On Evolving Leadership Styles in Education, Then and Now
In 1936, Kurt Lewin published Principles of Topological Psychology. In this seminal work, he posited the heuristic equation B = f(P, E) where B is denoted as a person’s behavior as a function of P, or a person’s E, meaning environment. The pioneering formula gave rise to the notion that an individual’s present situation was gravely important when considering their behaviors, more so than one’s past. When Dr. Lewin and his colleagues wrote on patterns of aggressive behavior and used elementary-aged student groups for analysis, it may be beneficial to consider the present circumstances of those children’s lives and the lives of the authors and how it informed their behaviors during the experimentation, documentation and publication of the results. This will advise both the revolutionary notions they put forward, and the between-war industrialization of the world’s major powers. In this context, one may be able to appreciate both the theory of leadership styles as originally posited, and the re-definitions/refinements of said theory.
The world-wide prefix of 1939 can be summed up in terms of global conflict. Dictators from many countries, including Spain, Germany and the Middle East were declaring, and acting on declarations of war. Nations were industrializing their manufacturing base, placing assembly lines in mammoth warehouses as they geared up war machines, navies and arms in response to what appeared to be global conflict. Rumors of invasions in France, the Netherlands and even Britain abounded. These could be considered perilous times. In the present-tense of 1939, time and resources were of the essence. Organizations were framed by what Lewin (1939) called the authoritarian leadership styles. It may be safe to assume that the social dynamics in the homes of the children studied, and in the school’s they attended mirrored those of the authoritarian, or patriarchal, frameworks. In terms of knowledge development, “Major events associated with mental processing go on, measurably so, in our brain before we are aware of them” (Gazzaniga, 1998, p. 72). The awareness, Gazzaniga suggests, comes through dialogical action between the interpreter, and researcher in Lewin’s case, and the participants or subjects. These fields of language, sapiential or otherwise, inform memories and help individuals interpret the present which, in turn, promotes actions (Gazzaniga, 1998), (Lewin, Uppit, & White, 1939).
When considering the actions Lewin had to employ in order to arrive in a space to create his research, Wren (1995) notes that, “All great ideas in science, politics and management have travelled from one country to another, and been enriched by foreign influences” (p.270). When Hitler took power, Lewin made his way to the United States, and associated with individuals who helped him in his work. In the context of Lewin’s work, it may be important to note two important variables that may also have influenced the collection of data and the results of the experiment. Note that only pre-adolescent boys were used in the experiment. Furthermore, male graduate assistants, trained in the interpretation of Lewin’s three leadership models, collected the data (Wren, 1995, p. 84). While Lewin’s world was then dominated by the conflicts of men, advances in group dynamics, group think, leadership theories and actions lend refinements to his original tenants. It still may be argued that little has changed in terms of global conflict and an overall male-dominated society, however, the dialogue now includes several key points that build upon Lewin’s original works.
Re-definitions and Refinements
In 1957, a fellow MIT professor Dr. McGregor, who built on Lewin’s work, posited Theory X. Essentially, Dr. McGregor based his assertions on the research that promoted a sense of man’s inherent indolence. That man required regular interventions from management, who were responsible for the overall organization and motivation of the work site. This authoritarian assertion fueled Lewin’s findings about how to get things done within the institution of work (McGregor as cited by Shafritz & Ott, 2001, Chapter 17). McGregor furthered that due to the human side of the industrial organization, social scientists were challenged at times by the research that found that conventional management styles grounded in Theory X weren’t always successful. In fact, that the X theory created two extremes in management. These hard and soft pendulum swings were costly to productivity and sustainability in the workplace. McGregor promoted a sense of awareness around self-fulfillment and motivation via Theory Y. The idea here is that management creates possibilities for productivity through goal setting, collaboration, consensus and releasing the overall potential of the workers (Shafritz & Ott, 2001, p. 183).
McGregor’s assertions around motivation had found fertile ground in need theory. Maslow and Alderfer promoted the ideals of society through the fulfillment of common needs based on “…internal states of tension or arousal, or uncomfortable states of deficiency [where] people are motivated to change” (Wren, 1995, p. 328). Successive theories on motivation blossomed into discourses on cognition, equity, expectancy and situational approaches. This research helped develop ideals that promoted a sense of motivational interventions that would help resolve conflicts in the work environment.
Resolving conflicts, building consensus and fulfilling that need for unanimity may have its inherent challenges. In the 1970’s Irving Janis wrote about President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs political debacle, coining the term groupthink. Distant cousin to the laissez-faire leadership style Lewin discusses, groupthink differs in that it internally promotes a sense of what Janis (1971) referred to as concurrence-seeking. This social conformity need, built often by intellectually talented brain-trusts, thwarts critical thinking in favor of bolstering group morale. In the extremes, nations may fail. In the microcosms of institutions, companies suffer from the lack of directional leadership that Lewin promoted in his original study (Irving Janis as cited by Wren, 1995, Chapter 47). The leadership style pendulum swung from Great War authoritarian style to a mixed method democratic-laissez faire execution with sometimes impractical consequences.
