How can a School Decolonise its Leadership?

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The skills of leading in a multicultural environment are different to those in more monocultural environments because of the additional complexity brought about by cultural differences. In International schools in Africa, where a range of cultures tend to populate the staff rooms, Headteachers need to take this into account if they are to lead effectively. By modifying their own leadership style to suit their environment, they not only show great leadership but also are far more likely to succeed in their leadership objectives.

Why is it that some seemingly excellent Headteachers, with good track records in their countries of origin, arrive in Africa to lead well established International Schools and find it difficult to lead them effectively, whereas others can lead very effectively? The answer to this is that effective leadership in multicultural contexts needs to take into account far more complex dynamics than curriculum, structures and processes; effective leadership needs to focus predominantly on people, and be deeply contextualised. In International schools, more often than not, staff teams tend to comprise an eclectic mix of nationalities and cultures, each with its own expectation of how a good leader looks and behaves.

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For example, many European cultures are accustomed to leaders being pragmatic, practical and results focussed. In other words, leaders in European countries know what needs to be done. They are focused on the pathway to achieving results and know how to tread the way in an efficient and effective way. Their teams understand this and follow because they can also see where they need to get to and rely on their leader to direct and guide them to the end. Leadership in a European context tends to be based on logic and practicality, and because of this, processes and systems are central to the process of leadership. Where the upside of this leadership approach is the attainment of results, the downside is that teams or individuals may become disenfranchised if they cannot keep up. 

Many African cultures, on the other hand, demand that their leaders are human-focussed and consultative, presenting a more ‘human’ side to leadership. In African teams everybody has a voice, regardless of level of seniority, and consensus is an important part of decision making. Processes and systems do exist but they are of secondary importance to how the team feels, and as a result they are not seen as central to leadership in an organisation, rather as something that is there by necessity. It could be said that in Africa, outcomes are less of a focus compared to the ‘journey’ in getting there. The outcome is almost a byproduct of the process. This leadership has positives insofar as people feel valued. The flip side of this is, however, that it can mean that a team finds it difficult to progress and achieve good results. 

These two, sometimes conflicting, leadership approaches point to the need for leaders to decolonise their approach to leadership should they be taking on a leadership role in a multicultural environment. By developing a leadership style that hybridises their own experiences with the experiences of their teams, they are far more likely to meet the needs of their teams at the same time as attaining the results they are seeking for their teams. But unless International school Heads actively embark on a process of listening, researching and understanding the culture and expectations of their new teams, and follow this with careful development and implementation of a new, hybridised leadership style that will contextually suit their schools, the schools themselves will continue to be puzzled as to why exceptional Heads appear to struggle when faced with the cultural complexities of a new leadership environment.

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