Using the leadership dilemmas

This section backgrounds useful information about working through the leadership dilemmas on this page.

These stories encourage reflection and the connection of current ideas with new or alternative ways of thinking and doing.

Stories are told in the first person and are structured in this way:

  • Dilemma type and story summary
  • Story told to a point of ‘crisis’
  • Comments from three expert practitioners: two principals and an adviser
  • Courses of action taken by the principal involved
  • Reflective questions
  • Reflective ‘hindsight’ comments
  • Reflective questions.

The stories are intended to help readers develop strategies that lead to higher-level on-the job decision-making.

Readers could consider working with the stories in a facilitated way with a small peer group. Reflecting on work-based stories is a strategy that can lead to a deeper level of engagement with the issues described.

The structured examination of work-based stories (problem-based learning) is well documented as highly motivating and an effective learning strategy for supporting leadership development. (Weindling, 2003)

Weindling, D. (2003). Leadership development in practice: Trends and innovations. Full Summer Report. NCSL. Nottingham, UK.

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The difference between a problem and a dilemma

Usually, problems can be solved with a single, discrete solution. Dilemmas do not present a clear solution and in most cases are unable to be solved, but have to be managed over time towards a resolution.

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Classic dilemmas

The strict notion of ‘dilemma’ is when we find ourselves presented with a challenging situation where the possible outcome leads to two equally unappealing choices.

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Complex dilemmas

The term 'dilemma' can also be interpreted to mean a challenging situation where there may be more than two difficult decision pathways towards a potential resolution. These are referred to as complex dilemmas.

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Ethical dilemmas

Many dilemmas, whether classic or complex, have an ethical or moral component. The underpinning issue for decision makers in such dilemmas is making a choice between two or more solutions that could be equally construed as right.

Effective decision making

Most classic or complex dilemmas require the person managing the situation to make a series of different kinds of decisions towards achieving a resolution. Depending on the kind of dilemma, there are a number of models that can help people to think through their approaches to decision making.

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Haynes’ model

Felicity Haynes (University of Queensland) suggests a three-step approach, in the form of reflective questions, for dealing with ethical decision-making dilemmas. Her questions emerge from her work as a moral philosopher:

  1. What are the consequences, both short and long term for others, and me, and do the benefits of any possible action outweigh the harmful effects?
  2. Are all the agents in this situation being consistent with their own past actions and beliefs? That is, are they acting according to an ethical principle /ethical principles which they would be willing to apply in any other similar situation? Are they 'doing to others as they would they should do unto them'?
  3. Are all the agents in this situation responding to the needs of others as human beings? Do they care about other people in this particular situation as persons with feelings like themselves? Are they attentive to others?

Haynes, F. (1998). The ethical school. Educational Management Series. Routledge March. ISBN: 0415141850.

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Hall’s model

Alan Hall (University of Waikato) offers a set of questions that educators can use to help consider all things before deciding what they ought to do when confronted with an ethical problem, and how they will do it:

  1. What is the nub of the problem? What principle is at risk? Consider student autonomy, justice, doing good, and avoiding harm. Look for potential conflicts.
  2. Who are the main stakeholders with direct interests in the problem? What are their interests? Try to avoid too long a list. Remember that it is the principal stakeholders you want.
  3. What are some possible courses of action open to the principal? Brainstorm for ideas, group them, and then list real alternatives.
  4. Which items in your ethical code, laws, regulations, or school policies are relevant? Remember that you do not always have help from this source.
  5. Whose interests should be accorded priority? Usually, whatever you do is going to favour someone, and someone else may be disadvantaged. You need ethical reasons to favour one party over another.
  6. In the light of your answers to the previous questions, which courses of action are least defensible/desirable? Cancel them out, giving reasons.
  7. Which course/s of action should be followed in the short and long term? Sometimes, short-term action may be necessary to contain damage, but the underlying issue frequently requires longer-term action.

Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered? An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers. Paper presented at the IIPE Conference held at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, Griffith University, Nathan Campus, Brisbane, 8 April 2001.

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The multi-component model of school leader problem solving

Research undertaken by authors Leithwood, Jantzi, and Steinbach with Canadian school leaders looks particularly at the ways in which leaders who are engaged in transformational practices solve problems and make decisions. In the following summary of their findings they group several components (interpretation, goals, constraints, and solution processes) under the two general processes of understanding the problem and solving the problem.

Their evidence shows that, compared to "less productive peers”(p.104) transformational leaders:

Understanding the problem

1. Interpretation

  • develop a relatively clearer understanding of the problem before attempting to solve it
  • devote more time and effort to the initial formulation of ill structured problems
  • are more inclined to view the immediate problem in its relation to the broader mission and problems of the organisation.

2. Goals

  • adopt a broader range of goals for problem solving
  • when solving problems in groups, have less personal stake in any preconceived solution because their aim is to arrive at the best solution the group can produce

Solving the problem

3. Constraints

  • more adequately anticipate many of the constraints likely to arise during problem solving
  • show a greater tendency to plan, in advance, for how to address anticipated constraints
  • respond more adaptively and flexibly to constraints that arise unexpectedly
  • do not view constraints as major impediments to problem solving.

4. Solution processes

  • think through their solution processes in considerable detail
  • develop an explicit plan for solving the problem, which often includes many steps
  • collect comprehensive amounts of relevant information from reliable sources as part of developing and implementing their solution plan
  • monitor progress with the plan and refine it when outcomes are not satisfactory
  • consult, often extensively, with others in developing their solution plan
  • plan for follow-up.

Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D., & Steinbach, R. (1999). The problem-solving processes of transformational leaders. In Changing leadership for changing times. OUP: Buckingham, UK.

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