The stylized struggles between mechanistic societies and emerging organic systems brought on management and leadership practices that played out in some of the most successful international organizations. Since Lewin is responsible for promoting the ideals of action research, it follows that referencing industrial institutions in Japan and South America whose intermittent successful transition of authoritarian and democratic-participatory styles illustrate theories in action.
Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Matsushita Electric – more commonly known as Panasonic, grew up in Japan. He faced the overwhelming dogma of his societal ideologies, the forced aristocracies of a feudal system migrating into a dominant world power and then the downfalls of post-World War II Japan. Through these experiences, he evolved his leadership practices from that of an absolute authoritarian, driving the sales of light-bulbs by street vendors, to a professorial democrat facilitating a multi-national purveyor of high quality electronics. When Sony refused to share Beta technology, by employing authoritarian group think leadership, Matsushita openly shared his VCR technology with manufacturers across the globe. The result was a surge in international VCR sales and the eventual discontinuance of Beta, in spite of superior quality. It is argued that Matsushita’s ability to evolve as a leader, teach his leaders to do the same, even opening a University at his manufacturing plant, made the difference in sustaining a competitive world-wide presence in electronics (Kotter, 1997).
Another illustrative practical example, Ricardo Semler totally transformed his father’s company Semco when he took the reins in the early 1980’s. Semco was highly authoritarian, self-described as relying totally on the CEO’s expertise and top-down leadership styles. Almost all decisions, critical or otherwise, were made by the CEO. The decisions weren’t questioned, they were executed. At the time of Ricardo’s takeover, the company suffered from declining contracts and an inability to flex its manufacturing to meet the changing needs of South America. Semlar transformed the workplace by allowing workers to decide on departmental purchases, negotiating flexible work hours with national unions, and re-tooling the organizational structures to include representation from all departments (Semler, 1993).
Both of these practical examples illustrate, without in-depth discussion about the challenges, the adaptive nature of Lewin’s work. Another, perhaps more theoretical application follows W. Edwards Deming’s work with Japanese managers post-World War II on total quality management. A trained statistician and advisor to Matsushita’s rival, Akio Morita of Sony, Deming promoted careful analysis of the manufacturing processes and the accompanying employee training/leadership styles. Commonly known as the Total Quality Control (TQC) or Total Quality Management (TQM), these management systems are a unique combination of embedded authoritarian leadership methods at all levels of the manufacturing process. Once established, they are carefully merged with a participatory/democratic system called Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). TPM can be defined as “…[involving] everyone in all departments and at all levels; it motivates people for plant maintenance…[but] top management must design a system that rewards everyone’s responsibility and ability for TPM” (Imai, 1986, p. 95). Deming’s influence through his Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) or Quality Control (QC) circles promoted a sense of Japanese kaizen, or the group-oriented permanence around improving all aspects of an institution through small but very deliberate systems of action overseen by management.
“Such job design means that it is necessary to revise conventional thinking on the functions of manager and worker…the new job design is to delegate as much planning and control to workers as possible, thus motivating them to higher productivity and higher quality” (Niomi Misaki as cited by Imai, 1986, p. 95-96).
Kaizen serves as an academically sound, scientifically researched, competitive model for production, management and leadership who’s originations in the United States kept Japan viable in the international electronics and automobile industries for decades. It parallels the assertions of Lewin’s findings on the democratic process, where more are involved, the quality of work and product improves.
Rudolf Carnap (1950) is known for his work around linguistics and empirical studies. He writes, “Let us be cautious in making assertions and critical in examining them, but tolerant in permitting linguistic forms” (Moser & Nat, 2003, p. 78-9). Permitting the examination and crude articulation of applications of Lewin’s leadership research in the industrialized context informs further linguistic examination of those applications in education. As the saying goes, we practice as we play and we train as we fight. Our nation’s education systems are modeled after the needs of the nation’s economic drivers. Schools have mimicked corporations in structure and organization for decades. While Lewin, Deming and their progenitors were posting theories on leadership styles, a German educator named Kurt Hahn was transforming education in two nations. The first, a school called Salem in Germany, and Gordonstoun the second school in Ireland founded as he left when Hitler took power in Kurt’s homeland in 1933.
Hahn saw a need, after performing a non-academic gap analysis, for the sons of trades-men and common people to have access to the same rigor of education as their privileged peers. His structure for the faculty and students was highly participatory. Shared responsibilities around caring for communities within and surrounding the school were the norm. Shore watches were established, with strict rules and procedures for communication and responsibilities. Infusing the war-time school developmental curriculum with relevance through rigor, the founder sought participatory guidance from a host of stakeholders who later became Hahn’s most ardent supporters. Kurt worked tirelessly to raise the experiential and democratic processes for his participant stakeholders, promoting this sense of fealty and eventually purveyorship. First from his colleague at Eton, and then from associated consultations with parents, students, barracked soldiers, and eventually American educators (Miner & Bolt, 2002).
