Leaders’ sensegiving

Theoretical Premises of Sensegiving

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Educational leaders’ capabilities in sensegiving may make or break the success of a school change or be instrumental in the school community coming to terms with critical events. As such, effective sensegiving leadership practices are fundamental to a school leader’s effectiveness in mobilising and/or influencing members of the school community. Sensegiving practices are ‘the symbolic constructions used to create meaning for others (i.e. to give sense)’(Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991, p. 448). The purpose of theorising about sensegiving is that it offers a feasible explanation of a different actuality. Importantly the intentionality of a sensegiving act is to influence another individual’s thinking to accept it as their own or the collective (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). It stands to reason that sensegiving literatures often are embedded in the field of management and leadership; the term provides an opportunity to be more explicit about the leader’s role, or more inclusively the ‘leadership activity’ in the sensemaking process (Catasús, Mårtensson, & Skoog, 2009). If sensemaking is explaining and justifying, then a leader’s sensegiving is the act of diffusing such explanations and justifications within the organisation (Green Jr, 2004). Sensegiving while normalising and legitimising certain realities and delegitimising others (Gioia & Thomas, 1996), also shuts down or constrains different interpretive meanings of reality (Voronov, 2008).[1]

In relation to others’ sensemaking, a leader’s sensegiving is the attempt to affect an employee’s sensemaking (Kraft, Sparr, & Peus, 2018). For some, this attempt is seen to be ‘a sender-centric view’ of sensemaking. Corvellec and Risberg (2007) contest ‘it is non-sensical to speak of sense without referring to interpretation and, thus, to a living audience’ (p. 322). This bypasses the sender’s evaluation of where the audience accepts the meaning or not (Corvellic & Risberg, 2007). In its place they reason that sensegiving acts are the activities of persuading audiences in a desirable direction of a preferred reality. Corvellec’s and Risberg’s point of the interactive nature of sensegiving. the Sensegiving is not simply ‘done’ to the other with blind acceptance; this interactive nature sheds light on the likely processes between schools leaders and teachers. The living audience in the school context is the teacher. The leadership ‘activity’ involves a ‘leader’s’ sensegiving act(s) to persuade teachers in their sensemaking with the hope that their sensegiving will influence teachers to act (teaching practices) in particular ways.

Applying this process of school leaders giving sense and teachers making sense about that sensegiving is what Gioia and Chittipeddi theorise as Phase 1 of sensegiving. Gioia & Chittipeddi (1991) organise the relationship between sensemaking and sensegiving into four phases (see Figure 1). The first phase as introduced in the previous paragraph is the Envisioning phase. The leader seeks to make sense of an event, this could be their own schema, shoring up a story or connecting to a previous event. Phase two is where the leader’s schema is formed into communicative acts of sensegiving, called Signalling. Such acts are diverse; they could range from storytelling to analogies of past events. These sensegiving acts may inject ambiguity or may ‘stir the setting’ in stable environments (Neumann, 1995). Such ambiguity calls for employees to make sense of what change is being promoted; this third phase of Re-Visioning may hold many different sensemaking properties, from plausible stories to identity fusion. These enacted sensemaking responses are fodder for further sensegiving, where the leader moves to the fourth phase of Energising, and similar to Signalling it is an influencing action. However, this Energising phase has more sway than the first Signalling because it includes modifications, adjustments to include the target audience’s own sensemaking—or in the school context to include the teaching team’s own sensemaking of the change or event.

Figure 1. Processes involved in the initiation of a strategic change

Educational Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices in Context

Educational leaders need to be credible, hold influence and persuasion in their relationships with their teaching teams, especially in challenging contexts of change or disruption. High velocity environments are those which become ‘hypercompetitive’ resulting from fast and continual changing expectations (Salicru, 2018, p. 130). The new context for educational leaders, during and post COVID-19 is complex, turbulent with disrupted social and economic realities. Sensegiving, in this new context, depends on educational leaders’ capabilities to make sense of events for others in their communities and in giving sense they are communicating their sensemaking.

The Envisioning phase is where the educational leaders make sense of the event which involves understanding, a form of cognition. Once the event is understood by leaders, their sensegiving acts aim to influence and motion actions in teaching teams; this Signalling phase involves action. Gioia and Chittipeddi propose that at this point leaders seek to understand (a cognitive function) the impact of their influence with teachers (gaining information from teachers) and ‘re-sensemake’; moving to the Re-Visioning phase. In an ideal collaborative school environment, the more leaders seek to adapt or adopt teachers’ own sensemaking, the less likelihood of rejection or resistance from teachers, and a greater likelihood of a strong Energising phase. The worst-case scenario is if the Re-Visioning phase is omitted. The influence by leaders may be diminished and the energising direction weakened or misapplied, or ‘loosing sense’.

