17 July 2020

Invisible Leaders: and sometimes a cool cow!

I'm overjoyed to introduce Dr Galdames, with a blogoff this week!

A great big welcome to "Blog Off - an invitation"

Thank you Sergio, I needed your words today.

The Rise of Millennial Headteachers 


For the last six years, I have been exploring the relationship between age (or generations) and leadership. In particular, I am interested in challenging the assumption of the right age to be a headteacher. My research adds to a larger body of knowledge that challenges, among others, the correct gender, race and faith of a school leader. Think for a moment, when you imagine a headteacher, how it looks like: what gender? Which race?  How does it dress? And for the sake of this conversation: does it look like a 58 years old white male or like a 27 years old black female?


While there is a massive body of knowledge about headteachers and their career, very little attention has been given to explore the generation argument (Edge, Galdames, & Horton, 2017). However, in many places, including Chile and the UK, there is an implicit, somewhat hidden correlation between age and formal leadership position. 


I was captivated by the age mystery, and while my PhD has helped me to understand this puzzle, the definitive answers to it are still far away. Having said that, I believe that I learn a couple of things about young leaders, particularly about their professional and personal journey into the headship as well as about their drivers and barriers. 


What I want to tell you in these few lines, is a summary of some of the main findings of my thesis, which I concluded early this year (just before the COVID-19 Hell broke loose). My original study aimed to compare how headteachers of a different generation or ages have built their professional career. I was particularly interested in exploring the potential differences between older and younger school leaders, or what in a generational language called Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1965), GenXers (1966 and 1978) and Millennials (1979 and 1999)I will only focus on the experience of researching the youngest cohort: Millennials. And due to the restriction of this format, I will try to keep it brief and on point. There are missing pieces on the following argument, but we can keep talking about it to infinity and beyond.


I. Setting the scene

 In Chile, while the average age of state schools headteachers is around 57 years, 10% of state schools are currently led by a millennial headteacher. As I presented elsewhere, this number has gradually risen over the last decade, explained in part by the introduction of different policies that changed opportunities for school leaders (Galdames, 2019). Despite some national recruitment guidelines and centralised process, each local authority (municipalities) can hire any candidate they want as a headteacher. Moreover, there are no age criteria in any local on national policy. 


Becoming a headteacher is a chaotic business for any aspiring candidate. While there are some minimal technical requirements, including having some form of teaching experience and vague postgraduate credentials, each local authority (about 346 across Chile) can adapt the application process and the headteacher's role, duties and responsibilities. Hence, applying for the position requires not only technical skills but also in-depth knowledge about the micropolitics of each school and local authority. My study explores the career of 28 headteachers, working in diverse cities in the centre part of Chile. None of the participants knew each other, but surprisingly within each cohort, headteacher shares a very personal and professional trajectory. I will speak now about some of the features of the millennial headteachers. 


II. The millennial journey

My first interview in this study was in a small and remote rural school. The school was located in a place where the Andes mountains touch the sky and silence was only interrupted by the laughter of children (and sometimes a cool cow).  There I met Oliver, a 33 years old headteacher who rapidly brought me into his office and with a massive generosity shared his own story. Oliver grew up poor, in this very same town. His father, a farmer and his mother, a housewife, always encouraged him to be responsible, honest and a goal-oriented. He never academically excelled at school or university but was celebrated by his tenacity, professionalism and for being friendly. Due to economic challenges, he held part-time job responsibilities from an early age. In every place he worked, he was praised for being a responsible employee, having a good relationship with peers and managers, and for introducing innovations into the workplace. While having professional success in other industries, his passion for education was bigger, and after graduation, he found a place in a rural public school - the school where we were talking. 


Oliver laughed when he told that he has only worked in one single school his entire professional life. This career path is an unusual feature for rural teachers as diverse studies have suggested are known for high levels of turnover. Oliver arrived at the school as newly qualified teachers; and rapidly gained some informal leadership responsibilities; a few years later he was formally considered a middle leader role; eventually, when the position was open was promoted to a deputy head; and finally, applied for the headship three years before the interview. This final step was tailored by the previous headteacher of the school, who helped him to professional prepared and guided him through the micropolitics of the headship application. For Oliver, this transition meant nothing but positives, as not only he knew the school, but also the school knew him, allowing for a peaceful and productive working relationship with teachers, students and parents. Furthermore, as he pointed out, again laughing, the previous headteacher was still working at the school as a deputy head in the office next door, taking some administrative duties and mentoring Oliver when needed (and honestly I believe he was listening to the entire interview, cheeky deputy head!)


