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Leadership Challenges as Tensions


This article is Part 8 of an 11 part series of reflections on Patrick Duignan's book, "Educational Leadership".


Many of the challenges facing educational leaders involve situations where values and ethics are contested. These challenges are multi-dimensional and involve complex human behaviour, as well as different expectations and possibly different values from different stakeholders who may be culturally diverse. 


The challenge in ethical analysis is that it involves values, choices, dilemmas and grey areas. At times the challenge may involve two ‘good’ choices or even two ‘wrongs’ where whatever is decided will have unwelcome consequences. Such decisions require courage and a degree of emotional intelligence and they may test the leader’s character. Duignan suggests that such complexity is better dealt with using both/and thinking as it can rarely be resolved using a logical and linear process or either/or thinking. He notes that at times, all that can be done is to use one’s best judgment (Duignan, 2012, 96,98).


Duignan notes that while rules and policies provide frameworks and guidelines for leaders it is not helpful to follow them legalistically. He suggests that it may be helpful for leaders to map complex situations that involve tensions against frameworks that help them make sense of the complexity (Duignan, 2012, p. 74) (The suggested framework is noted below) while holding to the benchmark that all decisions should be made ‘in best interests of the student’. (Patrick Duignan 2012, p. 63)


During analysis of a challenge Duignan suggests that leaders should look for relationships and complementarity rather than polar-opposites and appreciate that the complex nature of discussions in these situations may create and invite possibilities and opportunities for dialogue and the promotion of harmony (Duignan, 2012, 77-81, 88-89).


Leaders are themselves also on a journey and must continue to develop their own moral compass to become more morally literate. They should intentionally operate in the moral sphere in order to transform their values into guides for appropriate action while working collaboratively to generate a culture that does not tolerate ethical blind spots and that encourages all stakeholders to have a clear moral compass and to commit to moral agency.


At the end of every decision leaders need to be able to give sound reasons for and defend their decisions in public (Duignan, 2012, pp. 73–74).


A suggested framework for framing tensions and looking for complementarity.


1. Individual good and Common good

2. Care and Rules

3. Loyalty and Honesty

4. Long-term and Short-term outcomes/consequences

5. Service and Economic rationalism

6. Status-quo and Change and development

(Duignan, 2012, p. 84)


Some practical advice from Duignan:

A decision based on false or unsubstantiated information is not going to be a wise one so know the facts of the situation, enter into open discussion with the stakeholders, listen sympathetically and suspend your own judgments until all significant facts are known (Duignan, 2012, 77-81, 88-89).



1. there is no best way

2. care and emotional intelligence need to be used

3. leaders must be true to themselves and their values

4. deal with difficult situations sooner rather than later

5. the common good must also be considered

6. consider what you believe is 'right and good'

7. moral courage is needed when the going gets tough

8. no two decisions will be the same

9. those implementing the decisions must have input into them

10. leaders must speak up against injustice

11. leaders should 'bite the bullet’ with ineffective staff and directly address the problem

12. walk the talk

13. trust the basic goodness of people

14. be able to give sound reasons for and defend your decisions in public 

(Duignan, 2012, pp. 73–74)


Publication Bibliography

Duignan, P (Unpublished). Leadership Presence and Influence Relationships: building collective efficacy and professional responsibility for quality learning and teaching in schools.

Duignan, P. (2012). Educational Leadership (2nd ed). Melbourne, NSW: Cambridge University Press.


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