The praxis of dilemma management

by Carol Cardno


In the context of this journal article, "praxis" means using a theory of learning in the practice of managing leadership dilemmas. Author Professor Carol Cardno from UNITEC in Auckland alerts readers to how common dilemmas (sticky situations) are for school leaders, especially as they take on the responsibility for improving the learning outcomes of all students.

A leadership dilemma can occur when there is a discrepancy between the aim of improving learning outcomes for all students and the behaviour of one or more individual staff members. Whichever way the leader acts there is likely to be an uncomfortable situation for one of the parties involved. This can create indecisiveness on the part of the leader until they act definitely to resolve the situation which will not go away unless it is dealt with thoroughly.

The good news is however that we can build the capacity of school leaders to resolve difficult dilemmas successfully. The paper reports on data from a study involving New Zealand school leaders as they perceived and responded to leadership dilemmas.

The key factors for leaders are a combination of theory and the development of a set of skills to help them deal with dilemmas. This combination includes:

  • confronting the dilemma
  • overcoming avoidance and attempting resolution
  • learning the skills of productive reasoning
  • using the skills of reflection in action, and
  • creating a dilemma management culture.

Each of these steps is described in some detail. In addition, leaders need to make sure that they have support for themselves as they attempt to resolve the dilemma. They also must plan to provide resource and support to assist the person or people whose behaviour needs modifying. Learning to manage dilemmas also requires being aware of the emotional challenges that are likely to be faced as the situation is being resolved.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • Make a prioritised list of the dilemmas that your school is currently facing. Remember that recognising dilemmas is an important start to the process. What are the discomforts and anxieties that as a leader you have about confronting and dealing with the issue(s)?
  • Select one of the dilemmas that you need to deal with. What areas of learning and upskilling do you need to consider in order to deal with the issue productively, and for the long term? Do you need to develop some management culture values that are part of how your school deals with these issues?
  • Identify the particular areas of need that your school has and employ your networking skills to identify the right external support and advice that your school will need. What support will you need both for yourself, as well as the staff you want to work with in order to shift yours and their professional behaviour so that the learning outcomes of all the students are improved?

Further reading

Leadership Dilemmas

Piggot-Irvine, E. (2006). Developing the skills to work effectively with others (Establishing trust and openness with staff). Presented to the First Time Principals Programme, 27 September, Auckland.


Cardno, C. (2007). “Leadership Learning – the praxis of dilemma management”. ISEA, volume 35, number 2.

PDF added with permission.

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