While this first interview was fascinating, at the time, I thought Oliver was an outlier. I anticipated a different career for young leaders. Millennial literature frequently highlights the change of career path, roles and even industries as the cornerstone of their professional identity (de Hauw & de Vos, 2010). However, Oliver's journey moves in the opposite direction, taking a traditional path characterised by stability and gradual vertical progression in a single organisation. I never anticipated what happened next as I came in contact with other millennial headteachers. Over and over again, I heard the same history, in the voices of Selina, Barry, Clark, Victor, Barbara, Diane and William. Only one of my nine participants had a significantly different career trajectory. Some events in their lives happened in a different order, some key people change gender or age or role, some transitions were faster or slower, but overall most stories shared a set of core attributes. A very similar childhood, education, and early teaching experience that allowed them to move forward in the career with purpose and prepare themselves accordingly for the upcoming challenges. 


At the centre of the millennial journey is a story that far from being explained by individual effort, was a collective one. Driven by personal attributes developed during their earlier experiences and foster by a workplace and by leaders that recognise potential, the millennial headteacher's experience is about learning and growth. Initially, as teachers and then as middle leaders, the millennial cohort was encouraged to look beyond their present responsibilities, to take risks, to fail, and to learn. The possibility to exercise leadership is a core motivational component for headship interest, meaning that at least partially you want to be a formal school leader because you had the access to leadership opportunities (Galdames & González, 2016). For the millennials in this study, encouragement also took the form of professional resources, including formal professional development opportunities and networking with the local authorities. Even though the idea that millennials desire a more traditional career than anticipated is not entirely new (Real, Mitnick, & Maloney, 2010), the findings of my study show a refreshing perspective on how to support the development of younger leaders. Despite this optimistic picture, the story of the millennials also shows some of the darker elements of the leadership career and about what can we do to support leaders everywhere.


III. What's wrong with this picture?

I believe that a central concern about these findings is the chaotic environment surrounding the career of school leaders. While the overall experience of the millennial headteachers is hugely positive, it was built upon luck and the goodwill of diverse people. There is no policy, guidelines, nor a plan, at the national or local level to develop young leaders. The participant's experience is just the universe coming together for these eight fortunate people. But what about the rest? How many teachers, that having all the capacities and motivation, didn't find the right school or a generous headteacher to support them to move forward? 

Another central point of the young leader's career deals with the now. As I described before, the professional experience of these participants has been filled with opportunities and support; conditions that massively changed once they became headteachers. Accustomed to a space of guided learning, usually from senior administrators, most young leaders were (pause for dramatics) abandoned by the local authorities, which lacked the capacities or interest in supporting headteachers. 


The assumption that local authorities play a central role in creating the optimal conditions for school improvement and headteacher performance is well established in educational settings. You can't (super difficult at least!) have a good school, without a good district leader. However, at least in the Chilean context, the evidence suggests that local authorities have failed in creating the support that schools and headteacher require to thrive. Millennial headteacher seeks for learning, challenging and supporting. They look for somebody able to guide them to do better, to innovate, to take risks but also that help them when things go south. 


One final comment regarding young leaders relates to the fact that they are indeed young, and therefore in a particular life stage. To explain this adequately, I need to break my initial rule about not talking about the other two cohorts (Well, it is your fault, why do you trust me, you do not even know me. Sorry. Jesus! I'll try to be brief). In my study, Boomers painfully recognise that holding a headteacher role was while fulfilling, incredible time consuming, taking them apart from family and other complementary responsibilities. GenXers, express that have found some balance, but that their main challenge is economic. Many were concern with wages and the instability of the role, as their children were starting college soon, which will put a massive dent in their wallets for a decent number of years. Millennials are something else.


In terms of balance, most young leaders have found a way to merge personal interest with formal responsibilities. For instance, Oliver (you haven't forgotten him, right?) has an intense love for music and actively participate in the school music department as a teacher collaborator. Barry, who has multiple academic and work-related interest, has created a flatter structure in the school characterised by a distribution of power in others, which allow him to take an overseeing role, instead of implementing every activity by himself. The central millennial problem is about the intersectionality between age and gender.


I am not the first to address the challenge of female leaders in education. There is a rich body of knowledge addressing the multiple challenges and also the opportunities that women leaders experience. If I could recommend one reference, I invite you to read the very recent work of my friend and young female leader/researcher Laura Guihen (2017) which tackle this issue in the UK context. What is important and may be exclusive to the millennial cohort is the connection with maternity. All the participants in this study, and potentially (so sad) every school leader elsewhere, share the recognition of the massive difficult to balance having young kids and leading a school. While GenXers and Boomers have older children, millennials experience the difficult decision between career and starting a family. The three female participants in the millennial cohort illustrate the same point from a different perspective. 