The first was Josh Miner, a visiting teacher, who later would found the Outward Bound (OB) movement. A theoretical, Harvard-developed extension of OB emerged, known as the inquiry-based participatory model for education, Expeditionary Learning (EL). EL’s overall aim is to improve the quality of student work, collaboratively through subject experts, texts, research and co-educational teaching. The critical pedagogy prescribed by EL (http://www.elschools.org) is rooted in Freire’s call for praxis (Freire, 1997). The dialogical, or linguistic exploration, is referred to by many theorists as a democratic process not to be mistaken for “…a soft-shoe approach to teaching and leading in education” (Ornstein et al., 2011, p. 24). There is a suggested dose of autonomy, structured inter-dependence embedded in the application of these interpretations of Lewin’s works. The active, reflective evolutions from the mechanistic to the organic rationalities of organizational and thereby educational frameworks support discipline and autonomy. “We find that autonomy is a product of discipline. The discipline provides the framework. It gives people confidence stemming from stable expectations about what really counts” (Dawson, 2003, p. 36).
The disciplines derived from authoritarian roots may provide the possibilities for participatory processes in education. The current research suggests that by virtue of these practices, the quality of education can and does improve. Take, for instance, the choiceful combination of Finland’s strong welfare state and a high performing economy as the central strengths of its education system. “In Finland, the state steers but does not prescribe in detail the national curriculum. Trusted teams of highly qualified teachers write much of the curriculum at the local level…”(Ornstein et al., 2011, p. 320 emphasis added). Several other examples emerge from current international educational leadership practices; they include successes of a similar nature in Hong Kong, Australia and Canada. Common among these successful educational leaders is the practice of treating stakeholders as engaged partners, who employ the tenants educational kaizen/TPM on a national basis.
Lewin’s behavioral equation applies as readily to education today, in our present state or context, as it did to his participants in the 1930’s. While the theoretical developments of the past are relevant to our present, necessary innovations may not be informative of our present actions. Marx (2006) acknowledges the need for future-focused leaders to be able to recognize emerging trends in education. The key, he says, is “…in gaining respect and building relationships community-wide…” (Marx, 2006, p. 58). The participatory approach is the clarion call here, one that imbues stakeholders as a collective mind-trust in making high quality decisions around student needs. Gone are the days, according to Marx, when educators only talk to one another and business leaders exclude others from their meetings. Consider the arguable success behind Teach for America (TfA) program that recruits successful scholars from the nation’s top universities, prepares them through collaborative local district participant training modules and places them in the inner-city schools for two years. Farr (2010) has developed a model for Teaching as Leadership that promotes the discipline of high expectations intertwined with the autonomy of inquiry-based mastery in the classroom. Close examination of Farr’s work exposes parallels to Deming and Lewin’s work in leadership styles and systems of organizational operation. Farr (2010) derives his community of shared purpose, values and support cycle from David A. Kolb, which closely resembles Lewin’s behavioral equation and Deming’s plan, do, act cycle. “To maximize the value of the teacher experience, it must be; data driven, infused with feedback and reflection, and implemented in a spirit of accountability and support” (Farr, 2010, p. 275-6).
“Business leaders, teachers, and other professionals are also drawing from the wisdom of the past, and from their own experience, to create more inclusive and integrated ways of living and working” (Senge, 2006, p. 10). These integrated ways of living also speak to the integrated ways of teaching and learning. Choices allow for a wide array of blended formats, charter, district, and home schooling. In the potential chaos of the existing and emerging choices, the mechanisms of education are migrating to a more organic format with its own set of implementation challenges. Prior, it was natural to mimic the systems of leadership born in the aforementioned industrialized conflicts of the 20th century. Present, organic system evaluations call out for a more fluid approach – perhaps in answer to the present demands of a highly technological society. As technology evolves so then must education. Herein lays a challenge of perhaps standing in the way of natural processes of organizational and educational innovation.
“Anytime we see systems in apparent chaos, our training urges us to interfere, to stabilize, and shore things up. But if we can trust the workings of chaos, we will see that the dominant shape of our organizations can be maintained if we retain clarity about the purpose and direction of the organization” (Wheatley, 1992, p. 133).
Even as Fixsen (2005) and Hall & Hord (2006), as premier implementation and change theorists, promote system interventions, perhaps Lewin is speaking from the halls of university collections urging practitioners to embrace the present situation, comparative to successive actions around our own emerging leadership needs.
So emerge opportunities for further expressions of Lewin’s work in education leadership. Wagner states that “Indeed, virtually every other profession in modern life has transitioned to various forms of teamwork, yet most educators work alone” (Wagner et al., 2006, p. 72). True, as illustrated here, external and internal variables promoted environments of teamwork within the private sector. It may be that education has come to the re-definition table late, but there are disciplined strategies that manifest themselves in a participatory manner. To avoid the traditions of authoritarian compliance, Wagner suggests that teachers and leaders to publicly model communities of practice as a tool to subvert the educational culture of reaction, compliance and isolation (p. 80). In keeping with Marx’s (2006) suggestions around communities of generative thinking, it follows that educators, business and community leaders can no longer work in isolation. Perhaps these communities of practice will be inclusive of all stakeholders, and, outside the theories of leadership, manifest themselves in terms of students being present to a participatory process that enriches their classroom experiences.
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