An educational leaders’ sensemaking is as much influenced by their own ‘leader self’ as the school system regulators’, teachers’, students’ or parents’ sensegiving activities (Cornelissen, Holt, & Zundel, 2011; Kraft et al., 2018). As a sensegiving interpretive process individuals will exert mutual influence to affect others (Kraft et al., 2018) with a groundswell in a particular direction. Hence, sensegiving, unlike sensemaking, ideally is reflected in multiple mutual relationships. Figure 2 illustrates sensegiving processes in a school context.

Figure 2: Sensegiving in a school context

Successful sensegiving acts result in a shared interpretation of an event (Balogun, Jacobs, Jarzabkowski, Mantere, & Vaara, 2014), which organise themselves in ongoing cycles of influence between sensemaking and sensegiving (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). While the spheres of influence may not always be attributed the designated leader’s practices, generally those in formal positions call or dictate their role in sensegiving due to their hierarchical position (Ravasi & Schultz, 2006). In a school context, educational leaders perceive they are obligated to give sense to others because of their compelling responsibilities. In spite of the hierarchical positions of ‘principal’, ‘deputy’, ‘assistant principal’ or ‘faculty head’, they do not dictate a leader’s success or failures in influencing teachers’ practices. There are many moderators of such successes. For example, a leader’s communicative acts may determine their levels of influence.

Communicative acts are sensegiving practices (Huzzard, Hellström, & Lifvergren, 2014) employed by leaders to influence change with the community/organisation. In turn, these acts prompt the community members to ‘sensemake’, that is remaking sense either individually or ideally as a shared remaking in mutual relationships. School leadership teams consistently face the challenge in changing and disruptive contexts of organising, and reorganising after teachers’ sensemaking responses, resulting in the school leader reforming their sensegiving acts to maximise impact with their communities (Kraft et al., 2018; Stensaker, Falkenberg, & Grønhaug, 2008).

Yet, it needs to be considered that the educational leader’s sensegiving may not be aligned with teachers’ sensemaking. It most likely will not be. In a study on organisational change Bartunek, Krim, Necochea, and Humphries (1999) found that the recipients’ sensemaking was not the same as leaders’ sensegiving. There were multiple and at times conflicting understandings of a change event, where understandings were evolving continually. In a school environment it is a complex process in coming to an understanding of a shared vision or direction for the school. Yet organisations such as schools can achieve high levels of sensemaking and reduce ‘cognitive complexity when leaders connect sequentially with’ their communities ‘in dyadic sensegiving examples’ (Maitlis, 2005, p. 47). Devices and linguistic acts are ideal companions for leaders in realising such dyadic sensegiving.

Leaders’ Sensegiving Practices: Devices and Linguistic Acts

Some devices used by individuals in their sensegiving acts include metaphors, mantras and storytelling. The use of metaphors by entrepreneurs has a long history of anchoring their sensegiving (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995). Mantras and storytelling (Salicru, 2018) are other sensegiving acts which translate events into plausible scenarios and images to persuade and influence others to take action (Salicru, 2018). The oral-aural traditions of school environments lend themselves for educational leaders to give sense, in particular through storytelling, and more generally, through linguistic acts.[2]

Other devices fall into the realm of linguistic acts of appeal. These communicative acts, which Weick (1995) would call enacted sensemaking, pertain to persuasive appeal. Bartunek et al. (1999) drew upon Johnston’s (1994) theoretical language of sensegiving with persuasion, suggesting four tactics: a. discharging linguistic acts that demonstrate logic and reason—consistent with Maitlis’s (2005) findings that stakeholders’ sensemaking increases when leaders behave in a procedurally fair manner; b. employing praise and encouragement; c. acts which appeal to the members’ own values and norms (acts which identify with the in-group) and; d. building up a credibility story about the sender—being reasonable, ethical and for the common good. The original body of work on sensegiving by Gioia and Chittipeddi (1991) as described at the beginning of this section, is substantial. Their work has been a springboard for other research and models which further explain the relationships between sensemaking and sensegiving. For example, the body of work by Maitlis and Lawrence (2007) found that the trigger for leaders’ sensegiving practices occurs when issues are ambiguous and involve multiple relationships. Leaders in their study were enabled to give sense when they thought they themselves had the appropriate knowledge and skill. In turn the enablers for the organisational members were also their knowledge and skill and in contrast, their trigger for sensegiving was when they thought the event was important to them. This finding about leaders having a knowledge and skill base is an important point about leaders and sheds lights on Norris’ findings.

Still interested?

Sensegiving and Legitimate Power

While power is often viewed as a negative concept in school education, the addition of legitimacy improves its legitimacy! A moderating factor in the effectiveness of leadership practices (Kraft et al., 2015 and drawn from the power taxonomy by French and Raven, 1959) is legitimate power. When providing examples from the school context the term legitimacy is adopted here, instead of power.

