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Cultural and symbolic leadership – what does it look like?


Peter A. T. Farrell

Zeerust Primary School, Zeerust, Victoria, Australia

The author, an experienced teaching-principal, used repertory grid technique to reflect on those tasks, profes-
sional relationships and school events impacting on his leadership. Use of supplied elements and a supplied
construct facilitated the identification of the primary embedding mechanisms used to foster culture in his
school, those factors most associated with his perceived effectiveness. Further reflection on these findings
lead to the identification of future actions that might be profitably undertaken at the author’s school.

Key words: Primary Embedding Mechanism, school management and leadership, personal reflection

INTRODUCTION tional members. It is apparent that these mechan-

isms can be interpreted as either matters con-
Sergiovanni (2006) states that symbolic and cul- cerning task completion, relationship mainten-
tural leadership are present in excellent organisa- ance, and as clearly identifiable events.
tions. The symbolic force for leadership relates As part of their work school administrators
to those things the principal pays attention to interpret policy; execute curriculum; look after
while cultural leadership is about focusing the student welfare, equipment, and the financial and
attention of followers on these matters of impor- physical resources of the school; carry out staff
tance over time (Schein, 1992). Both Sergiovan- induction and development, and nurture stake-
ni (2006) and Schein (1992) say that symbolic holder relations with their school-community
and cultural leadership need not be anything par- which includes staff, pupils, the parents and the
ticularly remarkable; rather, it is in the day-to- department. School leaders are involved in goal-
day expression of routine work that these are setting, assigning duties, consulting others, mak-
expressed. Schein (1992) in his book about or- ing decisions, initiating change, gaining support
ganisational culture and leadership identified a from others, monitoring progress, coordinating
number of mechanisms by which the leader can activity, and regulating the pace of change. Jira-
foster culture in the organisation. These mechan- singhe and Lyons (1996) surveyed 99 British
isms are divided into two general groups; one is leaders of schools to identify the main tasks per-
called the Primary Embedding Mechanisms formed by themselves in their workplace. Man-
(PEMs) while the other is called the secondary aging tasks and people figured most prominent-
reinforcement and articulation mechanisms. The ly, followed by working with information and
six PEMs are what leaders pay attention to, communicating with others. Tasks concerned
measure and control on a regular basis; how with making plans and motivating others were
leaders react to critical incidents and organisa- reported about a third more times than the next
tional crises; the observed criteria by which most reported task category which was about
leaders allocate scarce resources; deliberate role appraising, evaluating and developing people.
modelling, teaching and coaching; observed cri- Schein (1992) stated that those things which are
teria by which leaders allocate rewards, and; the closely monitored and measured by the leader
observed criteria by which leaders recruit, select, are the same things where direct intervention by
promote, retire, and excommunicate organisa- the leader is more likely to occur.

