Niesche R (2014): Deconstructing Educational Leadership: Derrida and Lyotard London. Routledge

Number of pages: 144

‘Leadership is more than an event’ (p58)

Deconstructing Educational Leadership is an apt title for a book that takes two leading philosophers and critical thinkers to review education leadership. The book is part of a series in Critical Studies in Educational Leadership, Management and Administration (ELMA). A post-doctoral student, and former teacher now a university lecturer in Australia is the main author with contributions from another doctoral student References to two other countries ensure the book offers a comparative dimension.

The book is structured in seven chapters and in the words of the author’ is intended to unsettle and ask deep questions about doing leadership’ (page 98). The underlying concern is that education leadership is at a point where various governments have introduced school accountabilities that demand new conditions for school leadership within a complex environment. This has led to a different work and role intensification with a relentless attachment on leadership standards and competency frameworks as a panacea to solve all education problems. It notes that ‘Closing the Gap’, ‘Every Child Matters’ and ‘No Child Left Behind’ strategies have not solved the social injustice and equity issues found in education systems across the world.

The author, like many other academics, is critical of the shift in education towards neoliberal education and the rationalist and conservative ELMA discourse.

What is called for, according to Niesche, is a different set of tools, resources, questions. By creating competency frameworks we are reducing it to an event rather than something that is organic and evolutionary according to the context the leaders are working within. In the words of Gosling ‘ At best a competency framework will only ever be a simple representation of a highly complex and changing landscape’ (2006:158).

Neische introduces us to the concept of Transnational Leadership Packages (TLP), an industry created to support leadership development prior to ELMA and for a different purpose but repackaged for the current market.

Leadership is not a matter of the absolute eyewitness, but a matter of the future’ (Lyotard,1988:55)

So how can we conceptualise leadership and capture what is the essence of good leadership? The author uses the work of Jacques Derrida and Jean Francois Lyotard to do so. Both give a post structuralist dimension and offer different tools to critique discourses about educational leadership, standards, leaders and followers.

Whilst Derrida and Lyotard do not explicitly focus on education in their writing we can learn from their approach. Both bring, what Niesche calls, ‘performative turn’ with their philosophical approach by using ‘language games’ ‘phrasing’, and deconstructing techniques to open spaces for new discourses to take place.

The first few chapters go through the merits of using Derrida and Lyotard which leads to Chapter 4 which takes a very practical stance around managing performance using the implementation of the English ‘Healthy Eating’ programme through a one school case study. One conclusion, it is more like performative rationality at work, perhaps something unpleasant to digest but needs to be deeply questioned. Another gem to stir debate from this chapter is that some distributed leadership systems are more about delegation than democratisation.

In chapter 5, Neische uses Derrida’s philosophy to challenge one of the unquestioned and taken for granted assumptions, namely the leader follower hierarchy. The leader-follower binary in ELMA is fully deconstructed with the conclusion that the leader-follower duality is a form of logocentrism.

Taking a realistic approach the author finishes the book with a chapter about the limitations and critiques of Derrida and Lyotard.

‘Leadership itself does not exist as a fixed, stagnate and observable concept’

The context of the book resonated with me in terms of governments looking how best to support leadership in the existing system. I would thoroughly recommend reading this book it is refreshingly different and a challenging read but one suitable for any postgraduate programme. It has the potential to radically change things if government ministers, local politicians and headteachers became acquainted with the debate. However, solutions are not given only an approach that will help to question before constructing a different future for our schools and school leaders. It suggests before action we should ask ‘How can Lyotard or Derrida contribute to the debate?’ (p.39).

Bolden, R. and Gosling, J. (2006) Leadership competencies: Time of Change the tune? Leadership, 2 (2): 147 – 163.

Lyotard, J.F. (1988) The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

leadership, accountability, performativity, Every Child Matters, closing the gap

Dr Coleen R Jackson
Consultant Principal, Waverley Abbey College