What is Leadership in K-12 Schools?

David M. Boje
April 4, 2017

I theorize that K-12 leadership is enmeshed in the encompassing superstructure system and its base. There is disagreement does the base or the superstructure most constrain K-12 leadership options, rendering it more conformity to external control and embedded sociopolitical and socioecoomic relationships of school to society.

A student in our ‘Leadership in Society’ course (Mgt 388v) asked for help yesterday. His’ team’s term project, a co-facilitation of a two and a half hour session on leadership in K-12 is happening tomorrow (April 5, 2017).

I am writing a reply. ‘I don’t think the in-the-box (traditional) leadership theories will be of any help to you.’ You will need to go out-of-the-box into ‘leadership is theater’ (our theme this term).

Start with something simple like a YouTube clip from a couple of these: Breakfast Club, Dazed & Confused, Mean Girls, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Grease, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Creek, Stand by Me, and so on. This could set the stage for a Boalian ‘Forum Theater’ interactive event, where you have the varied K-12 student groupings discourse on leadership in the school.

I would preface it with some slides showing how Leadership in K-12 is unthinkable, unspeakable, and unstoryable. Why? Because all the Breakfast Club social structure is encompassed by a wider Superstructure where ‘all resistance is futile’ because there is what Mary Parker Follett (1949/1987: 57) calls the ‘invisible leader’ she calls the ‘law of the situation’ (p. 47) would be the answer to how one leads, K-12. A pioneering and quite original system thinker, Follett held that letting the ‘law of lead by leaders facilitation and doing participative inquiry into the ‘situation’ at hand, and how it is unfolding, was a means of connecting to a [invisible leader] specter (a ghost) called Follett called the ‘invisible leader.’ It is not a flesh and blood leader, not corporeal, yet it does manifest in K-12. What is the ‘law of the situation’ and this ‘invisible leader’ specter that a K-12 positional leader (such as principle or PTA chairperson, or a teacher’s union) would gather participants to investigate the situation dynamics, and then in participative togetherness generate a possible course of action? For more on ‘invisible leader’ see:
David M. Boje, Ph.D. 9:53 am on February 25, 2017
How to develop a University of the Future at New Mexico State University?

What is the Situation of K-12? Karl Marx would have several answers. “Nature of man’s totality of social relations” (Marx’s 1845/1967 6th Thesis on Feuerbach, as cited in Bannet, 1993: 9). It also contained the “epigrammatic 11th thesis and final line”: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” A related answer, the Law of the Situation, for Marx, is the Superstructure.

Develop a slide or two to show that a K-12 leader is not autonomous, and is conforming, adapting, constrained, and totally answerable to superstructure of social relations, political relations, the Superintendent of Schools, the School Board, the Parents Teachers Association (PTA), the union of janitorial workers, the union of food handlers, the nutritionist, and State Department of Education, ‘No Child Left Behind’ (some call it Every Child Left Behind in an obsession for testing over everything else), the National Education Association (NEA), and to that new Department of Education head, Betsy Devos who favors school choice, and her opposition Matthew 25 Declaration on Public Education (‘Universal public education is a critical pathway’ to justice and equity). In New Mexico, the superstructure includes the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of high quality-standards in mathematics, English language arts (ELA), including reading and writing standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects.

I would like to see a slide of K-12 Leadership in a Downward Spiral Vortex of great Turbulence, over a great abyss. K-12 envelops everything in society: art, science, math, reading, business, letters, sports, and so on in a swirling spiral whorls of socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and socialmaterial expectations that attempts to ameliorate classism, racism, sexism, poverty, bureaupathology, science, humanities, history, algebra, coming of age, anti-bullying, and fascism in a place, time, and mattering (spacetimemattering) called K-12.