Some may think that legitimacy stems the formal authority beset by an educational leader’s position in the school community, and anchored in policies, rules and laws. This thinking suggests that the leader’s sensegiving practices will be accepted without question. In reality this is not the common experience for educational leaders. Historically, early to mid-20th century, teachers’ work was relatively autonomous and carried out in isolation. Current practices encourage collaborative and subsidiarity decision making. Yet a leader’s level of legitimate power is found to moderate both the choice of strategies and language in their sensegiving practices. Four studies identified by Kraft et al., (2015) demonstrated the moderating effect of legitimate power where managers with positional power more often employed confrontation strategies. Yet, leaders with low or without positional power more often relied on strategies in the ‘what and how’ to communicate to increase receptiveness. As such leaders with low legitimate power were more aware of differing perceptions among their employees (Leonardi, Neeley, & Gerber, 2012). These leaders are more likely to seek real time feedback to ensure their sensegiving acts are acceptable (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 316). They were more likely to engage ‘team members in the interpretation process’ (Leonardi et al., 2012, p. 98). Given teachers hold high levels of autonomy as they go about their work, it is logical that the moderating effect of legitimate power may mirror those leaders’ strategies such us seeking real time feedback and to seek teachers’ understandings on events (interpretation processes). Kraft et al.’s (2015) first proposition relating to legitimate power is thus:

‘The level of legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: Leaders are likely to use indirect, multilateral sensegiving strategies if their level of legitimate power is low’ (p. 316).

Levels of legitimate power moderate leaders’ selection of sensegiving strategies along with their communicative acts, in several ways. One, leaders with low levels of legitimate power are likely to employ more hard fact justifications (for example, school enrolments will be jeopardised if results are poor) than leaders with high levels of legitimate power (Sonenshein, 2006). Those with high levels of legitimate power adopted more familiar language of their employees.

Moreover, the level of power and the accompanying differences in the abstractness of information processing also influences leaders’ choices in their sensegiving language. High levels of distance (cognitive or psychological) results in a leader’s ‘experienced abstractness’ which in turn becomes an abstract communicative act (Magee, Milliken, & Lurie, 2009 as cited in Kraft et al., 2015) and suggests the likelihood of overlooking negative aspects (Magee et al., 2009). That is, if the educational leader is far removed from knowing and understanding the work of teachers and students the more likely their communicative acts of sensegiving will be abstract and hence the less likely the sensegiving acts will hold strength or meaning for teachers.

The second proposition regarding legitimate power:

‘Legitimate power moderates the relationship between leader sensemaking and sensegiving such that: (a) Leaders are more likely to use abstract, positive and normative language if their level of legitimate power is high. (b) Leaders are more likely to use concrete, negative and rational language if their level of legitimate power is low’ (Kraft et al., 2015, p. 317).

In a school context if an educational leader’s legitimacy is high, they are likely to hold positive discursive abilities with abstract and normative communication. The educational leader who employs factual, negative and rational language is likely to have less legitimacy. The question this proposition raises is who determines the levels of legitimacy– the educational leader’s self-perception, their perception of the community’s perceptions or simply the community’s perception of the leader’s sensegiving acts?


Balogun, J., Jacobs, C., Jarzabkowski, P., Mantere, S., & Vaara, E. (2014). Placing strategy discourse in context: Sociomateriality, sensemaking, and power. Journal of Management Studies, 51(2), 175-201.

Bartunek, J. M., Krim, R. M., Necochea, R., & Humphries, M. (1999). Sensemaking, sensegiving, and leadership in strategic organizational development.

Catasús, B., Mårtensson, M., & Skoog, M. (2009). The communication of human accounts: Examining models of sensegiving. Journal of Human Resource Costing & Accounting.

Cornelissen, J. P., Holt, R., & Zundel, M. (2011). The role of analogy and metaphor in the framing and legitimization of strategic change. Organization Studies, 32(12), 1701-1716.

Corvellec, H., & Risberg, A. (2007). Sensegiving as mise-en-sens—The case of wind power development. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 23(3), 306-326.

Gioia, D. A., & Chittipeddi, K. (1991). Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change initiation. Strategic management journal, 12(6), 433-448.

Gioia, D. A., & Thomas, J. B. (1996). Identity, image, and issue interpretation: Sensemaking during strategic change in academia. Administrative science quarterly, 370-403.

Green Jr, S. E. (2004). A rhetorical theory of diffusion. Academy of management review, 29(4), 653-669.

Hill, R. C., & Levenhagen, M. (1995). Metaphors and mental models: Sensemaking and sensegiving in innovative and entrepreneurial activities. Journal of Management, 21(6), 1057-1074.