Barbara, having two children younger than five years old, describe me in detail all the gymnastic that she and her husband endure. They have created a system, based on favours and kindness, with both family members and local authorities, to keep their kids protected and loved. Selina, having a two years old baby, was in the middle of a personal debate about the possibility to have a second one, in the upcoming year. For Selina, there is no way that the two roles, mother and headteacher, could be adequately performed, as one cancels the other. She agrees you can do both at a mediocre level, but she is not interested in that compromise. Finally, Diana thinks that both role are entirely incompatible. She has settle for a life without children of her own, arguing that every student in her school is her adoptive kids. 


The urgency to create better working conditions for all, but particularly target female leaders is imperative. Just these three cases illustrate the problematic experience live by the millennial headteacher, which could lead to unhappiness, workplace dissatisfaction, or even stepping down as school leader. This scenario affects current headteachers, but also aspiring ones. It is not impossible nor challenging to introduce reforms to support parents to create a more balanced career. As presented by other authors (Karen Edge, Descours, & Frayman, 2016), the introduction of distributed leadership strategies, flexible schedule, formal maternity services or even temporal co-headship, could create massive improvements. These transformations might directly improve the lives of workers but also give a sign to the system that schools care about their staff and leaders. 


IV. Invisible Leaders: the end for now

I titled this contribution as 'Invisible Leaders'. This label was mainly meant for me. While I have worked with headteachers for years, I was not aware of my biases in terms of how I imagine leaders should look like. Putting light into the darkness of young leaders will allow us to see them better, to understand their needs and challenges, but also the power they bring to our schools. Now it's the turn of Millennials who at this moment (2020) range between 21 and 41 years old. Soon, schools will see its first Generation-Z teachers, and rapidly after, its first GenZ leaders and headteachers. We must be attentive to the continuous rise of the invisible leader in the future. More diversity means more questions, more answers, more innovation and more hope. We need to protect them, though. Sometimes, against all odds, invisible leaders breakthrough into the system, but it should be let at the chance. We must, as educators, researchers, and decision-makers, create an environment that helps them to move forward, give signs to others that passion and professionalism will be rewarded. 

I hope that reading this story was a learning experience for you. There are many ingredients in the millennial journey that I couldn't explain with proper detail. I even couldn't do it in the 99,000 words of my thesis (minor corrections, thank you for the applause). But, from the beginning, I thought this text as a starting point of a more extended conversation. Please be in contact if you want to talk, discuss or just tell me about your own story. I can leave this page without given credit to my informal mentor 'Mole' whose career has inspired me to move forward while keeping myself authentic. As a millennial researcher, I appreciate your encouragement to take risks, to try and to innovate. Thanks for the invitation to write this piece and to publish it in your corner of the digital world.


My email is sergiogaldames@gmail.com, I am also in twitter @sergiogaldames, and for those crazy Spanish speakers, I run a weekly leadership podcast with a colleague where we talk some of these ideas www.planetaeducativo.cl

Hasta Luego!



de Hauw, S., & de Vos, A. (2010). Millennials' career perspective and psychological contract expectations: Does the recession lead to lowered expectations? Journal of Business and Psychology25(2), 293–302. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-010-9162-9

Edge, K, Galdames, S., & Horton, J. (2017). Diversity: New leaders and new leadership. In T. Greany & P. Earley (Eds.), School Leadership and Education System Reform (pp. 211–221). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Edge, Karen, Descours, K., & Frayman, K. (2016). Generation X School Leaders as Agents of Care: Leader and Teacher Perspectives from Toronto, New York City and London. Societies6(2), 8. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc6020008

Galdames, S. (2019). Trabajo duro, una sed por aprender y un poco de suerte: la trayectoria laboral de los directores de la generación milenio en las escuelas públicas de Chile. Perspectiva Educacional58(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.4151/07189729-Vol.58-Issue.1-Art.821

Galdames, S., & González, Á. (2016). The relationship between leadership preparation and the level of teachers' interest in assuming a principalship in Chile. School Leadership & Management36(4), 435–451. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2016.1209178

Guihen, L. (2017). The two faces of secondary headship. Management in Education31(2), 69–74. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020617696627

Real, K., Mitnick, A. D., & Maloney, W. F. (2010). More similar than different: Millennials in the U.S. building trades. Journal of Business and Psychology25(2), 303–313. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-010-9163-8


No comments:

Post a Comment