The ripple effect of toxic leadership in education settings: New analysis from USyd
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The ripple effect of toxic leadership in education settings: New analysis from USyd

by Freya Lucas

September 13, 2019

New analysis conducted by leading Australian education experts, including those from the University of Sydney (USyd) has explored the dark side of leadership in school based systems. 


With many early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings being associated with school systems, and with an increasing number of independent schools incorporating early learning arms into their settings, the findings will be of interest to the broader early learning sector. 


In the new International Journal of Leadership in Education paper, Dr 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 education 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 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 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 children.”


Learning from experience 


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.”


To review the findings in full, please see here.

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