Huzzard, T., Hellström, A., & Lifvergren, S. (2014). System-Wide Change in Cancer Care: Exploring Sensemaking, Sensegiving, and Consent’, Research in Organizational Change and Development (Research in Organizational Change and Development, Volume 22). In: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Kraft, A., Sparr, J. L., & Peus, C. (2018). Giving and Making Sense About Change: The Back and Forth Between Leaders and Employees. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(1), 71-87. doi:10.1007/s10869-016-9474-5

Maitlis, S. (2005). The social processes of organizational sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 48(1), 21-49.

Ravasi, D., & Schultz, M. (2006). Responding to organizational identity threats: Exploring the role of organizational culture. Academy of Management Journal, 49(3), 433-458.

Salicru, S. (2018). Storytelling as a leadership practice for sensemaking to drive change in times of turbulence and high velocity. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 15(2).

Stensaker, I., Falkenberg, J., & Grønhaug, K. (2008). Implementation activities and organizational sensemaking. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(2), 162-185.

Voronov, M. (2008). Toward a practice perspective on strategic organizational learning. The Learning Organization.

[1] Leadership activity: a term used to include practices of influence by any member of the community; whether the member is in a formal or informal position. The term disarms the assertion that only the formal leader is one to provide influence or in this case ‘give sense’.

[2] Storytelling is an effective sensegiving device which is used in diverse settings and cross-cultural leadership practices (Grisham, 2006). A theory to explain the power of stories called Narrative Parading Theory (NPT) was first developed by Fisher (1984). NPT regenerates the rational paradigm in the same way that sensemaking is not concerned with accuracy of facts but is rather about plausibility (Weick, 1995).

Thread: Stakes in education: Medium or rare?

‘The most pervasive and damaging myth, however, is that all children are motivated by competition’ …Highstakes testing in schools is based on the premise that if the student competes with others, they will do better (Richard Lavoie) 

A term that is rarely left out of accountability discussions is the subject of stakes. The term is relative and is dependent on those reporting on the stake. That is, what is ‘at stake’ says more about the person’s judgment of the context than the stake itself. The year 12 results (exit) Australia hold significant consequences for students’ career trajectories and arguably fodder for a school’s marketing opportunities. However, discourses in the literatures are scarce about such consequences being a high stakes exercise. In Australia, external tests cloak some school systems like old cardigans (the NSW HSC exam is close to a 40 year history), with high-stakes tests being the cloth that is worn as a symbol of a normalised culture (Ayres, Sawyer & Dinham, 2004). That is, the stakes associated with the HSC have become normalised to a point where little has been referred to in the literatures as suggesting high stakes. HSC designers and implementers (educators) espouse its credibility as a rigorous and almost the superior instrument over other exit credentials from other jurisdictions and programs in Australia (i.e. the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate). On the other hand, NAPLAN has been tarnished with destroying schools, cheating, teaching to the test and developing a ‘naplanish pseudo curriculum’.

Since the introduction of NAPLAN testing and its public disclosure of results, there are multiple references in the Australian literature claiming that NAPLAN testing and the consequences of its disclosure is now a high-stakes accountability exercise (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012 ; Lewis & Hardy, 2015; Lingard, Thompson, & Sellar, 2015; Smeed, Spiller, & Kimber, 2009). It is an irony as the Year 12 exit credentials, across Australia, have more at stake for the individual student than the disclosure of NAPLAN results—which is limited to the amalgamation of student results telling a certain story about the school, not the student. The research studies arising from NAPLAN and the disclosure of results through MySchool is a hundred-fold compared to one or two sources about year 12 exit exams. One possible reason is that the school reputation is more important, or ‘higher stake’ than an individual student’s post school options. Another reason could be that policy makers continue to be steadfast in their views if schools are publicly held to account (inevitably high stakes) that this will drive school improvement.

While there are few definitions for the terms low or high stakes in the research literature, where they are mentioned, the term stake is interchangeable with the term ‘consequence’ (Jacob, 2005; Stobart, 2008). If we apply this understanding of a stake to this study’s definition of performative accountability, then the consequence (stake) would be the outcome with regard to the levels of favourability of the performance results from the external test. While consequences in accountability regimes are often described in terms of low or high stakes, the determination of the stake, similar to performance results, is often relative and subjective. However, in low-stakes environments it stands to reason that there are few or no consequences from the regulation of performance results (Klinger & Rogers, 2011). One such low stake is accounting to the school community in general terms regarding annual learning goals, in the form of the Annual Report (NSW Government, 2020). Whereas in other contexts, the consequences are classified as high (or extremely high) stakes (Stobart, 2008).

