Tuesday / June 18

Dysfunctional Leadership

The following is an excerpt from “Leadership: Circles of Trust” by Pam Ryan. To download the full white paper and others in the Corwin Educator Series, click here 

We have a good sense of what leadership is supposed to be and of the importance of trust to effective leadership. The literature often promotes “transformational,” “participative,” “authentic,” and other related conceptions of leadership. Whether in education or in other fields, the image is of leaders behaving ethically to serve some greater good. Yet there are infamous historical, political, and industry examples of leaders who have exerted strong influence with great clarity of purpose but whose leadership could not be described as “good” (Kellerman, 2004; Lipman-Blumen, 2005). Sit around the dinner table, listen in staffrooms, circulate in corridors, and you will hear of very different approaches and outcomes from those advocated in the literature.  

Your personal experience might even be a case in point. 

We can ignore such experiences and concentrate on elaborating the noble image or we can take an alternative view and use the negative examples to gain a more rounded perspective.  

An analogy comes from medical research where pathology is studied in order to improve health outcomes and promote wellness. If researchers had not acknowledged and studied the process and effects of smoking on the body, for example, then we would have continued in ignorance, rewarding wartime troops with free cigarettes. Negative presentations of a phenomenon can prove instructive and lead to pursuing healthier outcomes with greater clarity and rigor. 

The research I conducted was designed to explore such negative experiences in schools to see what they might tell us about educational leadership. An empirical study seemed the best way to tap into the richness of people’s stories and the implications for models of leadership. The research involved interviewing 15 educators who had previous first-hand experience of leaders whom they considered to lead with destructive consequences—either for them and/or for their school. 

In my research, the aim was to understand leadership not only by what is similar but also different in the way it is exercised and experienced. I used a research method originating in education called phenomenography (Bowden & Walsh, 2000; Marton, 1988). Through my participants’ stories I wanted to understand the variations, good and bad, and why, despite all the rhetoric, writings, and training, there can still be numerous examples of poorly executed school leadership, evidence of skepticism, and indications of distrust. 

Some participant’s stories told of more indirect conflict with a leader. These stories were about other people contributing to an issue either through their active participation or through their silence. It is evidence of a deeper and wider dysfunction, a contagion that enmeshes others, with the potential to lead to more profound personal damage. 

Here’s one story I heard during my research. 


I remember I was up at Blackwell Bay for a conference and Carrie [support officer] was there, and I was trying to get to talk to Carrie, and he [the supervisor] was following me around. I said to her, “Look, I can’t talk to you.” The only chance I got was just before she was about to leave and there wasn’t enough time.  

…months later I said to one of [the other principals], “Who’s going to be the next one?” 

She said, “We all knew. We just had to keep a distance.”

Although not intended to be so, the silence of the bystanders is complicit. Doing nothing is not doing nothing—it is strengthening the negative culture, emboldening the perpetrator and isolating the victim. Terry’s hurt is an outcome of the conflict with a leader but also of the inaction of colleagues. 

The stories I heard during my research tell their different versions of what it is to confront dysfunctional leadership. The lived experience has much to say about the nature of leadership more generally and the ways in which people’s personal and professional lives are affected by the actions and behaviors of leaders. Although they are disquieting and may disturb our preferred conceptions of the nature of leadership, they are very real and telling. There are multiple messages, but the core is the centrality of trust, in ourselves, in others and in the wider system. 

To read more from “Leadership: Circles of Trust” and other white papers in the Corwin Educator Series, click here 

Written by

Dr. Pam Ryan is an educator who consults in Australia and internationally on leadership and school and system transformation. Having previously been Industry Professor (Learning and Education) in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Pam is now Adjunct Professor there. Previously Pam spent 10 years as secondary principal and 11 years as an Education Director in NSW and Hong Kong. Pam has authored: Leadership in Education: Learning from Experience (2015); Wise Heads Wise Hearts (2016), and Action and Reflection Tools for Busy School Leaders (2017).

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