Leadership matters

Published July 7, 2023
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

IT is not too difficult to see, upon entering a school, whether or not it works well. If the premises look as if someone worries about them, if the infrastructure works, if the teachers and students are inside the classrooms with the students absorbed in their lessons and their teachers ensuring they are taught well, and if the staff and administration are pulling in the same direction, it is very likely the school is working well.

The research that my colleagues and I did some years back showed that for every school that was working well, there was a leader who, for lack of a better term, took ‘residual responsibility’ for the school and worried about it beyond the call of duty.

Usually, it was the head teacher or principal of the school; but, in some instances, it was the owner or a person on the governing board. In a couple of cases, it was even a member of the teaching staff.

For a school to work, a ‘leader’ has to be there. She motivates and provides the vision for the school, she inspires by example, she ensures the school’s smooth functioning, and she is there to manage any crisis that crops up.

But over the years I have seen the opposite too — in schools as well as universities. A ‘bad’ leader can destroy even a good school or university. A leader driven by a personal agenda and more concerned about her pursuits and ego, with little or no respect for herself or others, can bring down a school or university in a matter of years. Again, recent literature on leadership points this out clearly: bad leaders can have a big impact on organisations.

So, leadership matters. On the public sector side, at the K-12 level, we are still taken in by the seniority model for posting head teachers and principals in most provinces.

Where a change has been made, it has been to appoint the most educated teacher as the head teacher, instead of trying to look for the best ‘leader’. Being senior or being more educated is no guarantee that a person is a good leader too, or even has the potential to be one.

We need to have better systems for finding leaders who can be appointed to VC positions.

The situation is not very different for most of the private sector. But the more dynamic education providers in the private sector moved away from the seniority model for appointing school leadership quite some time back.

Most of their school have created systems for leader identification and/or selection. They have leadership training and support programmes and they ensure leaders are provided with proper opportunities for career development.

They also have strong weeding programmes where ‘bad’ leaders are identified and, if training and support cannot change outcomes, these people are moved out of the leadership positions as quickly as possible.

The autonomy of the head teacher has been shown to have an impact on school performance, and there is the impact of good leadership too. Our schools in the public sector have not been performing well. Where other reforms are being implemented, it would be important to add leadership identification, selection and support programmes too.

The same argument applies to universities. Even today, if you look at advertisements for hiring vice chancellors for public sector universities, there is still an almost exclusive emphasis on seniority, academic output and administrative experience. In many cases, even experience in the armed forces has been considered ‘good’ administrative experience for appointment as VC. VCs need to be good leaders. A lot of power, good or bad, rests with them.

We need to have better systems for finding leaders who can be appointed to VC positions. This imperative is becoming more binding as the university sector is becoming more crowded and competitive. We have over 200 universities in the country. Islamabad alone has more than 24; over half of them have emerged in the last 23 years or so.

Universities will, increasingly, have to compete for funds and students as space gets more crowded. Leaders who can create a reputation for quality education at their institution will become increasingly more important.

The imperative applies to the private sector as well. I have been associated with a private sector university in Pakistan for over three decades now, and have worked with more than six VCs. Each has brought their own unique perspective to the institution.

Good leaders have been able to enhance the institution’s reputation significantly and to create the virtuous cycles that lead to better educational programming and outcomes for students. They have attracted good faculty and have been able to create a mission- or vision-driven institution with buy-in from faculty and staff, leading to improvement in morale and outcomes.

There have been poor leaders as well. They have undermined rules and routines for their personal agenda, ego satisfaction and self-aggrandisement. This costs the institution not only in terms of morale but in actual outcomes too: staff and faculty get apathetic, some leave, others choose to work to please the leader rather than doing their work for the university.

Institutions with a history, precedent and set expectations about quality and ways of doing things can survive bad leaders for some time, but even these periods are not without cost. If Trump can almost undermine institutions in an established democracy, one can imagine what a poor leader can do in institutions that might not have as long or deep a history. And recovery from a bad period is not guaranteed either.

Leadership matters. Good leadership can make a school or university and bad leadership, if it continues, can destroy even a well-performing school or university.

Barring a few of the more dynamic private sector school systems, across the private and public sector we have yet to start taking leadership issues seriously. This needs to change. If schools and universities are to perform better, we need to identify/select and nurture/support good leaders and, if they cannot be trained, then weed out the bad ones.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2023

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