Some Australian educational scholars, such as Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2011), Smeed et al. (2009), Reid (2011) and Hardy (2015), describe the consequences of public disclosure of student performance results from NAPLAN testing as high stakes with detrimental consequences. For Australian education, the consequences such as low staff and student morale and loss of enrolments would suggest high stakes. However, some US jurisdictions have experienced greater consequences than this from public disclosures of students’ performances, such as loss of enrolments (funding), school closures and loss of employment (Perryman, 2006; Shipps & White, 2009; Stobart, 2008). Hence, the review of the interpretation of stakes in the literatures appears relative to the experiences of those reporting them. To date in Australia, there have been no high-stakes consequences compared to our global peers involving performance pay, school closures or loss of employment resulting from the nation-wide test results.

At the beginning of NAPLAN testing in Australia (2010), distinct differences were observed in the reactions from various school sectors to educators’ descriptions of NAPLAN testing and its consequences. These differences were marked in the first inquiry into NAPLAN testing (Senate References Committee on Education, 2010), with primary school principals by far the most disaffected group as a result of the initial testing and subsequent public disclosures of results. Secondary school principals featured less in the initial research (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012 ), but they were included in the research from an ethical leadership perspective by Ehrich, Harris, Klenowski, Smeed, and Spina (2015). It is reasonable to propose that secondary school principals were normalised with external testing and disclosure of results. NAPLAN results itself hold fewer consequences in their minds about enrolments and the greater stake appears to be the results from the year 12 results. The public disclosure of these year 12 results are high stakes for both the students and the school: the students post school options and the school’s marketing opportunities, externally and internally. Of importance here is the influence that an external test has in the minds of educational leaders and their actions. Notably the higher the stake the greater the need to resolve some of the ensuing issues. Irrespective of the relativity of the stakes, the evidence is strong that high-stakes consequences are likely to present complications for school communities. International studies have shown that educational accountability systems that regulate outcomes through performance-based mechanisms (PBMs) with high-stakes consequences have undesirable outcomes for students, teachers and leaders (Stobart, 2008; Darling-Hammond,2010).


Ayres, P., Sawyer, W., & Dinham, S. (2004). Effective teaching in the context of a grade 12 high-stakes external examination in New South Wales, Australia. British Educational Research Journal, 30(1), 141-165.

Ehrich, L. C., Harris, J., Klenowski, V., Smeed, J., & Spina, N. (2015). The centrality of ethical leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(2), 197-214.

Jacob, B. A. (2005). Accountability, incentives and behavior: The impact of high-stakes testing in the Chicago Public Schools. Journal of public Economics, 89(5-6), 761-796.

Klenowski, V., & Wyatt-Smith, C. (2011). The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(1), 65-79. doi:10.1080/0969594x.2011.592972

Klenowski, V., & Wyatt-Smith, C. (2012 ). The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story, Assessment in Education. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(1), 65-79. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2011.592972

Klinger, D. A., & Rogers, T. (2011). Teachers’ Perceptions of Large-Scale Assessment Programs Within Low-Stakes Accountability Frameworks. International Journal of Testing, 11(2), 122-143. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1530505058.2011.552748

Lewis, S., & Hardy, I. (2015). Funding, reputation and targets: the discursive logics of high-stakes testing. Cambridge journal of education, 45(2), 245-264.

Lingard, B., Thompson, G., & Sellar, S. (2015). National testing from an Australian perspective. National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment, 1.

NSW Government. (2020). Annual Reports. Retrieved from https://education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/strategies-and-reports/annual-reports

Perryman, J. (2006). Panoptic performativity and school inspection regimes: disciplinary mechanisms and life under special measures. Journal of Education Policy, 21(2), 147-161. doi:10.1080/02680930500500138

Reid, A. (2011). The NAPLAN Debate. QTU Professional Magazine (November, 2010).

Senate References Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2010). Administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing. Canberra: Senate Printing Unit

Shipps, D., & White, M. (2009). A New Politics of the Principalship? Accountability-Driven Change in New York City. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 350-373. doi:10.1080/01619560902973563

Smeed, J., Spiller, K., & Kimber, M. (2009). Issues for principals in high-stakes testing. Principal Matters, 81, 32-34.

Stobart, G. (2008). Testing Times: the Uses and Abuses of assessment. New York: Routledge.

The Pressure Cooker : Australian Education

metal pipes plumbing pressure
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Introduction from forthcoming publication: The Principal’s Scorecard: Friend Foe or Frenemy

At both a macro and micro level, the Australian educational landscape, is a pressure cooker of comparison and competition. At the macro level Australian policy makers compare student performance results with international jurisdictions through testing instruments implemented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Gorur & Wu, 2014; Baroutsis & Lingard, 2016). Policy makers analyse the ‘high performing’ jurisdictions searching for their magical ingredient (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). As experienced in Australian school systems the ingredient in turn may be adopted and mandated (Harrison, 2008). State and territory governments also create their own regulated recipes for their school systems. In Australian jurisdictions performance results (from National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy – NAPLAN) along with exit results can be publicly compared and ranked whereby schools are judged as worthy or unworthy (Thompson & Tomaz, 2011). At the micro level, to sustain funding by securing enrolments, principals and their school systems, market these results. Within this cooker of comparing, marketing and commodifying young peoples’ performance results, principals need to make decisions, often of an ethical nature.

