In New Zealand, the majority of schools are still led in a familiar top-down format that we have known since the last century. A positive is that a growing number of schools are shifting to a more appropriate 21st-century collaborative model. Thursday, 21st October 2021 became what economists call a natural experiment in the success and failure of those two existing leadership models in New Zealand schools. It started on the previous Wednesday afternoon when the government made a surprising announcement that senior students could return to school the following Tuesday while still under New Zealand Level Three COVID restrictions that would normally have the schools essentially closed. This sent the New Zealand education community into a dizzying panic, particularly as it seemed they were making this decision solely for the sake of end-of-year exams. Immediately the schools’ leadership cultures sprung into action. Watching all the chatter online in various New Zealand teaching circles, the media reports, and the chatter and concerns being expressed within my school and my wife’s, I could see two distinctly different stories being played out.
In simple terms, we saw success where there was a 21st-century collaborative leadership model to a complex problem, and stress, concern, and failure where there was a top-down 20th-century model applied.
Stories were played out very visibly and displayed not only the mindsets in school leaders but the very different human experiences that the two leadership models create.
How to fail: 20th-century style
In the old top-down model, some schools in New Zealand naturally made Thursday morning the moment for a senior leadership meeting. In this meeting, it was understood by the participants that they were paid to make the decisions and so between them decided how the school would react and what processes would be put in place including how the middle leaders, the teachers, and the community would be informed about those decisions.
This approach found immediate problems as it went down the hierarchy. The middle leaders met later that day and were informed of the decisions that the senior leaders had made at which point extra information, concerns, and questions were put forward to the senior leaders. The problem here was that these new ideas and concerns challenged the decisions that had already been made, and senior leaders were at pains to justify the decisions they apparently were paid to make in light of these new…