Professional Development

Are Headteachers Adult Enough To Do The Job?

Research shows that heads often lack the emotional maturity to carry out their roles. Most heads need training in Adult Ego Development, concludes Neil Gilbride

Facing up to the demands of leadership

Do we take for granted the size of the challenge facing school leaders? Is there a sufficient appreciation for the range of leadership functions that they face each day? Are the professional development needs of leaders as adult learners really understood and addressed? 

This article, will introduce the concept of Adult Ego Development and its relevance for how we conceptualise leadership and leadership development. First, it outlines why leadership in schools is particularly challenging. With a brief introduction to adult developmental psychology, I will demonstrate how many of the features recognised to be important in school leadership occur only in a small subset of individuals.

The demands of school leadership can be best understood by considering the problems that school leaders typically face . Schools are complex organisations where wicked problems are common. Such problems, according to Rittel and Weber are multi-faceted, require a bespoke solution, and can have ramifications for the organisation beyond the original incident..

In addition, schools and school leadership have large affective elements which will influence the course and interaction with the problem.

So the argument is that, to handle such complex and wicked problems in school leadership, leaders will need to:

  • Recognise and appreciate the underpinning complex, wicked of the problem. 
  • Respond by working in mutual, collaborative manner with their teams.  (Woods and Roberts 2018: Hargreaves and O’Connor 2018)
  • Handle and support the feelings of individuals that can run those these incidents. 

However, In my research exploring the applications of adult development psychology to school leadership, I argue that the three examples I have cited (complex thinking; collaboration; and handling emotion) are, for most adults, far more challenging then we currently give credit for.

When considered alongside the day to day nature of these demands, we can come to see that the work day is full of challenges that we might not even register as ‘challenging’. By showing the relevance of an adult’s development to these tasks, we open a whole array of questions around what we mean by professional development and the need to reconsider how we can embed some of this learning within our organisations. 

A note on Adult Development. 

How adults come to make sense of the world around them is an attribute that can develop and grow throughout the life span. Adult developmental psychologists Jane Loevinger and Robert Kegan  propose that there is a psychological construct called the Ego. The role of the Ego is simple – to make sense of the problems we face, which in turn shapes how we act. 

Both Loevinger and Kegan state that the ways by which individuals construct their understanding of the world moves through discrete stages of development.   The most common stages within adulthood are: 

Self-Aware Stage: Those in the self-aware stage typically seek to understand the world through rules and structures. Situations are generally seen for how a discrete cause might determine a given outcome. Whilst they seek to be helpful to others, they focus more on their own action s and their own response to situations. 

Conscientious Stage: Individuals in this stage experience the world through their own values and ideals, and focus less on the societal rules, structures or expectations. Other people play an increasingly greater role in their lives and in how they come to comprehend situations.  Situations are more complex than might have been perceived previously –  in particular, those in the Conscientious stage recognise patterns within incidents.  

Individualist:  In this stage of development, adults try to balance the rules and external expectations/structures with their own internal values. They perceive those around them as their equal, regardless of role or status. Situations are recognised as even more complex; for example, they recognise the difference between the process and the outcome.

It is suggested that individuals have been shown to move through these stages. 4). This development usually occurs in response to disorientating experiences – experiences that challenge our world view as insufficient or incomplete. Such moments are often challenging and deeply uncomfortable  and they can induce anxiety and fear.

A safe environment is vital to help promote positive growth to a new developmental stage. Without this security, we risk individuals ‘doubling down’ on our entrenched position, losing the momentum of development. Current practices become further entrenched and more resistant to change in the future. 

After this brief consideration of the literature on Adult Development, the next section will  explore how this is concept is relevant for the day to day tasks of leaders within school. 

The relevance to workplace expectations. 

The demands of our day-to-day working lives are associated with behaviours and ways of working found within later stages of adult development. For the first time, myself, Chris James and Sam Carr myself conducted an analysis of School Leaders and their stage of Adult Ego Development (AED) and their response to wicked institutional problems.

After assessment of their AED stage, we determined how each participant would typically respond to a wicked problem. Leaders were interviewed about a problem they had recently faced. They also had to complete a vignette task, where they write about how would anticipate handling a hypothetical wicked problem. To corroborate these themes, we also asked two people who worked with the headteacher who had to complete the same tasks based on their understanding of the headteachers typical way of handling these problems.

This comprehensive study of 20 leaders in the three main adult stages demonstrated that there are substantive differences in how headteachers of different AED stages operated within their schools. The table summarises our findings, and greater detail can be found in our recently published article.