Making decisions is fraught in these comparative cultures of performativity for any educational leader (Perryman, 2006; 2009). There are challenges for Australian principals when these external demands continue to drive for improved student performance  (Duignan, Burford, d’Arbon, Ikin, & Walsh, 2003; Ehrich, Harris, Klenowski, Smeed, & Spina, 2015). The leadership challenge positions principals in the centre of reforms (Gawlik, 2015; Volante, 2012) which calls for an analysis of leaders’ internal processes (Brezicha et al., 2015; Clifford et al, 2012), notably how they resolve external demands with their internal school commitments (Louis & Robinson, 2012). More so than in any time in Australian educational history a principal’s agency in producing successful student performances is public and understandably is highly accountable (Boies & Fiset, 2018; Robinson, 2011; Sun & Leithwood, 2017).

Defining Performance-Based Accountability

Our leaders should be held accountable! Our results should be better – if only teachers would be more accountable! Common cries as the soft power of the OECD creeps into our psyche. However, as educators we are not necessarily clear when we speak of accountability.

Stobart (2008) posits that ‘we are so familiar with accountability in many spheres of life that it is hardly defined’ (p. 117). His notes reviewed Herman and Haertel’s Uses and misuse of data for educational accountability and improvement (2005), finding no single formal definition of accountability, therefore ‘assuming we know what it is’ (Stobart, 2008, p. 193).

This blog goes some way in bringing clarity to the term. It settles on a definition for performance-based accountability in the context of Australian education. Speaking plainly this is the accountability for performance results from external assessment programs such as NAPLAN and Year 12 exit instruments. The definition presented here is deliberately specific avoiding general terms such as educational accountability. In Australia, educational accountability may include a multitude of accountabilities such as bureaucratic and market accountabilities or work, health and safety accountabilities. Given that a readily formed definition of educational accountability is obscure (see inset: Stobart, 2008) definitions in other spheres are explored. For this blog several definitions of accountability are analysed and synthesised into five key concepts, to form a usable definition which can be framed in educational terms.

The economic sector defines accountability as the obligation to provide information so that people can make informed judgements about the performance and financial position of an organisation (Halligan, 2007). In a corporate governance context, Huse (2005) defines accountability as defending one’s reasons for actions and supplying normative grounds by which they may be justified. Within a legal context, Bovens (2007) defines accountability as a ‘relationship between the actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement and the actor may face consequences’ (Bovens, 2007a, p. 450).

Gray’s (2002) definition in a social context, similar to that of Bovens (2007), is clear about the persons involved and the consequences that are to be faced. Accountability is explained in terms of individuals and organisations presenting an account of the actions for which society holds them responsible (Gray, 2002). Kuchapski’s (2001) definition, from a political context, specifically identified consequences as ‘redress’, defining accountability as those in office providing information, justifying and explaining and providing redress to the people. Coghill et al. (2006), in the economic context, similar to Gray (2002), included the notion of relationship in the sense of ‘direct authority’, defining accountability as the ‘direct authority relationship within which one party accounts to a person or body for the performance of tasks or functions conferred, or able to be conferred, by that person or body’ (Coghill et al., 2006, p. 457). In the educational context, the definitions are less specific, explaining accountability as the processes involved in meeting goals (Leithwood & Earl, 2000) or as regulations for measuring educational outputs (Rowe, 2005).

Five key ideas from this initial sample of definitions that were deemed useful for this study were drawn from Bovens (2007) and Kuchapski (2001): (a) disclosure, making information known (Kuchapski, 2001); (b) transparency, providing clarity about the disclosed information and ensuring that this information makes sense to those receiving the information (Kuchapski, 2001); (c) consequences from the information disclosed, with some form of redress or appropriate action able to be taken from the disclosed information (Bovens, 2007; Kuchapski, 2001); (d) being obliged to explain and justify the information (Bovens, 2007); and (e) the notion of relationship between the person being held accountable and their constituency (Bovens, 2007a).

These five understandings underpin the following definition of accountability, which works as a platform for settling on a definition:

Accountability is a relationship between a person who is held responsible for the delivery of certain outcomes (the actor) and the individuals and organisations from whom they receive their mandate for those outcomes. This relationship requires that the actor behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their conduct and its outcomes in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

The following definition now aligns the above definition through the educational lens. The definition situates the principal in the role of the actor, with the School system leaders as the mandating authorities for the Government.

