Equitable leadership: A contradiction in terms?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

James Ryan, OISE/University of Toronto 
Guest Contributor

Only recently has leadership been associated with equity and social justice.  Even so, some observers continue to be skeptical about the potential of leadership practice to advance the cause of equity and democracy in schools, colleges and universities and the communities that they serve. A few scholars, such as Kathryn Riley and Robert J. Starratt go so far as to claim that the term equitable or democratic leadership is an oxymoron.  These scholars have a legitimate case, particularly given the history and current use of the term. To date the prevalent way in which leadership has been perceived, conceived and practiced has not always been consistent with the principles of equity or democracy.

The dominant view of leadership as a generic, individualistic and hierarchical practice that strives to “build capacity” or focus on effectiveness or efficiency does little to advance the equitable inclusion of everyone in the cultural, institutional and economic lives of schools, universities and communities. If educators and those who are involved in leadership activities are serious about promoting equity in their institutions and communities, then they need to make the effort to understand the consequences of adopting various approaches to leadership. In particular, they will need to comprehend the genesis of the term, its connection to power, and its moral basis in ways that will enable them to work for the wellbeing of all students and colleagues.

Leadership is a term invented by scholars and others interested in institutional life to help them understand and prescribe what goes on in organizations and communities.  Over the last few decades, however, the term leadership has been increasingly associated with individuals in positions of legal responsibility.

Even though leadership continues to be a contested term, it is now more often than not identified with individuals in authority, like school principals, or chairs, deans and presidents of colleges and universities. But investing so much with individual people – as opposed to collectivities – may not be consistent with equity ideals.  Among other things, it leaves those outside this particular leadership perimeter with fewer opportunities to influence the course of events in their institutions.

Fortunately, there are other perspectives on leadership that align more closely with equity principles. Democratic, social justice and inclusive leadership perspectives, for example, need not be associated with administrative positions or even individuals at all.  One such perspective acknowledges that anyone can be a leader – not just those who are appointed to administrative positions.  Other outlooks go even further. They see leadership as something that transcends individuals or groups of individuals – as a process or as sets of relationships. By not confining leadership to particular individuals, these latter perspectives honor equity principles by allowing so-called leadership responsibilities to be shared with a wider community than individualistic and positional perspectives would acknowledge or endorse.

This brings us to another key leadership element: power. Most leadership scholars acknowledge that leadership involves some sort of influence, but few actually come out and call it power. Whether or not it is actually identified as such, power is evident in the relationships among members of organizations; it flows through institutional positions, skill sets and knowledge, and concerted group efforts. Those who assume administrative positions, possess valued skills, or are members of particular groups can employ this hierarchical power. But using such power in this manner may not always be consistent with equity principles. Leadership associated with more traditional hierarchies of power will not always mirror these ideals because it can routinely exclude those in less powerful positions from various institutional exercises like, for example, decision making, or in more extreme scenarios, render already marginalized members powerless.

Perhaps the most exclusive or inequitable potential arises when leadership rests with individuals who have hierarchical power over others.  But leadership need not be seen as exclusively operating in a hierarchical manner in a zero-sum power universe. Leadership can also be organized in non-hierarchical manner, along horizontal or “heterarchical”  lines that make it possible for all organization or community members to have a meaningful impact on what happens without being subject to the whims of more powerful individuals and groups.

Leadership is also a moral undertaking.  The moral component of leadership enterprises emerges not just in the process itself, that is, in the way in which leadership activities are organized, but also, and just as importantly, in the ends to which leadership activities are directed. Notwithstanding misguided attempts to portray both the study and practice of leadership and administration as a value-free endeavor, students of leadership need to understand that value judgments pervade decisions about what issues are pursued, just as they are part of establishing who will be part of the decision-making process and how they will be involved. The ends, for which leadership activities are geared, however, may not always be consistent with equity. Take the case of standardized tests in schools. Considerable leadership activity these days revolves around efforts to increase scores on such tests. Abundant evidence suggests, however, that such tests violate equity principles, given that practices associated with these ends routinely compromise the learning of already-marginalized students. For leadership to work for equity, it actually has to be geared towards the promotion of equity, and practices that consistently marginalize particular groups of students will not achieve such an end.

If those involved in leadership activities are to promote equity then they will need to help members of their school, college and university communities acknowledge, understand and do something about the inequities – many of which revolve around gender, race and class relationships – which students and their parents encounter.

Dr. James Ryan is a professor in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies  and co-director of the Centre for Leadership and Diversity at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). 


Equity Matters