Stage of adult ego development  

Data Theme Self-AwareConscientions Individualist
The sense-making process
An emphasis on collecting ‘hard evidence’ about the incident. An emphasis on individual sense-making. An immediate and rapid response. A desire to respond according to the relevant policy. The collection of hard evidence and explanations. Predominantly individual sense making using a limited range of possible explanations. Close attention to detail in responding to the incident. A desire to provide support to those involved in the incident. Low dependency on policy. Seeking hard evidence, reasons, and insights and intuitive judgements of others. Allowing understanding to emerge. Co-construction of understanding with others. Involvement of a range of others. Understanding the perspective of others. Reflecting and taking time to reflect.  Seeking connections beyond the critical incident. The provision of support and feedback. Seeking to promote staff development through the incident. Seeking to ensure widespread understanding. Reliance on policy not a data theme
Feelings and the sense-making process Not a theme in the data A need to minimise feelings and their expression as emotions. A need to know the affective state of others involved in the critical incident.
Feelings are a central aspect of the critical incident. An empathetic approach. Provision of opportunities for those involved to express their feelings about the incident.  Seeking to ensure the affective well-being of those involved.
The involvement of others in the sense-making process
Others were: providers of information; an audience for the expression of feelings. 
Others were: trusted advisers; an audience for off-loading feelings; a source of validation.
Others were: co-constructors of a shared understanding; providers of guidance on who to involve;  sounding boards; expected to be involved.
How others experience the principals As solution/outcome focussed; as a significant source of influence As having particular qualities or traits; as taking a logical, rational approach in responding to a critical incident; as highly emotive choosing the appropriate moment to express their feelings. As having a deep and significant effect on those they worked with; able to identify the issues that others cannot see.

What was of particular interest was how so many of the expected ways of working were found in the later individualist stage of Adult Development. For example:

  • How individuals conceptualise incidents are fundamentally different. The world moves from being straightforward ‘black and white’ and relatively linear to increasingly ambiguous, grey with multiple routes for causality. 
  • How individuals engage individuals around them within school tasks. Moving from delegation (I will tell you what to do) in the earlier stages of adult development, individuals are increasingly brought in to provide insight. It is in the individualist stage where leaders are more likely to work with others in a genuine mutually driven collaboration between leaders and those around them. 
  • The extent to which emotion is recognised. It was only leaders in the later individualist stage that proactively recognised the role of emotion in how others made decisions. 
  • Seeing the inter-dependence within an organisation. There was a greater recognition of how individuals are -dependent upon each other and how outcomes from one task will impact upon what will happen next in often unpredictable ways. 
  • Acknowledge that the history of the incident would be important in determining what will happen next. 

This indicates that the key features within the role of the school leader- recognising complexity, engaging in genuine collaboration with those around them and the recognition of emotion are more associated with the later stage of Adult Development. 

Furthermore, not only do these behaviours tend to occur at a substantively later stage of adult development, this stage of development is rare within the adult population (Cook-Grueter 2004: Lanning et al 2018).  Thus, the tasks we expect leaders to undertake, day to day, week in and week out, are linked to a stage of development which untypical of the general population.  Associating ways of working with the later and rarer stages of adult development, has several implications: 

Appreciating the challenge of these ways of working

 As outlined above, the inherent organisational structure and typical problems school leaders face places an implicit expectations on school leaders to handle emotion, recognise complexity and work in a genuinely collaborative way. This analysis has shown that this way of working will be very hard for adults to do consistently.  We are demanding a high level of development within school leaders.

Our findings begin to encourage us to reconsider what we mean by the common statement of school leadership being a tough job. Usually a range of reasons will be cited – external pressures, high work load and huge responsibility on the shoulders of one person. However, what  this research Is starting to shows is that school leadership is challenging, not just because of these larger demands of the role, but because the day-to-day tasks are so demanding: they require school leaders to work in an exceptionally sophisticated way that is linked to a rare stage of development.  

The implications of this is that we are at risk of asking leaders to take on roles that are highly taxing for reasons that we might not have considered previously 

This then leads to posing  two further questions – Are we developing leaders to support them within this endeavour and how important is the context in which they work?   

Reconsidering the concept of development. 