Performance-based accountability is a relationship between the principal (person) who is held responsible for the delivery of favourable[1] performance results from external assessment programs (certain outcomes) and the School system (individuals or organisations) from whom they receive their expectations (outcomes). This relationship requires that the principal (actor) behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their ways of accounting for the performance results (conduct and its outcomes) in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

Figure 1: Key elements of performance-based accountability

Key elements of defn


The principal, with educators, are the persons who act with responsibility to another. In other words, the accountability relationship is a responsibility relationship. The principal’s and educator’s role in the accountability relationship can be defined as being obliged to be transparent, to disclose and justify their performance results to their performance results to their communities (parents, students, and state and federal authorities). In their accountability relationship, principals (as in the economic and political sectors) are accounting in different directions: to the government or school system, to parents and students, and to teachers. Essential in the relationship is the element of redress. If there is no evidence of redress, even if intentional, the view maybe interpreted that there has been ‘no accountability’.


Bovens, M. (2007). Analysing and assessing accountability: A conceptual framework. European Law Journal, 13(4), 447–468.

Coghill, K., Crawford, D., Cunliffe, I., Grant, B., Hodge, G., Hughes, &  Zifcak, S. (2006). Why accountability must be renewed: Discussion paper on reform of Government accountability in Australia [Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians (7th: 2006: Wroxton College, Oxfordshire).]. Australasian Parliamentary Review, 21(2), 10–48.

Gray, R. (2002). Thirty years of social accounting, reporting and auditing: What (if anything) have we learnt? Business Ethics: A European Review, 10(1), 9–15.

Halligan, J. (2007). Accountability in Australia: Control, paradox, and complexity. Public Administration Quarterly, 31(4), 453–479.

Huse, M. (2005). Accountability and creating accountability: A framework for exploring behavioural perspectives of corporate governance. British Journal of Management, 16, S65–S79.

Kuchapski, R. (2001). Conceptualizing accountability in education (SSTA Research Centre report). Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.

Leithwood, K., & Earl, L. (2000). Educational Accountability Effects: An International Perspective. Peabody Journal of Education 75(4), 1–18.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2016). OECD better policies for better lives. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/about/

Rowe, K. (2005, August). Evidence for the kinds of feedback data that support both student and teacher learning. Paper presented at the The Australian Council for Educational Research 2005 Conference, Melbourne, VIC.

Stobart, G. (2008). Testing times: The uses and abuses of assessment. New York, NY: Routledge.


[1] As this blog is situated in principals’ understandings of accountability the meaning of ‘favourable’ is determined by the principal. Hence, favourability is a useful term to describe performance results, rather than high, mid or low results.


From metaphors to mantras – principals making sense of and integrating accountability expectations: a grounded theoretical model

System-wide assessment programs such as NAPLAN are introduced to determine the value added by schools towards student learning. This study investigates how secondary school principals in NSW accommodate the testing-based accountability within their views of learning. The findings indicate that these Principals accept the notion of school accountability though they reject reducing learning to a single score. They do not believe that test scored are adequate measures of student leanirng. The study offers a deep insight into the thinking of these Principals as they accommodate between their beliefs about learning and the demands of assessment regimes.

Judith Norris EdD (Conferred April, 2018)

