will have more interest in finding ways to sustain important parts of their legacy. Chapter 6, Trajectories, explores the implications of shifting career trajectories for leaders and their leadership, and the different relationships a leader might have with the various ‘communities of practice’ that exist in a school.

    One of my mentors, the late J.W. Singleton, the first Director of the Halton Board of Education13 in Ontario, Canada, where I worked for twenty three years, was a large man physically and intellectually. A somewhat Churchillian character, he suffered fools badly. A politician at a school board meeting asked him “Mr. Singleton, why do you always promote the best teachers?” He replied, “Madam, would you prefer the alternative?” In many jurisdictions internationally, ‘the alternative’ is happening. Without well-developed succession management, there is evidence that many schools and school jurisdictions are not attracting high quality school leaders to advertised positions. We know that the best organisations identify, recruit, prepare, select, and support leaders based on their potential, rather than on whether their existing proficiencies fit a job as it exists now.14 A software company, for example, may know what a software developer does now, but probably doesn't know what a software developer will be doing ten years from now. What they will know, however, is that they want to stay in the software business, so they look for people with the potential to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will keep them on the cutting edge in a rapidly changing field. We know we will be in the education business in ten to fifteen years but what it will look like is guesswork. What we do know is that we will need educational leaders with the potential to be leaders of learning and the ability to work through others to enhance the learning of all students. Chapter 7, Succession, elaborates this argument for succession management and shows how the ‘Leadership for Mortals’ model can provide a useful way to bring coherence to succession planning as well as to identify and develop the potential of future educational leaders. As a starting point, however, let us turn to the here and now and contextualise this discussion in the present challenges faced by school leaders.


    1 Stoll, L., Fink, D., and Earl, L. (2003). It's about Learning (and It's about Time). London: Routledge/Falmer.

    2 Earley, P., Evans, J., Collarbone, P., Gold, A., and Halpin, D. (2002). Establishing the Current State of School Leadership In England: Research report No. 336. London: Department for Education and Skills; Williams, T. (2001), Unrecognized Exodus, Unaccepted Accountability: The looming shortage of principals and vice principals in Ontario public school boards. Toronto, ON: Ontario Principals Council.

    3 Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teachers, Changing Times. London: Cassell.

    4 Giuliani, R. (2002). Leadership. New York: Miramax Books.

    5 Gardner, H.(1996). Leading Minds: An anatomy of leadership. New York: Basic Books.

    6 Stoll, L. and Fink, D. (1996). Changing Our Schools: Linking school effectiveness and school improvement. Buckingham: Open University Press.

    7 Purkey, W.W. and Novak, J.N. (1984) Inviting School Success. 2nd edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    8 Stoll and Fink, (1996) op.cit. p. 109.

    9 Saul, J.R. (2001). On Equilibrium. Toronto, ON: Penguin/Viking.

    10 Stoll, Fink and Earl (2003). op.cit.

    11 Ibid. p.103.

    12 Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    13 The Halton Board of Education, now called the Halton District Board of Education, is located in Ontario Canada

    14 See Liebman, M, Bruer R. A., and Maki, B.R. (1996) ‘Succession management: The next generation of succession planning’, Human Resource Planning, 19 (3), pp. 16–29; National Academy of Public Administration (1997). Managing Succession and Developing Leadership: Growing the next generation of public service leaders. Washington, DC: NAPA; Rothwell, W.J. (2001). Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring leadership continuity and building talent from within (2nd edition) New York: AMACOM; Schall, E. (1997). ‘Public sector succession: A strategic approach to sustaining innovation’, Public Administration Review, 57 (1), 4–10; Souque, J.P. (1998). Succession Planning and Leadership Development. Ottawa, ON: Conference Board of Canada.

  • Conclusion

    Many years ago, one of my former teachers' college instructors, a rather cryptic and sardonic Scot named Jock Carlisle, used to tell us “You need some conclusion to your lesson other than the bell”, and suggested that we leave the students with two or three thought-provoking ideas that would link into the next day's lesson. In memory of Jock, I leave you with these summarising principles of Leadership for Mortals.

    Leaders of learning are ordinary people who through extraordinary commitment, effort, and determination have become extraordinary, and have made the people around them exceptional.

    Educational leadership is more art than science; it is more about character than technique; it is more about inspiration than charisma; it is more about leading student and teacher learning than the management of things.

    Leaders must be passionately, creatively, obsessively and steadfastly committed to enhancing ‘deep’ learning for students – learning for understanding, learning for life, learning for a knowledge society.

    Leadership is about communicating invitational messages to individuals and groups with whom the leader interacts in order to build and act on a shared and evolving vision of a learning-centred school.

    We all have the ability to shape events in our lives as opposed to being shaped by circumstances. To embrace this ability, leaders must enhance and employ all of their qualities – reason, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and common sense – in equilibrium.

    The capacity of a leader or someone else to identify with an organisation and for these leaders to negotiate a shared sense of direction for the school or district with their staff(s) will depend in large measure on the trajectory that determines the leader's form of participation or non-participation in an organisation's various ‘communities of practice’.

    School systems need to define leadership roles flexibly in terms of what will be required in the future rather than limiting role descriptions to existing competencies.

    I saw my first major league baseball game in Cleveland with my Dad and my Uncle Dean. The pitcher was a 46 year old rookie named Satchel Paige. Although acknowledged as one of the greatest baseball pitchers in America, he never had a chance to play in the ‘Big Leagues’ because, as a black man, he was excluded. Long past his prime he still led the Cleveland team to victory in the World Series.1 A sharecropper's son he was not well educated but wise in his own way. He used to say

    Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching.2

    I would amend this slightly to suggest that

    Teach and lead like ours is the most important profession in the world.

    Because it is.

    We touch the face of the future. Ours is a hope profession. We don't depend on society's failures for business. Every little child that walks through our school-house door is a hope for the future. The late Neil Postman captured this very well when he said

    Children are the living messages that we send to a time we will not see.3


    1 A pitcher is like a bowler in cricket, and the World Series is the ultimate contest in baseball.

    2 ‘Wise and Wiser’, Sports Illustrated, July, 16, 2000, p. 34.

    3 Postman, N. (1984). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Vintage Books, p.xi.

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