Complexity, purpose and problems in school leadership

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Date published 02 July 2021

Last updated 21 March 2024

Jennifer Barker

Jennifer Barker

Dean of Learning Design

Tom Rees

Tom Rees

Executive Director

In our previous post, we broached the question ‘what is school leadership?’ We established that the concept of leadership in schools is relatively new and that, despite lots of research literature in recent years, it lacks a clear definition. In this second blog in our series, we discuss the complexity in which school leaders operate, the purpose of their work and the problems they are attending to.

“As a leader I have a new mantra: don’t oversimplify the problems; don’t overcomplicate the response.”

- Sallie Stanton - Director of Education, Advantage Schools (2020)

Schools are fascinating and complex places.

The main purpose of school leaders is to enable effective learning to take place. Learning takes places through the work of teachers who, in their classrooms, are attempting to simultaneously influence the activity taking place within thirty brains at any one time. These brains belong to immature humans with varying levels of motivation who are often distracted by a plethora of other things.

It is difficult to know, therefore, whether these efforts in the classroom are successful. Although we have proxies such as assessments and qualifications, these are only indicators as to whether the teaching is leading to learning and beyond to better outcomes in life – something that teachers and leaders hope to have impact on.

The complexity of the classroom is multiplied when considering the work of school leaders, whose responsibility extends to multiple classrooms or schools. This means the relationship between school leaders’ actions and their impact is often messy and inconclusive.

For example, May et al (2012) found that principals who spent more time on finance and personnel issues tended to work in schools with higher pupil test scores and that principals who spent relatively more time on planning and setting goals and instructional leadership tended to work in schools with lower scores.

However, the authors reason that this is likely to be because the context drives the work, so leaders in higher performing schools are likely to have more time to devote to matters of finance, and leaders in lower performing schools are likely to have to respond to issues of poorer staff performance. Hence what on paper could be interpreted as a causal relationship between effective leader performance and time spent on finance (over time spent supporting teaching and learning) is actually only a correlation between context and the activities that leaders undertake.


Hawkins and James (2018) argue that schools are ‘complex’ (as opposed to ‘chaotic’, ‘complicated’ or ‘stable’) places. That is, the ‘interactions among [the school’s] constituent parts are such that it cannot be fully understood simply by describing its components’ and that ‘the components interact and are changed by those interactions’ (Hawkins and James, 2018, p730).

Unlike an engine or a production line where a component part can be replaced or altered with a predictable outcome, this complexity means that it is not possible to define set ways in which leaders should operate, because there are various possible consequences arising from one action or set of actions.

We can therefore think of school leadership as a low validity domain, that is, it is difficult to make predictions or ascertain causality within the environment (Kahneman and Klein, 2009).

In practice then, it is important for leaders to be aware of the way in which complexity can manifest itself and to understand more about the underlying problems they are attending to. Matthew Evans (2020) argues in the ResearchED Guide to Leadership that ‘by simplifying, stabilising, ordering and structuring, leaders can work to mitigate the challenges that arise as a result of leading in a complex environment’.

Having established that school leadership is a complex endeavour and can be considered as a low validity domain, there is a risk of being ‘held in stasis by a research gap’ (Sparkes & Thompson, 2020). It is therefore important for us to have a clear understanding of the purpose of school leaders’ work.


Purpose and problems

By looking at and understanding the purpose behind the actions school leaders take, it is possible to see school leadership as the process of addressing problems and challenges. This is not a new concept and researchers have used different definitions of ‘problems’ in the literature, such as Wright (2011), who draws upon Rittel and Weber’s (1973) description of ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ problems.

Wright maintains that schools tend to face ‘wicked’ problems because schools themselves are ‘complex adaptive systems’, defined by Plsek and Greenhalgh (2001) as a ‘collection of individual agents with freedom to act in ways that are not always totally predictable, and whose actions are interconnected so that one agent’s actions change the context for other agents’.

