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Even More Leadership? A time to reflect

Helen Gunter, Professor Emerita at University of Manchester

In 2005 I gave my inaugural lecture entitled More Leadership. Having now taken early retirement (to get on with my work), my professor emerita lecture reviews these ideas under the title Even More Leadership?

I took up my post as professor of education policy in 2004 in the midst of a huge investment by the UK government in school leaders and leadership in England. Based on my extensive research, I formed the view that what was being promoted as ‘educational leadership’ was not educative, was not about education and had not been developed within education.

To explain my argument, I used three portraits as representations of biographies. First, I used Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Sir Thomas More to examine the idea of belief, where I made the case that ‘educational leadership’ was based on a narrow set of beliefs (see Gunter, 2002), and where debate would reveal knowledge within the established order rather than transform it. Second, I used two visual representations of Sir Isaac Newton: first, a painting by Godfrey Kneller that captures his location in the established order and speaks to ‘educational leadership’ as a product of beliefs; and second, Dali’s sculpture Homage to Newton, whereby his legacy about gravity, time, motion and space has been characterised as Newtonian, and this speaks to ‘educational leadership’ regarding how research is interpreted (and ignored) and how researchers can be simultaneously heroes and villains (see Gunter, 2011). And third, I used a photograph that shows three pictures of Arendt at different ages (photographer unknown) that may illustrate how we as humans change and develop over time, but where Arendt’s thinking about totalitarianism (see Gunter, 2013) speaks to ‘educational leadership’ through recognition of the dangers of combining unchanging beliefs about the established order and selected ‘interpreted’ evidence.

‘Based on my extensive research, I formed the view that what was being promoted as ‘educational leadership’ was not educative, was not about education and had not been developed within education.’


This analysis about the state of the field is deeply rooted in my research career, and while the intellectual history (see Gunter, 2016) of the field was and remains plural in regard to knowledge production within and for educational practice, the reality of what the profession is required to accept is based on narrow beliefs and selected evidence, with totalitarian tendencies. I have recently undertaken a review of the evidence base from my research, where questions continue to be raised about the meaning and practice of ‘educational leadership’ in the BERA Blog. Here I want to consider a few themes in my own work over the past 40 years, where the study of system (see Gunter, 2010) and workforce (see Butt & Gunter, 2007) redesign illustrates the use of leader-centric beliefs about normative charismatic hierarchy interplayed with functional evidence about improvement and effectiveness. This has become a busy site for entrepreneurial activity, whereby the vending of ‘new’ models is connected to how and why schools are being turned into theme parks as I explored in my first journal article on ‘Jurassic Management’, (Gunter, 1995) where leadership may be ‘brutal’ (Courtney & Gunter, 2015) but continues to be made attractive through its ‘luxury’ connotations (Gunter et al., 2018). This has been a significant thread in my work regarding the growth of consultants (see Gunter & Mills, 2017) with fads and fashions (see Gunter & Rayner, 2021) in new and improved practices, and the requirement of the profession to engage by forgetting (see Gunter 2020).

Thinking about data through and with Arendt and Bourdieu as research companions has been an important theme, whereby the intellectual activism necessary for developing actual educational leadership is located deep within the field. A range of important activist work continues within the field, and for me the best contribution to the field of educational leadership is a book edited by John Smyth in 1989 entitled Critical Perspectives on Educational Leadership. This book remains in print and the content by a range of authors remains significant for the field, and where the relationship between intellectual work, practice and change is examined in ways that are enduring and vital. Intellectual activism requires field members in universities, colleges and schools to work within and outside of the library, where what Bourdieu describes as ‘scholarship with commitment’ is crucial for ‘a collective politics of intervention in the political field’ (Bourdieu, 2003: 24). Politics in Arendtian terms is ‘between’ people (Arendt, 2007: 95), and so thinking and action matter within what Arendt identifies as the public realm. Smyth and colleagues enable the field to challenge beliefs, produce and review evidence, and work for inclusive democracy as educative leadership, that is focused on teaching and learning within educational relationships (see Gunter & Courtney, 2020).


Arendt, H. The promise of politics. Penguin.

Bourdieu, P. (2003). Firing back: Against the tyranny of the market. Verso.

Butt, G., & Gunter, H. M. (2007). Modernizing schools: People, learning and organizations. Bloomsbury.

Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M., (2015). Get off my bus! School leaders, vision work and the elimination of teachers. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 18(4), 395–417.

Gunter, H. M. (1995). Jurassic management: Chaos and management development in educational institutions. Journal of Educational Administration, 33(4), 5–20.

Gunter, H. M. (2002). Leaders and leadership in education. Sage Publishing.

Gunter, H. M. (Ed.) (2010). The state and education policy: The academies programme. Bloomsbury.

Gunter, H. M. (2011). Leadership and the reform of education. Policy Press.

Gunter, H. M. (2013). Educational leadership and Hannah Arendt. Routledge.

Gunter, H. M. (2016). Critical educational policy and leadership studies. In H. M. Gunter, An intellectual history of school leadership practice and research (pp. 165–182). Bloomsbury.

Gunter, H. M. (2020). Forgetting our intellectual histories and the implications for educational professionals. In L. Moos, E. Nihlfors, & J. M. Paulsen, (Eds.), Re-centering the critical potential of Nordic school leadership research. Educational governance research (Vol. 14, pp. 37–52). Springer.

Gunter, H. M., & Courtney, S. J. (2020). A new public educative leadership? Management in Education, 35(4).

Gunter, H. M., & Mills, C. (2017) Consultants and consultancy: The case of education. Springer.

Gunter, H. M., & Rayner, S. (2021). ‘The next big thing’: A delineation of ‘fads’ and ‘fashions’. In F. English (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of educational leadership and management discourse (pp. 1–17). Palgrave Macmillan.

Gunter, H. M., Courtney, S. J., Hall, D., & and McGinity, R. (2018). School principals in neoliberal times: A case of luxury leadership? In K. J. Saltman & A. J. Means (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of global educational reform (pp. 113–130). Wiley.