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Sustainable School Leadership: Portraits of Individuality

reviewed by Sharon D. Kruse - November 19, 2018

coverTitle: Sustainable School Leadership: Portraits of Individuality
Author(s): Mike Bottery, Wong Ping-Man, & George Ngai
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1350005223, Pages: 240, Year: 2018
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In this well-presented volume, Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngai explore the issues of individual and role sustainability in educational leadership. Indeed, as the authors assert, a growing body of literature suggests that increasingly, individuals who choose to inhabit the role of principal or school head are driven out of the profession due to exhaustion, disillusion, and/or the simple regret that they find themselves unable to effectively function in the role (Federici & Skaalvik, 2012; Friedman, 2002; Robertson, 2017). Whether attributable to increasing organizational and accountability pressures (Jacobson, Johnson, Ylimaki, & Giles, 2005), trauma (DeMatthews, Carrola, Knight, & Izquierdo, 2018), or inadequate preparation for the role (Johnson, 2016), recent negative outcomes for school leaders and leadership have been well documented (Hargreaves & Fink, 2003).


Sustainable School Leadership: Portraits of Individuality offers a close exploration of the factors that drive schools leaders out and those that sustain their efforts, commitment, and spirit for the work. Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngai further our conceptualization of the threats to leadership sustainability by suggesting that they fall into eight categories:

Damage to government/educator relationships;

Differences in perceptions of the purposes of the leadership role;

Increased accountability and surveillance;

Increased use of power rather than persuasion to effect changes;

Increasing complexity of the role;

Growth of blame and guilt cultures;

Excessive workload; and

Insufficient preparation for the role.


In this volume, the focus on the individual is purposeful. Drawing from both Western (head teachers in England) and Asian (principals in Hong Kong) examples, the authors seek to provide narratives concerning how individual school leaders react to the wicked pressures and changes they experience. Rejecting the more usual objective approach to studying these issues, the authors employ portraiture methodology (Hackman, 2002) to highlight a central story as perceived by the actors within the setting (p. 35). Doing so allows them to complicate the issues that face leadership sustainably and move beyond the more general what works? question, extending their inquiry to address what works for whom, where, when, and why? (p. 33). By purposefully focusing on the individual in deep and compelling ways, Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngai explore how leadership experiences are at once analogous and singular. In this way, the volume will have wide appeal as the examples contained within are unavoidably culturally embedded, yet they attend to universal and enduring leadership dilemmas and concerns. In fact, if anything, the uniqueness and comparison of perspective(s) serves to emphasize the authors central thesis concerning the need to acknowledge and honor individual voice within leadership research and theorizing.


Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngais definition of sustainability refers to concerns about the well-being and retention of individuals in positions of school leadership. They note that sustainability is a prescriptive term in that it suggests that the retention of school leaders in their positions is a societal and organizational good. Based on the considerable research that suggests that leadership matters if students are to academically and personally thrive, it follows that a deep understanding of the threats to sustainability is necessary if, as a profession, we are to address them and in turn foster more positive outcomes for school leaders.


To this end, the volume attends to sustainability at three levels. In addressing the micro-context, issues of moral purpose and resilience are explored, and the power of individual autonomy as a facilitator of sustainability is surfaced. Additionally, and importantly, attention to the micro-contextual reveals that remedies in one culture are not automatically appropriate in another, nor do they function in similar ways. In this way, they conclude that an acknowledgement of and attention to ones particular circumstances of school leadership matters for individual resiliency.


As the volume turns to the meso-context of sustainability, the emphasis shifts to considering the long-held tension between producing organizational results and fostering better, more effective and personally satisfying organizational relationships. Drawing on Morgans eight metaphors of organization, the authors surface major challenges of leadership and threats to sustainability. In this discussion, Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngai feature the broadly characteristic challenges to sustainability inherent to the persuasive structure of schools and schooling as well as those that are more contextually distinct. By comparing Western and Asian school leaders, the authors underscore the ways in which threats are located internally within the school and originate from larger contextual factors regardless of the cultural context. However, in each case, the authors note that individual support, rather than broad systemic remedies, matters if purposeful sustainability is to be promoted.


Finally, the volume attends to the macro-contexts of sustainability, including cultural and global impacts on leadership success. By framing issues of personal and organizational cognition, independence, and interdependence as culturally driven, Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngai provide a nuanced comparison of leadership response and orientation. In each case, the diversity of leadership action is highlighted as well as the recognition that no one orientation toward leadership is sufficient to address the complexity within todays schools and schooling. Instead, they confirm that authentic leaders employ a variety of responses, understandings, and proficiencies to problem-solving. In this way, resilient leadership can be fostered, and in turn leadership can be sustainability enhanced. Thus they note that leadership sustainability appears to derive, at least in part, from a leaders ability to innovate and draw from the variety of strengths they possess while retaining a healthy acceptance concerning the imperfection of any single, isolated choice.


If the attention given to the key themes of Sustainable School Leadership: Portraits of Individuality were not enough to recommend this fine volume to readers, its explicit and clear use of portraiture methodology will make it well worth reading. On a practical note, the volume is well referenced and extremely approachable and readable. Tables are presented at key locations in the narrative and serve to assist the reader in grasping key conclusions. More importantly, in an age where individual views and feelings are often dismissed and discounted, Bottery, Ping-Man, and Ngais explicit portraits of school leaders serve to remind us that it is our very individuality, no matter the context of our work, that often determines if we are to flounder or succeed.



DeMatthews, D. E., Carrola, P., Knight, D., & Izquierdo, E. (2018). Principal burnout: How urban school leaders experience secondary trauma on the U.S.-Mexico border. Leadership and Policy in Schools.


Federici, R. A., & Skaalivik, E. M. (2012). Principal self-efficacy: Relations with burnout, job satisfaction, and motivation to quit. Social Psychology of Education, 15(3), 295320.


Freidman, I. A., (2002). Burnout in school principals: Role related antecedents. Social Psychology of Education, 5(3), 229251.


Hackman, D. (2002). Using portraiture in educational leadership research. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 5(1), 5160.


Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2003). Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.


Jacobson, S. L., Johnson, L., Ylimak, R., & Giles, C. (2005). Successful leadership in challenging U.S. schools: Enabling principles, enabling schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 43(6), 607618.

Johnson, A. D. (2016). Principal perceptions of the effectiveness of university educational leadership preparation and professional learning. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 11(1).

Robertson, S. (2017). Transformation of professional identity in an experienced primary school principal: A New Zealand case study. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 45(5), 774789.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 19, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22572, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:09:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Kruse
    Washington State University Vancouver
    E-mail Author
    SHARON D. KRUSE is Academic Director and Professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Her scholarship broadly addresses two concerns, (1) to help teachers and school leaders better understand the key role leadership plays in schools and (2) to explore how education is currently structured and influenced by social and organizational complexity. Kruse’s interests in education and organizational change are an extension of her desire to encourage district and school improvement, the development of communal leadership, and social justice through institutional and systemic reform. Her recent books include Educational Leadership, Organizational Learning, and the Ideas of Karl Weick: Perspectives on Theory and Practice (with Bob Johnson, Routledge) and A Case Study Approach to Educational Leadership (with Julie Gray, Routledge).
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