Threads, bricoleurs, leadership and leaders

Having a blog that just posts about everything and anything about educational leadership probably is far too broad, not useful for anyone and results in a huge time drain. The redthread.blog is about the interior world of educational leaders. By education we are meaning school settings. This blog may be of interest to the practitioner leader such as principals, assistant principals, coordinators and teacher leaders along with students from masters programs of educational leadership, management and administration.
The content  of this blog privileges the psycho social processes of educational leaders. By ‘psycho’ processes we mean the way a leader individually constructs meaning of events and experiences – through cognition i.e. speech acts, feelings and moods and body (Sieler, 2015). With regard to ‘socio’ processes we mean how leaders construct meaning in social relationships with and through others – again this co construction may be through cognition, mood and body (Fairhurst & Grant, 2010). Such psycho social processes contribute to educational leaders’ professional identities. While teacher identity is a common and essential emphasis in initial teacher education programs little has been researched about the educational leader’s or principal’s professional identity (Danielewicz, 2014). Moreover there is a paucity of research about the internal world of educational leaders in a general sense. As external pressures press down on leaders it raises the question to what extent these pressures influence leaders’ own sensemaking, carving out educational leaders’ identities and inducing enactments – such as how leaders build coherence in their learning communities from such pressures.
The purpose of this blog is to connect and weave others thoughts together about this particular aspect about educational leadership – hence the namesake of the blog which is borrowed from the Chinese proverb: ‘The invisible red thread connects those irrespective of circumstance or place. The thread may stretch or tangle but will never break’ (author unknown). Resembling the red thread, this blog may expand to other knowledge areas, our thread may become interwoven and on occasion dormant however the blog will endure. However the redthread.blog goes further than connecting it weaves ideas, concepts and theories. I draw on Jill Koyama’s (2014) metaphor of the educational leader. In Jill’s research the principal is the bricoleur. She situates the bricoleur within the actor-network theory. The bricoleur within the assemblage aligns with the ANT by focusing analytic attention on disparate members and practices to form dynamic associations (Koyama, 2014). In this sense, we can equate the blogger as the bricoleur weaving ideas together to form a bricolage. The bricolage is the construction of an array or diverse range of thoughts, often what just happens to comes to hand or available at the time (Thesaurus).
Those who study, research and practice leadership undisputedly would argue that there is a plethora of meanings, theories and adjectives about leadership However, for this blog and the blogger defining terms may be helpful – even if for provocative purposes. To establish this platform I would like to make several comments about the term itself. First, the concept of leadership can be broader than, yet at the same time can be inclusive of, the concept of leader. Second, leadership may be referred to as a noun, an adjective as well as a verb. As a noun leadership could be referring to a position – for example the leadership of the organisation ‘the leadership of this school community is awe inspiring’. As an adjective it may describe the person or team – for example the leadership team. As a verb leadership may be referred to as the enactments of the ‘doing’ – for example a reasonable ‘doing’ of leadership could be mobilising or influencing.
There are several reasons for privileging the verb idea. The first is that leadership as a verb diminishes the seduction of narrowing leadership to a hierarchical position. The second reason is that leadership could belong to the ‘doing’ between and with people. The third is that conceptualising leadership as a verb frees us from possible binary thinking, such as ‘leading or managing’ (Bloxham, Ehrich, & Iyer, 2015) or between ‘transforming or transacting’ (Jung & Avolio, 2000).
Let’s apply the verb concept to the mobilising and influencing idea of leadership. While mobilising has various meanings when referring to leadership it could also be likened to, yet not limited to, managing or organising. Importantly mobilising connotes moving from one position to another. Influencing could include meanings of, yet also not limited to, persuading, transforming or empowering. If we continue thinking that leadership being enacted between and with people it can be viewed as a relationship. If we add to the recipe the reasonable notion that leadership is mobilising and influencing we could say that leadership is a mobilising and influencing relationship. This definition holds elements of similarity with Patrick Duignan’s ideas (2008; 2015) where he describes leadership as an ‘influence relationship’ and Branson, Franken, and Penney (2016 in Press) who examine the relationships of middle leaders as up and down – notably a trans relational approach of middle leaders. Eacott (2015) examines leadership relationally yet in my interpretation Eacott’s conceptualisation is as distinct from or different lens to Duignan and Branson, Franken and Penny.
To this point this discussion has led to our thinking of leadership as a verb with a certain mission – one of mobilising – one point or positon to another point or position and one of influencing. Mobilising and influencing is in the context of between and/or with people. Hopefully you will find this a useful orientation for engaging in the redthread.blog. One other area however that requires deliberation is the educational bit of the leadership. Education can be quite a broad term. We leave such definitions to the blogger to describe their context of education or educational.

Bloxham, R., Ehrich, L. C., & Iyer, R. (2015). Leading or managing? Assistant Regional Directors, School Performance, in Queensland. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(3), 354-373.
Branson, C. M., Franken, M., & Penney, D. (2016 in Press). Reconceptualsing middle leadership in higher education: A transrelational approach. In J. McNiff (Ed.), Values and Virtues in higher educaiton: Critical perspectives. Abington, Oxon: Rutledge.
Danielewicz, J. (2014). Teaching selves: Identity, pedagogy, and teacher education: SUNY Press.
Duignan, P. (2008). Leadership: Influencing Relationships and Authentic Presence: Centre for Strategic Education.
Duignan, P. (2015). Authenticity in educational leadership: History, ideal, reality. Leading and Managing, 21(1), 1.
Eacott, S. (2015). Educational leadership relationally: a theory and methodology for educational leadership, management and administration: Springer.
Fairhurst, G. T., & Grant, D. (2010). The social construction of leadership: A sailing guide. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 171-210.
Jung, D. I., & Avolio, B. J. (2000). Opening the black box: An experimental investigation of the mediating effects of trust and value congruence on transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of organizational Behavior, 21(8), 949-964.
Koyama, J. (2014). Principals as Bricoleurs Making Sense and Making Do in an Era of Accountability. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(2), 279-304.
Sieler, A. (2015). Ontology: A Theoretical Basis for Coaching, from http://www.newfieldinstitute.com.au/pdf/001_Ontology_A_Theoretical_Basis.pdf