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Peter A. T. Farrell

Following the 1983 publication of Donald graphic instrument by which a person (the sub-
Schön’s seminal work ‘The Reflective Practi- ject) could come to understand him or herself
tioner’, a number of professions, including edu- better. This is how RGT was used in the present
cation, have made extensive use of reflection as study.
a means to understand what a professional does
(Smith, 2001). Schön legitimises informal know-
ledge. In his book, Schön identifies reflection-in- AIM AND OBJECTIVES OF THE
action, which might be likened to ‘thinking on PRESENT STUDY
your feet’, and reflection-on-action, a process
which takes place some time after the event, and This paper presents a method by which a school
is similar to the one used in the present study. administrator might identify which of those day-
Smith (2001) explains Schön’s idea that an abili- to-day expressions of work best exemplify his or
ty to think on one’s feet requires that a profes- her symbolic and cultural leadership and reflect
sional has, at his or her disposal, a repertoire of upon these as a part of his, or her, professional
images, ideas, examples and actions to draw on development. Unlike a questionnaire it privileges
when faced with commonplace or unique situa- the researched, not the researcher.
tions. Reflective practice is about learning from
these personal and professional challenges. Re-
pertory Grid Technique, the research instrument METHODOLOGY
of Personal Construct Theory, provides a semi-
structured way for professional reflection to For the present study, the author, an experienced
happen. principal of a small rural primary school in the
Personal Construct Theory (PCT) was devel- state of Victoria in Australia completed the suite
oped in 1955 by clinical psychologist, George of repertory grids at Table 1 to ascertain the
Kelly (Kelly, 1955). At its heart the theory ac- utility of RGT as a reflective instrument. To
cepts the fact that all people have a personal create the elements in this study, descriptors aris-
view about the world in which they live and that ing out of the author’s doctoral research were
each individual uses that view to make sense of used that covers the range of interest (Farrell,
the events that occur and to anticipate the likely 2009); whereupon the author provided his own
outcomes of future events. Kelly notes that examples for these descriptors.
people are just as likely to be able to adjust their Three created elements were selected at ran-
personal construct of the world in light of new dom, and using the triadic elicitation process a
evidence, as to be unable to change in spite of construct was created (see below). This process
new evidence to the contrary. It is the person, stopped after nine personal constructs had been
Kelly argues, who decides how important a par- created whereupon a tenth construct, where be-
ticular event is or is not, and in their world view ing effective is at one end and being ineffective is
determines whether some constructs are subor- at the other, was completed by the author. Sig-
dinate, or superordinate, to other constructs, nificant correlations (>0.75) between the sup-
leading to a hierarchical system of constructs plied and created constructs identified those con-
where the impact of inconsistencies can be les- structs perceived to be most associated with be-
sened. Each person is able to determine whether ing effective and ineffective. Within each grid –
the anticipated event is similar to a previous tasks, professional relationships, and school
event, but not everyone will interpret the same events – each created construct was correlated
event in exactly the same way, or attach the with all the other created constructs. Of particu-
same level of significance to the event. Personal lar interest were those grids that generated more
constructs are imposed upon events, not ab- significant correlations, and those constructs that
stracted from them. Repertory Grid Technique correlated with more than one other construct.
(RGT), the research instrument developed by
Kelly for PCT, was first envisaged as an idio-

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Cultural and symbolic leadership – what does it look like?

Table 1. Repertory grids used to understand the fostering of culture

Elements Tasks Professional Relation- School Events

(Descriptors) ships (Descriptors) (Descriptors)
1. A task that is time- 1. A school council 1. A recurrent event
consuming member 2. A surprising event
2. A task that is 2. A peer 3. An event which
particularly important 3. a superior caused/causes division
to get right 4. A more difficult 4. An event which
3. A task that is subordinate united/unites
particularly difficult to 5. A less difficult 5. An event in which
get right subordinate you had no choice
4. A task where there are 6. A more difficult 6. An event which you
few resources parent orchestrated
5. A task that takes little 7. A less difficult parent 7. An event where you
time 8. A more difficult were able to reward
6. A task that is not at all student positive action
that important to get 9. A less difficult student 8. An event where you
right 10. Any other relationship challenged an
7. A task that is 11. Preferred pole unacceptable
particularly easy to 12. Implicit pole situation.
get right 9. Any other school
8. A task where there are event
plenty of resources 10. A non-school event
9. A task that is formally 11. Preferred pole
delegated 12. Implicit pole
10. A task that is
informally delegated
11. A task that cannot be
12. Any other school task
13. Preferred pole
14. Implicit pole

The grids were created within Microsoft Excel pole and implicit pole, were created and scored
™. The calculation of correlations was carried according to the scores, given to the preferred
out using the correlation function provided by and implicit ends of each personal construct.
the software. The random number generator Significant correlations (>0.75) between these
function was used to identify the three elements supplied elements and the ones created identified
from which a construct would be triadically eli- the Primary Embedding Mechanisms (PEMs)
cited. Triadic elicitation required the author to that the author used to foster culture in his
determine how one element is different to the school. It is important to note that a correlation
other two. The different element was given a does not imply a cause and effect, merely an as-
score of one whilst the two others were each sociation between the two arrays.
scored five. Every other element was then scored For the purposes of this reflective study, the
against the same criteria. The preferred end of PEMs and perceived effectiveness constructs
the construct was identified at this time. On were reflected upon in light of relevant literature.
completing the grid, two new elements, preferred From these reflections it was possible to identify
Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Peter A. T. Farrell

future actions that might undertaken by the au- RESULTS

thor to further foster the desired culture in his
school. Primary Embedding Mechanisms (PEMs)

