Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Political frame orientation and educational leadership


image found at http://ronaldwbrownassociatesllc.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/

When talking about the leadership orientations of educational leaders, discussion often centers around supporting faculty, developing programs, and implementing policies and procedures.  Trying to understand how leaders think and the impact of that thinking sheds light on the potential effectiveness of that leader.  I have written in other posts about the multi-frame leadership orientations described by Bolman and Deal (2003), specifically the structural frame, the human resource frame, and the symbolic frame.  The remaining frame is the one that educational leaders have been least likely to admit using.  Although less frequently espoused, there may be a connection between effective leadership and the use of this final frame, especially in independent school settings.  This final frame is the political frame, which has roots in the power and political organizational theory.

The Power and Politics Organizational Theory

Shafritz, Ott, and Jang (2005) offer a definition of power: “Power is the ability to get things done the way one wants them done; it is the latent ability to influence people” (p. 284).

This definition is based on the definitions proposed by Gerald Salancik and Jeffrey Pfeffer (1977) and Robert Allen and Lyman Porter (1983). There are two basic benefits to understanding organizations through this definition. First, this definition emphasizes the relativity of power. Second, it reminds the reader that conflict and use of power are often not about outcomes, but rather methods, means, and approaches (Shafritz, Ott, & Jang, 2005). Therefore, organizations that control power, through the forming of alliances of people seeking organizational resources, determine the ability to achieve established organizational goals (Durocher, 1996).

The critical need to form alliances and establish external relations, then, becomes an increasingly important function of leadership. Thus, the direct involvement of top leaders in the political aspect of the organization takes on a new, more important role (Bennis, 1984). As a school of organizational theory, the power and politics theory rejects the previously held assumption that organizations are rational institutions whose purpose is to accomplish established goals. Instead, organizations are redefined as “complex systems of individuals and coalitions, each having its own interests, beliefs, values, preferences, perspectives, and perceptions” (Shafritz, Ott, & Jang, 2005, p. 283).

The political process involves two parties. One consists of recipients of influence and initiators of social control, and the other party is initiators of influence and recipients of social control (Gamson, 1968). The interactions of these two parties in the political process can be somewhat unclear. In schools, political activity is often found as a result of unclear goals and continuous activity (Campbell, Corbally, & Nystrand, 1983). As Sergiovanni (1984) writes, “The political perspective represents a recent and important development in the literature of educational administration” (p. 6).

The Political Frame

The political frame, as mentioned earlier, is rooted in the power and politics organizational theory which describes organizations as places where power is exercised in the allocation of scarce resources (Durocher, 1996). The source of this power is found through authority, expertise, controlling rewards, and personal power or characteristics (such as charisma, intelligence, communications skills, etc.) (Bolman & Deal, 1984). The political frame operates based on five basic assumptions (Bolman & Deal, 2003):

1. Organizations are coalitions of diverse individuals and interest groups.
2. There are enduring differences among coalition members in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
3. Most important decisions involve allocating scarce resources – who gets what.
4. Scarce resources and enduring differences make conflict central to organizational dynamics and underlie power as the most important asset.
5. Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among competing stakeholders. (p. 186)

Bolman and Deal (2003) conclude, “Organizations are both arenas for internal politics and political agents with their on agendas, resources, and strategies” (p. 238). They also state that organizational effectiveness depends on political skill and the ability to determine when to consider an open and collaborative approach or to use a more adversarial strategy. Understanding the political realities of a situation calls for the leader to consider the potential for “collaboration, the importance of long-term relationships, and most important their own values and ethical principles” (Bolman & Deal, 2003, p. 220).

Implications for Educational Leaders

Studies have been conducted to measure frame usage and to investigate possible relationships between leadership effectiveness and frame use.  There have been a few studies that have found some connection that suggests a correlation between leadership effectiveness and the use of the political frame.  These studies have involved mainly subjects in the United States.  For example, Bolman and Deal (1991) found that in the United States, effective leadership was associated with use of the symbolic, political, and human resource frames.  More recently, my research into leadership orientations of independent school heads suggested that self-reported leadership effectiveness was associated with use of the political frame (Roddy, 2010).

In light of the fact that the political frame is consistently reported as the least used frame by leaders, it is important to understand that using a multi-frame approach lends itself to the best chance at both leadership and managerial effectiveness.  Though reported at used less often, the political frame is not less necessary, especially given the research suggesting its relationship to leadership effectiveness.

What does this possibly say about defining effective educational leadership?  Can we flip these findings into an understanding that the ability to navigate the challenges associated with the conflict over limited resources in schools is an essential skill fro the successful educational leader?  Resources, remember, do not necessarily have to be financial.  Other resources can include time, space, faculty members, etc.  Building coalitions of educators and supporters that are aligned with our vision is a potentially powerful step in making positive decisions when faced with a politically challenging issue.  The challenge to many leaders is then to properly frame or reframe often unclear organizational challenges in a manner that allows these leaders to make the best possible decision for the faculty, students, and families in their respective school communities.


Allen, R. W., & Porter, L. W. (1983). Organizational influence processes. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Bennis, W. (1984). The four competencies of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 38, 15-19.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E., (1991). Leadership and management effectiveness: A multi-frame, multi-sector analysis. Human Resource Management, 30, 509-534.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. (3rd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Campbell, R. F., Corbally, J. E., & Nystrand, R. o. (1983). Introduction to educational administration. Newton, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Durocher, E. A. (1996). Leadership orientations of school administrators: A survey of nationally recognized school leaders. Dissertations Abstracts International, 57(02), 525A. (UMI No. 9620148)

Gamson, W. A. (1968). Power and Discontent. Florence, KY: Dorsey Press.

Roddy, T. (2010). Frame analysis of the self-perceived leadership orientations of headmasters of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, Southern Association of Independent Schools, and the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington member schools (Doctoral dissertation, University of New Orleans, 2010).

Salancik, G. R., & Pfeffer, J. (1977). Who gets power – and how they hold on to it: A strategic-contingency model of power. Organizational Dynamics, 5, 2-21.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1984). Handbook for effective department leadership. (2nd ed). Newton, MA: Allyn Bacon.

Shafritz, J. M., Ott, J. S., & Jang, Y. S. (2005). Classics of Organizational Theory. (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth /Thomson.

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