World-Making The K-12 leader is in the midst of making possible worlds of K-12 in the downward spiraling situation, and that is what the invisible leader (specter) the ghost in the superstructure of K-12 is all about. You see all those constituents from the School board, PTA, the CCSS, and so on are all matting different ‘possible worlds’ quite different from the ‘actual world’ of K-12. It’s kind of like merging Breakfast Club with Stand and Deliver and expecting Sixteen Candles to have a happy ending. It’s not going to work. There are too many dialectical contradictions in both thesis and antithesis for any happy ending. Yet, the K-12 leaders and their higher ups, do put out these master narratives about ‘No Child Left Behind’ and the importance of standardized testing and more testing, and every school teaching the same grade-level lesson plan across the state. There are just way too many entanglements for a school elader to do much else than fall prey to one hegemony and counterhegemony ideology after another. Consensus is futile. How do you get consensus form school choice and strong public school advocates? Impossible! What exists in K-12 is the eternal struggles, endless oppositions between fictional ‘possible worlds’ and the ‘actual world’, and that dialectic is the Law of the Situation, the Superstructure that permeates and interpenetrates K-12.

I student master narratives and counternarratives, how they constrain, truncate, emasculate the living story lives, rendering them into untold stories of participants, including leaders, students, parents, janitors, nutritionists, nurses, and so on of K-12 worlds.

How does a leader turn impossibilities into possible world? It is done by “world-making” leaders who can facilitate joint inquiry, co-operation among difference, integrative unity of differences, while respecting differences (Bannet, 1993: 153).

Verisimilitude in the performance of K-12 leadership means finding authenticity, credibility, and believability in the performance or ‘world-making’.

My suggest is to discuss leaders in their ‘world-making’ theatrical performance, how the varied different possible worlds of various stakeholders and the actual world are dialectical. Of course, there are many kinds of dialectical models to choose from.

School Leadership Project that Make Changes to Society
Choose A, B. or C.
A – Aristotelian Dialectic Theater – Political Coercion of Spectators by Tragic Catharsis of Pity & Fear empathy for [VIllan] Actors. Spectator delegrates POWER to the Actors on stage, who controls by catharsis of Pity & Fear, coercing them into submission and passivity (Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, pp. 119). In Aristotelian dialectic, the plays on stage coerce the sudience by pity and fear to have a moral compass, or face tragic reversal of fortune.
B – Hegelian Spirit of Dialectic Theater of spirit-conscience manifests in thought, then transforming materiality of Action-Habit-Character-Destiny into Romanitic resolution of contradiction, but more contradiction breask through in both thesis and antithesis. What is dialectic between spirituality, and its manifestation in society. For Hegel, Spirit materialized in society.
C – Marxist/Boalian theater of the oppressed by material conditions, no thought and no Spirit involved. Spectator does NOT delegate power to actors on stage (hero or villan), rather audience is placed in protagonist role by Joker. For Marx, Spirit does not matter. choose 1
Image Theater
Show the parts of above skit acts, and have Joker STOP ACTION to get audience commentary, and Joker can interview audience members on both sides of the issue (or not).
Invisible Theater
Show the act of don’t care about spiritual leadership from one or more spiritual traditions. Joker does STOP ACTION, to get some interviews with spectators.
Forum Theater
choose 1
Image Theater
Show the parts of above skit acts, and have Joker STOP ACTION to get audience commentary, and Joker can interview audience members on both sides of the issue (or not).

Dialectics is all about the contradictions in the con-texts that is the Situation of the K-12. Consider New Mexico, the state with poorest children, and 2nd poorest families in the entire United States, with a governor that signed the no taxes agreement. In a state where gas and oil severance taxes are no longer sufficient to finance K-12, and all the bail out bills of the state legislature vetoed, the K-12 leader has to raise their own revenue, cut positions, cut programs, do away with extracurricular affairs, but still meet the CCSS outcomes metrics, keep the students taking test after test, keep the teachers doing their lesson plans, keep the janitors working, and so on.

I would suggest getting the untold stories told, the stories people have not thought to tell, or are afraid to tell, or do not give themselves permission to tell – about middle school worlds. I visited a Las Cruces middle school last week, and the lunchroom had a sign, that read “Live Above the Influence … Don’t Bully. Bullying is a crime. “Six out of ten American teenagers witness bullying in school at least onece a day.”

I hope this is helpful.

David Boje


Bannet, E. (1993). Postcultural theory: critical theory after the Marxist paradigm. NY/NY: Paragon House Publisher.

Follett, M.P. (1949/1987) ‘The Essentials of Leadership’, in L. Urwick (ed.) Freedom and Co-ordination: Lectures in Business Organization, New York: Garland Publishing.

Marx, K. (1845/1967). Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach. The German Ideology, International Publishers, chapter one. Written in 1845 first published in 1888 in pamphlet by Engels.