Significant correlations were calculated between

BACKGROUND the supplied, preferred pole and six other ele-
ments suggesting a number of PEMs for this
The author is a 48 year old male who has been school leader. Four elements were concerned
teaching for more than eight years. He was ap- with relationships with school stakeholders.
pointed head-teacher of his current school in ru- Three of these referred to relationships with less
ral Victoria (Australia) over seven years ago. difficult individuals like a staff member (0.97), a
Since being appointed the state department of parent (0.90), and a student (0.90) while the
education translated all head-teachers classifica- fourth related to a school councillor (0.80).
tions into principal class officers. This very
small rural government primary school has had “The current president is a good man. He
enrolments of around 20 to 25 students during is logical, measured and calm, and always
the period the author has been responsible for it. does what he promises. He asks good
The school is located a short drive from a re- questions and makes sensible suggestions.
gional city and its parents are a mixture of small It doesn’t get much better than that.”
business owners, salaried professionals, and
wage-earners mostly living on large blocks of “We have 15 families at our school and
land. There is only one farming family attending some make a huge contribution to our
the school. At the school there are two class- community while others only make a rela-
rooms, one taught by the author and the other by tively small contribution. But everyone
an experienced teacher, who herself has been at contributes something; even if it just a
the school for nearly two decades. Other teachers positive attitude about the school, when
visit the school part-time and include art, library we are trying to resolve an issue, not that
and language educators. The school operates a we’ve had many.”
playgroup, provides voluntary music tuition, and
assistance with literacy via an aide to students The remaining PEMs are a time-consuming task
with additional learning needs. The school bur- and a recurrent event. Teaching a class is highly
sar attends the school three days a fortnight. The correlated (0.93) while school council meetings
school is clustered with six other small schools are significant too (0.80).
in the local area and the author is the chairperson
of this group. “The main focus for me is the long-term
Leach et al. (2001) made the following ob- education of a well-known and understood
servations about analysing repertory grids: That group of children and the preservation of
the original grid “keeps you closest to the the school’s friendly and supportive cul-
client’s words and meanings” and went on to ture. In my doctoral research I noted that
suggest that this should be your starting point for teaching-principals are more engaged by
analysis. Following this advice in the present system innovations that benefit student
study, it is the author who provided the commen- learning outcomes, contrasting with non-
tary for the significant correlations (> 0.75). teaching principals who tended to be more
concerned with how new departmental
processes will make administering their
school easier. In the end, it’s what I do. I
teach kids.”

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Cultural and symbolic leadership – what does it look like?

“I’ll be honest I used to hate school coun- “Sometimes we suffer because we are few
cil meetings – I would even tell them [the and we don’t have every skill-set covered.
councillors] that I hated school council However, working with a small communi-
because they would get hung up on minu- ty of teachers, support staff, parents,
tiae; especially financial details. That’s school council, and the students, of
not my thing – I didn’t become a head course, we can be really flexible in our
teacher to count beans. But now, its dif- thinking. Because everyone knows the
ferent – they are my community sounding agenda or trusts me to do the right thing,
board and we do strategic stuff. It’s about we can be very quick to piggy-back onto
the kids, and what’s good for them. That’s unexpected opportunities. The new clus-
a change that’s come through with the last tering arrangements [schools working to-
two presidents.” gether] are starting to make a real differ-
ence to how we operate – I can pick up the
phone, post off an email, as well as work
Perceived effectiveness with other schools on curriculum”.

