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date: 19 December 2018

Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism in Educational Leadership

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

Leadership has received unprecedented attention in the educational leadership literature. With only a few skeptics rolling their eyes, the importance of leaders in educational reform and school improvement now goes uncontested while the search for effective leadership—the Holy Grail of educational effectiveness and improvement—continues. That leaders, motivated by moral purpose, bring about change uplifting “failing” schools is the common perception. Apart from an exceptionally small number of studies, educational leadership research has generally focused on effective leadership, the implicit assumption being that leadership, by default, is positive and leaders are always well-intended, even if not always highly effective in the execution of their responsibilities. Destructive forms of leadership that would eventually harm followers or the organization have been virtually neglected. Regardless of the silence on the dark side of leadership, however, a limited number of studies, mainly from the business field and, to a much lesser extent, from the public sector and schooling, suggest that negative or even destructive forms of leadership may be more widespread than is popularly perceived. Recent portrayals of contemporary educational leadership suggest that the field needs to be re-conceptualized and re-calibrated in ways that acknowledge, rather than ignore, leaders’ frailties and the use and abuse of power by leaders with darker dispositions. This review of the leadership literature needs to find a new settlement, a rapprochement between the positives and the negatives, the transformative and the destructive as a means of recapitulating the field with more wide-eyed and real-world characteristics and achievements, where leaders and followers alike can survive and thrive while engaged in leadership praxis for everyday life and work.