By linking to their stage of adult development, the traditional model of content delivery to leaders might need some revision. Many of the behaviours we expect from leaders on a day to day basis are facilitated by their stage of Adult Development. This is significant because it would suggest that a leaders Need a broad, balanced curriculum of powerful knowledge and experiences in order to support their growth. This is where the work of Drago-Severson, Kegan  and other adult developmentalists can be critical. In their work, they regularly point to the importance of the following features: 

Developmental Coaching – Being aware of an individual’s stage of development can facilitate more appropriate learning goals, experiences and conversations that individuals can make sense of. For example, asking someone to attempt a genuine, mutual collaboration in the Self-aware stage might be a challenge too far: it is two stages above their current sense-making capacity.  Could it be that their starting point is to learn to incorporate other perspectives into their own, or to increase the number of people they consult with, as a conduit to achieving this bigger collaborative goal?  Augmenting coaching with Adult Development Theory could transform an already common place practice to facilitate adult development. 

Disruptive Experiences – putting individuals into situations that is unfamiliar to them can facilitate growth. Such circumstances need to force individuals to reconsider how they are making sense of the situation. Critically, this needs to be done with their stage of development in mind, by using the right framing through developmental coaching and with intent and awareness. 

In addition to these points, I argue that we need to think about what knowledge can be particularly powerful in the development of leadership.  At the moment, we risk underplaying the role of knowledge within the promotion of an adult’s wider development. By knowledge, I refer to the overall approach and content  that can be incorporated into a programme of professional learning – be it a qualification or a set of professional standards.  In other places, including my blog, I have argued for the importance of Knowledge.

Knowledge is, indeed, power. What we need to do is reconceptualise how we view knowledge – for me, it is knowledge that, once understood, provides a template or scaffold that can facilitate leaders in seeing the world through a different lens. This,  I believe, can be transformative to how individuals come to understand their world view and thus their stage of development. 

Others in the field of educational leadership, such as Bryan VanGronigen at the University of Delaware, are thinking hard about how we can embed approaches to adult development to school leadership programmes. Seeing such work develop further will be fascinating at the field moves forward. 

It is important to note that none of these techniques or strategies are particularly new – however, what we need to think about is the intent behind them. By thinking about the adult to be development, armed with the information of stages and how they enact in their environment, we can enhance our current approaches to school leadership development into approaches that achieve both their traditional aims whilst also working on the wider adult developmental needs. 

Re-starting the conversation on well-being

It is very tempting with psychological constructs to focus entirely on leadership as an innate trait that is divorced from its environment – after-all, an individual’s AED is exactly that: their ego, their development.  So there is often the implicit assumption that such behaviours will simply be tranferred across different organisations, regardless of contextual demand. 

18636260 – young woman in classroom.

However, exposing the relevance of an individual’s stage of AED to how they practice school leadership demonstrates that quite the reverse is the case: that individuals sensemaking and behaviour will be critically impacted by the context in which they reside. Our Ego, and therefore our capacity for sense-making, is sensitive to the environment.

Should an individual be placed under consider stress or pressure, we engage in defence mechanisms (Gilmore and Durkin 2001: Kramer 2010). One of these defence mechanisms is regression: temporarily operating  at  earlier stages of development in order to protect ourselves. For example, the adult within the individualist stage, called upon to bring a wider range of people into a genuine collaboration can, and will, revert to earlier patterns as (private sense-making; focusing on their own action)should they placed under duress. 

Thus, discovering the relevance of adult development to school leadership practice emphasises the critical importance of the environments we provide and work within. In summary, if we want leaders to recognise the complexity of their environments, work collaboratively with those around them, provide developmental support and to recognise the emotions within an institution, the workplace needs to provide a safe holding environment for adults.

Such environments promote psychological safety, emotional containment, empathy and support for individuals to comprehend the situation (Kahn 2001). Through these conditions, adults can express themselves at their fullest potential and, thus, those within this stage are facilitated to operate within it. 

Conclusion – the value of the Adult Development perspective

This article has sought to demonstrate the relevance for adult development in school leadership development. How an individual makes sense of their environment is critical to how they lead and manage within school settings. This is governed by their stage of Adult Ego Development – a psychological construct that does the work of sense-making and can develop across the life span. Across the main stages of adult development, it would appear there are substantive differences in how leaders work with complexity, handle those around them and manage emotion.

Critically, those in the rarer individualist stage of development appear to have some distinct advantages. This raises three points – the day to day job of leadership is far harder than we give credit for; that we should be prepared to consider the process of adult development within wider professional development and the need for a supportive holding environment in which adults can thrive. 

Neil Gilbride is Lecturer in the School of Education and Humanities, University of Gloucestershire

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