The author created significant correlations be- Turning our attention to the significant correla-
tween the supplied construct handling this task / tions between the generated constructs: Seven
relationship / event makes me effective – han- significantly correlated constructs were generat-
dling this task / relationship / event makes me ed in the professional relationships grid; three in
ineffective. Four constructs significantly corre- the school events grid, and two in the task grid.
lated with effectiveness – ineffectiveness were
generated. Two of these were constructs from
the relationships grid. For this school leader be- Professional relationships
ing effective school leader is about effective re-
lationships taking place with school insiders There were seven significant constructs. Of
(0.90). these, the constructs which correlated with more
than one other construct, were:
“When people know the school well, they − It’s professional – It’s personal (three
realise what a beautiful, precious thing we times);
have going here. We are so fortunate to − There is a shared agenda – The agenda
work in this place with these students and is personal;
these parents.” − Interested in the school – Interested in
“I am so lucky in my staff both full-time − Set’s the school tone – Spoils the school
and part-time. They are keen, enjoy what tone, and;
they do, and are ready to make a contribu- − Adds value to the school – Reduces val-
tion to the school. The relationship I have ue of the school.
with my teacher is particularly strong –
our focus is the students and the school.” “With the shift to clusters under the new
network arrangements we now enjoy a lot
Perceived effectiveness also relates to dealing of professional interactions with other
quickly and efficiently with events (0.84) that schools, other teachers, and other school
are not directly concerned with the schools’ own leaders. At first I felt the arrangement was
business. Being small means being flexible, a challenge to our independence but it has
whilst a lack of human and physical resources not been prescriptive, I feel supported ac-
can be a weakness (0.76). tually and that is good because you can
get professionally isolated in a small
Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Peter A. T. Farrell

School events
“I am really lucky that so many parents
help out in so many ways out our school. Three significant correlations were found. The
There are the leaders, and for the most following construct: There is time for considera-
part you point them in the right direction tion – There are short lead times correlated with
and let them get on with it. They may not the following two constructs:
necessarily do everything the way I would − Its about students – Its about process,
but their heart is in the right place, and and
they really are helping to make this school − It improves the culture – It undermines
a special place to be. There are also the the culture.
followers, the foot soldiers, and you need
them too. They free up the leaders.” “Students are our core business. What
they need, what encourages them and
“Insiders set the tone of the school. You what brings them on, is where our interest
hope they are positive people who just needs to be. In our small school of just
want a great situation. There can be blips two classrooms and the children spending
and minor setbacks but if the culture is three and then four years in each class-
positive and strong then that’s all they’ll room. We really know these kids. We can
be. We had this kid from another school, really provide for their individual needs.
supposed to be a real handful, who came We can be distracted by the form-filling
to us to ‘re-invent’ himself, according to and the box-ticking but this is getting bet-
his mother. I was worried I’ll tell you. ter than it was.”
This kid could have ruined everything. I
told them (the boy and his mother) that if “You have to think about the impact of
he really wanted things to be different what you do even if it is to introduce a
then he had to make a real effort. If he did system-wide innovation. I’m just the ste-
that, gave the school a chance, then the ward of the school and I want what’s best
school culture would take over, and you for the school and the kids. I certainly
know it did. That kid is no problem at all.” don’t want to upset the families. They trust
me, and that’s a big responsibility. They
Constructs, which were significantly correlated may not always understand what’s going
with only one other construct, were: on so they rely on me, on us, to work in
− It’s about education – It’s about man- the best interests of the kids.”
− In regular contact with the school – In Being in charge of events rather responding to
irregular contact with the school, and; them is much preferred.
− Knows the school well – Does not know − It relates to the school – It does not re-
the school well. late to the school and
− It is a process orchestrated by me – I am
“A shared educational agenda is strategic responding to others.
and powerful. We only just discovered this
in the last couple of years and it has “Bureaucratic form filling for the sake of
changed the way we work together. Deal- other people really irritates me. For ex-
ing with people’s personal agenda is more ample, I had to go on-line three times for
about managing a situation. Stakeholder the XXXX to register that I would be ‘a
dysfunction just kills creativity.” good boy’ about administering the XXXX
test. Then I had to go back because I had
failed to say who would be responsible for
the tests. This gives me the XXXX – I mean

