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The Leadership Identity Journey: An Artful Reflection

reviewed by Karen Sanzo - October 22, 2015

coverTitle: The Leadership Identity Journey: An Artful Reflection
Author(s): Carol A. Mullen, Fenwick W. English, William A. Kealy
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475808585, Pages: 152, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Practitioners and scholars alike in the field of educational leadership are hearing calls for a renewed focus on the “softer side” of leadership. There is a shift away from an almost mechanistic-like focus on accountability, tests, and managerial processes to more humanistic aspects of leadership. Mullen, English, and Kealy bring forth in The Leadership Identity Journey: An Artful Reflection the “mortal” facets of leadership and the leadership journey as a response to this call to focus on people, life experiences, and the voyage leaders take throughout their careers. The text is written primarily for researchers and scholars in the field of educational leadership; however, I would argue the text is also relevant and applicable for district leaders seeking ways to help prepare administrators within their organizations. It would be considered an atypical text to use in PK12 professional development, but we need to push for deeper and personally relevant means of preparing school leaders, and the authors present a novel strategy to help others understand their own personal development.

The Leadership Identity Journey is a unique text that draws from a small study of school leaders (eleven participants in total with job roles as assistant principal, principals, and district-level leaders) to understand these leaders’ experiences through their roles. Based on work by Campbell (2008), the authors use The Hero with a Thousand Faces to ground the study and resulting manuscript around the concept of the hero’s journey and actions with a focus on leadership as a social construct situated culturally, invoking heroic action. Ultimately, the authors sought to understand and convey to the readers “the possibilities for [the leadership journey’s] representation in the quest for identity and competence in the process of becoming an educational leader” (p. 22).

The first chapter sets the stage for the work, laying out the background of the study and the impetus for the attention on the heroic journey of leaders. While the authors themselves admit that the text is not the first to utilize Campbell’s work in educational leadership, this study and resulting book is unique in that their approach employs visual media in the study and portrayal of the leadership journey. The study participants were each engaged in an hour-long interview where they reviewed photographs portraying the human condition in various stages, including a worried woman in the Depression, African Americans walking along a riverside, a coffin in the Andes, and a woman pointing to her eye. Throughout the interview, the participants discussed their interpretations of the pictures, conversed about “human triumph over life’s obstacles, followed by human transformation, the human crossing, and leadership” (p. 23).

The next three chapters explore the interpretations of the findings in a skillful manner, well-grounded in extant research and literature. Chapter Two reveals the participants’ general reactions and illustrates for the reader how pictures can generate data about individuals and their core backgrounds, beliefs, and philosophies. The simple methodology gives way to complex responses, highlighting the often-ignored notion of simplicity in study design to generate rich data. Mullen, English, and Kealy give participants the room to reflect and immerse themselves in the picture methods that are minimal in nature, yet sophisticated in implementation. The authors rightly highlight the subjective nature of picture interpretation as they relay the participants’ responses and the authors’ resulting explanations.

The study participants transitioned easily from their responses about the pictures in the abstract, to leadership experiences in general, and then to their own journeys as leaders. This highlights the power of visual mediums to bring forth individual reactions and stories. These stories were presented both in factual accounts and metaphors. Chapter Three delves deeper into both storytelling and metaphors and how participants construct meaning for themselves through the use of both. I would suggest this text is a nice complement to Morgan’s (1996) Images of Organization and could be used in organizational theory or behavior courses to more directly situate the idea of metaphors in organizations with aspiring and current educational leaders.

Emotions run strong throughout the text and the authors feature the influences of emotions in leadership. I found this to be a welcome relief from the machine-like feel of our contemporary accountability system. Mullen, Fenwick, and Kealy encourage leaders to be emotional, see emotions as strengths, and draw upon their emotions to substantively contribute to effective leadership actions. As espoused by the authors, “the full human being—brain and heart—matters, and not just the rational but also the emotional aspects" (pp. 7172). Conversations around leadership for social justice are drawn into Chapter Four through the lens of emotions and the triad of wisdom, integrity, and compassion that hold trust at its core. The skillful development of the book leading up to this chapter can perhaps provide a new vehicle through which the field of educational leadership can better understand leadership for social justice.

One powerful idea that I gleaned early on from the text is the idea of the heroic action versus the idea of a hero. Heroes are fraught with emotional connotations, especially if those heroes fail. Actions can be heroic, even if the hero does not stand up to the test of time. No one can generally live up to the heroic ideal, and to position the school leader as a Superman-like individual is almost setting up that individual for failure. At some point, an action, an initiative, or an idea will fail. What then of someone who has been personified as a hero? Focusing on heroic actions and how to process those actions can better aid aspiring and current leaders in their own leadership journeys.

The authors bookend the text with a final chapter reflecting on their work for application to practice, preparation, and research. While this chapter is positioned appropriately in the manuscript, summing up the purpose of the work and propelling the field forward, I would encourage readers to begin and end with this chapter. In this way, the readers can better understand the meaning of this book for themselves and continuously reflect on its relation to the reader’s purpose for engaging with this text.


Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces (The collected works of Joseph Campbell). Novato, CA: New World Library.

Morgan, G. (1996). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 22, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18192, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:01:42 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen Sanzo
    Old Dominion University
    E-mail Author
    KAREN SANZO is currently an Associate Professor in the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University. Dr. Sanzo is also the Director of the School Leadership Preparation and Development Network (SLPDN). The SLPDN was originally funded by the US Department of Education (USDE) to facilitate the sharing of innovative practices developed across grant-funded school leadership programs. The network continues to facilitate best practices in leadership development and training through sharing of research, practical experience, and innovative preparation models. Under Dr. Sanzo’s direction the SLPDN has grown to include leadership preparation and development programs beyond the USDE funded projects and includes professional learning opportunities. The network now extends its influence on school leader preparation nationally through a webinar series and an annual national conference. Dr. Sanzo also coordinates all school leadership licensure degree programs in the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University. As Coordinator she has lead the redesign of the PK-12 school licensure programs, developed numerous district-university partnerships, and has expanded ODU’s reach in leadership development across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Prior to her work at Old Dominion, Dr. Sanzo served as a middle school mathematics teacher and an elementary school administrator in Virginia. She has also served as Principal Investigator for several national and state-level grants around the areas of school leadership, formative assessment, and STEM education. She currently serves as a consultant for several educational organizations around leadership development initiatives and the integration of effective formative assessment leadership and instructional practices in schools. Dr. Sanzo has twenty-six manuscripts published in peer-reviewed journals, three books published (Successful School Leadership Preparation and Development, From Policy to Practice: Sustainable Innovations in School Leadership Preparation and Development, and Formative Assessment Leadership) and two books scheduled for publication in 2015 (Strategies for Developing and Supporting School Leaders: Stepping Stones to Great Leadership and Leading Small and Mid-Sized Urban School Districts). The majority of Dr. Sanzo’s research and publications focus on effective school leadership preparation and development practices.
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