Problems need to meet certain criteria to be described as ‘wicked’ (Gilbride, 2018). However, pupil underachievement is a good example: it is difficult to consistently define, has no consensus as to its cause and has no immediate or agreed-upon ‘right’ way to completely solve it..

Leithwood et al (1994) constructed a different model of leadership as a process addressing problems, distinguishing between what they term ‘high-ground’ (routine) and ‘swampy’ (non-routine) problems. They argue that where a problem’s ‘givens, goals and obstacles’ are less clear for school leaders, the problems become ‘increasingly swampy’ (p42). Leithwood et al (1994) maintain that the way in which a problem is defined may be different for different people, and one leader’s swampy problem maybe ‘another’s dancefloor’ (p44), but ultimately that swampy problems – like wicked ones – are difficult to solve, time consuming and expensive to address.

There are two important considerations when using the word problem to describe the work of school leaders.

First, we know the word has negative connotations and this is not how we intend for it to be viewed. Instead we draw upon Thomas Nickles’ (1981) definition: ‘the demand that a goal be achieved, plus constraints on the manner in which it is achieved’ (p111). Crucially, in this definition, the problem is firmly rooted in the work that needs doing rather than relating to more superficial conceptions of leadership including processes, personality, persuasion, power and influence.

Secondly, a focus on problems might also lead us to think generic problem-solving skills should be prioritised to improve leadership. However, researchers find that to understand and solve problems, large amounts of knowledge of the specific domain in which you work is required (Willingham, 2008).

A focus on the domain-specific knowledge required by school leaders has been an unfashionable idea but one we think deserves a more prominent place in the discourse and particularly when thinking about designing leadership development. Orthodox conceptions of school leadership and approaches to leadership development over the last twenty years have been largely rooted in transformational leadership theory and ‘generic leadership’ approaches, often borrowed from sport, business or popular leadership literature.

In our next post, we’ll explore this debate between generic and domain-specific approaches to leadership and the concept of role-specific expertise as a starting point for the professional development of school leaders.


Evans, M. (2020) Surviving and thriving in uncertainty. In Lock, S. ed., (2020). The ResearchED Guide to Leadership: An evidence-informed guide for teachers. John Catt.

Gilbride, N. (2018) The Relevance of Domain-General and Domain-Specific Skills for Educational Leadership. Unpublished Paper.

Hawkins, M., James, C., (2018) ‘Developing a perspective on schools as complex, evolving, loosely linking systems.’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership. London, England: SAGE Publications, 46(5) pp. 729–748.

Kahneman, D., Klein, G. and Kahneman, D. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. The American psychologist, 64(6), pp.515–526. [online]. Available from:

Leithwood, K., Begley, P., and Cousins, J., (1994) Developing expert leadership for future schools. London: Falmer Press.

May, H., Huff, J., & Goldring, E., (2012) A longitudinal study of principals' activities and student performance, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 23:4, 417-439, DOI: 10.1080/09243453.2012.678866

Nickles, T (1981) 'What is a problem that we might solve it?' Synthese, 47, I: 85-1 18.

Plsek P., Greenhalgh T. (2001) The challenge of complexity in health care. British Medical Journal 323, 625–628.

Rittel, H., Webber, M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. [Online] 4 (2), 155–169.

Stanton, S. (2021). A Sisyphean Endeavour: School Complexity and the Problem of Remote Learning. The Dusty Tsundoku. Available at:

Sparkes, L. and Thompson, J. (2020) School Culture. In Lock, S. ed., (2020). The ResearchED Guide to Leadership: An evidence-informed guide for teachers. John Catt.

Willingham, Daniel T (2008) Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Arts Education Policy Review. 109(4) pp. 21–32.

Wright, N. 2011. Between “bastard” and “wicked” leadership? School leadership and the emerging policies of the UK Coalition Government. Journal of educational administration and history, 43(4): 345–362.

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