A ripple in multicoloured water

Ripple effect of toxic executives in schools

6 September 2019
Written by University of Sydney and UTS academics, a new paper decodes destructive school leadership and its harmful, pervasive consequences.

New analysis conducted by leading Australian education experts has explored the dark side of leadership in our primary and high schools. 

In the new International Journal of Leadership in Education paperDr George Odhiambo and Dr Rachel Wilson of the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, together with Dr Pam Ryan of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, deconstruct how top-down negativity affects the whole school ecosystem.

“Though worse for some than others, bad leadership is bad for everyone,” the authors said, after conducting a literature review and applying a strain of systems theory to the subject. 

What is destructive leadership?

The authors define destructive leadership as leadership that is “perceived to cause physiological, psychological, organisational or environmental harm”.

Manifestations of destructive leadership include incompetence; immorality; manipulation; fraudulence; abuse; tyranny; deviancy; and illegality.

And, though there is little literature on the subject, the first national online survey of workplace bullying in schools, conducted in 2011, found that it was pervasive and often perpetrated by executive leaders.

“It is singularly disturbing that one of the so-called ‘caring’ professions should yield findings so at odds with the philosophies and practices it seeks to instil in the young,” the authors write in the paper.

What makes destructive leadership in schools possible? 

The authors identified three factors that permit destructive leadership:

  1. The hierarchical organisation of schools and the prevailing power relations in favour of those in authority
  2. The personality dispositions of some leaders, exhibiting characteristics associated with negative traits such as narcissism, psychopathy or Machiavellianism
  3. The nature of relationships between leaders and followers and the sociological and psychological susceptibility of some subordinates to the behaviours and actions of the leader

The ripple effect of destructive leadership

Like ripples caused by casting a stone into a lake, the effects of a destructive school leader radiate outwards, the authors argue. 

“Destructive leadership triggers changes in individuals, ranging from loss of identity and ill-health, to experiences of social isolation, alienation or humiliation at the hands of others caught up in the destructive dynamic.

“As a result, individuals and schools fail to flourish or serve the best interests of their students.”

Not all is destroyed

Despite arguing that destructive leadership counters the commonly cited goal of education – high performance centred on moral purpose – the authors see value in learning from it.

“There can be personal and organisational learning from negative experience,” they wrote in the paper.

“Given the systemic nature of leadership, the responsibly to do so rests with all the players in the system.”

This research did not receive any funding as it formed part of a PhD thesis. 

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