LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 4 | 2021

Karyn Gray

Collaborative Leadership in Contemporary Settings

Research Report by   Karyn Gray

Karyn Gray is a member of the national NZEALS team. In 2019 she completed a place-based research partially funded by NZEALS Canterbury and in 2020 she completed a Masters in Contemporary Education with a final project on Collaborative Leadership in Contemporary Educational Settings. Brief points of discussion that arose from both these projects are summarised below.

Transformative change will also require transformative leadership.

Our current education system seems so often to celebrate glacial change and sabotage anything that is different. It requires courage to do something off the usual beaten path in anything, and I think particularly in education. And I would add it takes absolute fortitude to stay off that beaten path and not return to it when the doubters and the saboteurs, the confused and the misled all raise their head.

If you have a real commitment to interrogate everything you implement in your school and ensure that it meets a need for learners and their new world and their futures, then you are committed to not just easily implementing things that have worked somewhere in the past for some learners. And you have to accept this is going to take time as you figure out the difference between an old best practice and the next practice our current learners need.

You also have to accept that to do some new things you have to give people permission to stop doing some of the old things. Ian Jukes says, “We can’t just continue to make incremental improvement to the current education system in a time of exponential change and hope that somehow this will make it work in this new century.”

A collective leadership approach takes more time but goes deeper and is more sustainable.

Collaboration is not just about creating a place where people feel good, or about divvying up the jobs according to a list of portfolios and sending people off on their own way, but rather about cultivating the expertise of everyone to be focussed on and all contributing to a collective purpose across portfolios.

While there has been considerable investment into the development of collaborative practice in our teaching teams, often what has been missed are the opportunities for collaborative leading. We are putting collaborative teaching teams together and still using traditional models of leadership - team leaders in primary settings having leadership over other teachers teaching the same year level, or heads of departments in secondary settings having leadership over the other teachers who teach the same subject, and Deputies and Assistant Principals ‘above’ them with portfolio type responsibilities.

If we truly want to transform the learning experience in schools then as well as redesigning the teaching practices of our teachers using collaborative practice as one of the tools, we need to look at some radically different models of leadership as well. Models that will truly allow us to lead a transformative change in the ways our schools run and offer learning.

We know cooperation is important. It is when we share information or resources to support each other.

Collaboration, however, is working together to create something new in order to support a shared vision of something we couldn’t create alone or by ourselves.

Collaborative leaders cannot be heroic. Collaborative leaders need to move from being good at their art to good at growing others.

While being a heroic leader can work in a traditional setting, in a contemporary setting where it is vital to inspire and empower innovation, leaders having the skill and knowledge and relying on this, or wanting it emphasized is not as effective. "The applied talents of one person are, of course, less than the collective talents of the many. But heroic systems generally fail to understand this. In the end they become self-defeating because the more heroic they are, the more they increase the gap between dependency and empowerment.” (Ings, 2017)

One of the most important things our senior leaders need to do is to coach our middle leaders in ways that allow them to see the importance of growing other skills and ability and opportunities to lead rather than holding into those opportunities themselves. This became clearer and clearer in the observations relating to the research I was doing. “In a daring leadership role, it’s time to lift up our teams and help them shine. This is one of the most difficult hurdles of advancement, particularly for those of us who are used to hustling, or don’t know exactly where we contribute value once the areas where we contributed value before are delegated to those coming up behind us.” (Brown, 2018)

To have a team of people collectively leading together takes immense time and a willingness to put the greater good ahead of personal passions. Having open communication systems that allow for rigorous discussion, not just social niceties is vital. “Collaborative teams typically make progress not by carefully executing an excellent plan to achieve agreed objectives, but by acting and learning from this acting. In stretch collaboration, therefore, we advance through processes that are primarily emergent rather than deliberate.” (Kahane, 2017)

Leadership is about gathering people together

— even people with quite different goals and understandings—and helping them build bridges that take everyone to a new place. Leadership is really about taking people and ideas to new places. Understanding other people’s perspectives is a central tool in bridge building, because until you know how others see the world, you’ll have little opportunity to influence or learn from their perspective. Putting a team of leaders together to lead takes huge courage, both on the part of the leaders involved, and those overseeing them. There is a real need to provide team development support as well as individual coaching of leadership. The outcomes a team of leaders truly collaborating together can far outweigh hat can be achieved if those leaders all work separately on their own portfolios and report back to each other. However, to work collaboratively needs carefully created conditions that are continually co constructed and evolved together. Collaborative leadership can go wrong quite quickly, and conditions need to be nurtured by all involved to maximize the benefits.


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York, NY: Random House.

Ings, W. (2017). Disobedient teaching: Surviving and creating change in education. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Kahane, A., & Barnum, J. (2017). Collaborating with the enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.