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Cultural and symbolic leadership – what does it look like?

really, they can easily find out how many events rather than responding to them. The au-
kids are enrolled here. In a small school thor perceives his effectiveness as a function of
the principal is responsible for everything, the positive relationships he has with school in-
why have us filling in forms about the ob- siders and their trust in his ability to flexibly run
vious. Who benefits? They do. This has the school and competently educate their child-
nothing to do with kids. Whereas, if the ren.
process is to be orchestrated by me, and is The richest data in this investigation came
specific to the needs of the school, I wel- from the relationship grid. Relationships with
come that - bring it on.” stakeholders can be very important but each
stakeholder group can have different expecta-
tions of the principal (Cleary Gilbert, Skinner, &
Tasks Dempster, 2008). In a study of 12 new teaching-
principals in Queensland, Australia, Cleary Gil-
In addition to the correlations about being effec- bert et al. (2008) noted that bursary staff antic-
tive or ineffective discussed above there were ipate that the principal will have a good under-
just two significantly correlating constructs. One standing of financial matters irrespective of their
related to the flexibility of being able to rely just level of experience; teacher aides expect that the
on yourself to get things done whilst also recog- principal can communicate effectively and main-
nising that this can be a weakness. tain positive relationships with all members of
− Can be creative – Cannot be creative the community; teaching staff looked forward to
and the teaching-principal displaying assertiveness
− It’s about education – It’s about man- with the school council and community, excel-
agement. lent classroom management skills, and strong
pedagogical skills for the multi-level learning
“Sometimes you have to just fill in the environment; school councillors expected a
forms and tick the boxes and it has noth- teaching-principal to be a good communicator,
ing to do with education at all. But being to be able to deal with student behaviour, to be
such a small set-up our flexibility with re- able to provide educational support to those that
spect to education is almost breath-taking. needed it, and to have the personality to lead,
Our kids design curriculum. They can, for and; superiors had an expectation that the teach-
the most part, be left to just get stuff done. ing-principal would build community relations,
Their independence as learners is as- manage conflict, and communicate effectively
sured. We will soon have one-to-one stu- with the wider community.
dent computer ratios and that will really Another significant PEM for the author is
get us being creative about education.” teaching and working with children. Jones and
Connolly (2009) used repertory grid technique to
interview 12 experienced principals working in
DISCUSSION Welsh primary schools in the United Kingdom.
The grids created in that study were focused on
The primary embedding mechanisms used by the tasks identified by the participants that resulted
author to foster school culture are made apparent from prompt questions like name an important
by the importance of having positive relation- task, name another, what tasks take a long time,
ships with positive stakeholders, being intimate- what are one-off events etc. Combining the 97
ly involved in the core business of teaching at elements created by the 12 participants where
his school, and working with his school council they overlapped produced 12 themes. Those
in an effective and professional manner. These themes referred to more frequently might be li-
are the matters that he pays attention to, meas- kened to the PEMs created in the present study.
ures and controls on a regular basis (Schein, Working directly with children generated 20
1992). The author prefers to be in control of elements nine related to teaching or preparing

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Peter A. T. Farrell

learning materials and six referred to dealing providing appropriate support and supervision of
with their needs (Jones & Connolly, 2009). In staff.
the same study (Jones & Connolly, 2009) 84
constructs were analysed and aggregated to iden-
tify construct themes of which children figured FURTHER REFLECTION AND POSSIBLE
most prominently. FUTURE ACTIONS
The final PEM was concerned with the rela-
tionship with the school councillor and, by ex- Based upon the present self-study, there are two
tension the school council. For small school areas of interest that the author might investigate
leaders in Scotland an 'outward looking perspec- to further foster the culture in his school. The
tive' for professional purposes is combined with first is about improving the quality of relation-
a more cautious approach to relationships with ships with school outsiders. The second area is
the community served by the school (Wilson & to implement a change in some of the organisa-
McPake, 1998). While recognising the impor- tional processes used in his small school. The
tance of support from parents and the school desired outcome from improvements in both
councils, and expressing the desire that they be- areas would be to free up more time for the edu-
come more actively involved in the life of the cation of children.
school, school administrators are also very aware A start has been made to improving the quali-
of local sensitivities (Wilson & McPake, 1998). ty of relationships with school outsiders who
School administrators of small schools recognise might be pursuing a different agenda to the
the limitations of parental or community in- school, but it is not of the same quality and depth
volvement: the feeling is that parents are unlike- as that enjoyed with school insiders. This might
ly to be interested in the details of running the be achieved in a number of ways:
school although they will provide practical help − “Engage more positively with the repre-
in a variety of ways (Wilson & McPake, 1998). sentatives of my cluster, network and
Constructs around perceived effectiveness regional office. Share my skills, know-
were about having being able to work in a flexi- ledge and experience outside my school
ble way with a small number of dedicated people and attempt to influence the direction of
while handling non-educational or non-school these groups.”
tasks quickly and effectively. There was a high − “Rather than complaining about the bu-
level of resentment, as indicated by extensive reaucratic requirements of being part of
commentary, by the author about dealing with a larger system, make use of their power
bureaucratic matters. Coping with administrative and resources to drive desired change
paperwork has been identified as the single most within my school. Filling in forms is just
significant strain for teaching-principals in New the cost of doing business, and
Zealand, especially by beginner teaching- − With this in mind try and bring about
principals (Collins, 2004). Leaders of small greater alignment between the aims and
schools have limited opportunities for delegation objectives of the school and the goals of
and are very conscious of the importance of not the larger organisation.”
overburdening staff (Wilson & McPake, 1998). Collins (2004) noted successful administra-
Where the teaching-principal is a teacher first tors of larger small schools (6-7 teachers) in
and an administrator second, some management New Zealand ring-fenced blocks of time (to fo-
and leadership functions might be neglected such cus on one particular task and see it through to
as meeting and working with other teachers, completion), delegated the task to someone else,
handling emergencies, carrying out clerical and shared responsibility for the task with a team and
administrative work, developing curriculum, attempted to influence change via an instruction-
liaison with secondary schools, planning, meet- al leadership approach (Collins, 2004). Wilson
ing parents, relations with student support ser- and McPake (1998) recorded that small school
vices (Reid, Bullock, & Howarth, 1988) and heads in Scotland tend to share tasks rather than

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Cultural and symbolic leadership – what does it look like?

delegate because of a lack of expertise. However the supplied construct of being effective or inef-
this support is not always available. What is fective privileged particular personal constructs
possible depends on who you have on your staff enabling the self-discovery of those qualities
(Torrington & Weightman, 1993). most valued. The commentary around the signif-
Staff quality is a real issue in small schools icantly correlated constructs relating to tasks,
given the impact one poor teacher can have on professional relationships and school events,
student outcomes while high teaching-load of a provided a means for the participant to reflect
teaching-principal can prevent adequate supervi- upon his professional world. However, it is in
sion and teacher development. Southworth the further reflection and the identification of
(2002) observed that being time-poor was a fea- possible future actions that the procedure de-
ture of the professional life of the teaching- scribed here gains real traction as a professional
principals in small British schools. The author development process.
enjoys a close and professional relationship with
his small staff; each of whom are dedicated to
the students, and to the school. Useful work on REFERENCES
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Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009
Peter A. T. Farrell

Torrington, D., & Weightman, J. (1993). The Culture his thesis. This article is Peter’s own work, and
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Farrell, P.A.T. (2009). Cultural and symbolic
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR reflection and the effective management and lea-
dership of a small rural school. Personal Con-
Peter Farrell, EdD, is the teaching-principal of struct Theory & Practice, 6, 99-108, 2009
Zeerust Primary School. This is a government
primary school situated in rural Victoria, Aus- (Retrieved from
tralia. He recently graduated with a doctor of http://www.pcp-
education through La Trobe University in Victo-
ria Australia. RGT and PCT featured strongly in
Received: 5 June 2009 - Accepted: 6 October 2009 -
Published: 22 October 2009

Personal Construct Theory & Practice, 6, 2009