Exploring a Principal’s Practice during a Period of Significant Organizational Change: Relational Leadership and Sensibilities in Action

February 25, 2015 in Volume 03

Exploring a Principal’s Practice during a Period of Significant Organizational Change: Relational Leadership and Sensibilities in Action

David Giles
Flinders University, Australia

Carolyn Palmer
Flinders University, Australia



This article reports on a phenomenological inquiry that explored a principal’s leadership practice from her appointment into the position through to the repurposing of the school, towards the inclusion of strengths-based principles and practices. The principal’s relational leadership style and her adept relational sensibilities are significant influencers on the school’s changing organizational philosophy.

Keywords: phenomenological inquiry, relational leadership, school building leadership


Over a three year period, members of the school’s community were involved in a series of semi-structured interviews that focused on the principal’s leadership style and provided evidence of her relational sensibilities. Set in the context of a primary school in Auckland, New Zealand, interviews were conducted with the principal, members of the Board of Trustees (BOT), the senior leadership team, teaching and administrative staff and school parents. The data from the interviews and related documentation were interpretively and hermeneutically analyzed.

The findings show the principal’s ‘way of being’ in leadership as that of a Relational Leader. As a Relational Leader, this principal lived a moral imperative that energizes her intentions for ideological change within the organization. Similarly, as a Relational Leader, the principal represents and embodied the change expected of others. Finally, the principal intuitively demonstrates a range of relational sensibilities in her everyday experiences of being a principal. Over the three years and within the context of significant ideological change, the principal has repeatedly shown her attunement, nous, tact, improvisation, moral judgement, phronesis and resoluteness.

In everyday lived experiences, Relational Leadership points to how we are ‘in’ leadership and the relational nature of these experiences. In addition, Relational leaders show their practical wisdom through their adept use of relational sensibilities. In so doing, the Relational Leader points to a way of being that can bring greater connectivity and humanity to the project we call schooling.


Leadership is invariably situational and relational (Gergen, 2009a, 2009b; Giles, 2008; Sidorkin, 2002; Whitney, Trosten-Bloom & Rader, 2010). Indeed the reciprocity of the relationship existing between leaders and their context of leadership suggests that leaders are not “independent actors” (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 344). Rather leaders shape and are shaped by their context in subtle and mutual processes of influence.

Being ‘in’ leadership involves being ‘in’ relationships and attending to known and expected activities while also being called upon to respond in emergent situations that arise each day. Being in leadership is not a matter of following a leadership recipe, rather leadership is experienced beyond the rules of engagement as a situated journey within a dynamic, emergent and changing context (Giles, 2010). In the everyday situational nature of leadership, Bennis and Naus (1985) suggest that the challenge for leaders is to be doing the right thing rather than just doing things right.

The real issue here is the relational context of leadership (Whitney et al., 2010). It is not whether relationships matter to leadership but how they matter given the moral imperative of education (Fullan, 2011a). Indeed Hunt and Dodge (2000, p. 448) consider the “relational perspective to be at the forefront of emerging leadership thrusts”.

Relational Leadership

There are many current models of leadership that take a relational approach. Drath’s (2001) and Cunliffe and Erikson’s (2011) relational leadership theory view leadership as a dialogic process where systems and practices are co-constructed. In this way leadership is seen as embedded in everyday practices and as a way of engaging with the world. Uhl-Bien (2006) extends the dialogic nature of relational leadership to that of a process of social influence, situating leadership practice with a socio-cultural and social constructivist framework (Gergen, 2009a). Gronn’s (2002) distributed leadership model centres of distribution processes as the unit of analysis for leadership practice.

Relational Leaders show a concern that interpersonal exchanges create humane and connected inter-relationships (Brower, Schoorman & Tan, 2000). Such a concern recognises a shared humanity and a fundamental respect for others (Fullan, 2011b). Relationships are more than functional and utilitarian means to an end; rather they exist as foundational to our lived experiences and the basis of our collaborative endeavours (Giles 2008). In short, relational leaders live towards a greater common good for all (Fullan, 2011b; Giles, Bell, Halsey & Palmer, 2012).

Relational leaders intentionally provoke a relational agency between individuals in the process of forming collaborative learning organisations. In this process, Relational Leaders call others to dialogic spaces where educational ends and processes are equally important (Uhl-Bien, 2006). The necessary re-culturing that works towards critical and humanistic aspirations is integral to the desired change agenda (Fullan, 2001).

Relational Leaders care in an ontological sense. This is not a care that switches off and on but a care that is essential to a person’s being and lived out as an intentional and caring response towards others (Levinas, 1998). Such care is integral to who we are and how we comport (Giles, 2011; Hamachek, 1999). As such, Relational Leaders show a deep commitment towards other’s best interests (Alford, 2007; Jagodzinski, 2002; Marcus, 2007; Noddings, 2005).

A central concern for relational leadership appears to be the leader’s ‘way of being’ ‘in’ their context (Giles, 2011). In this way, relational leadership is a particular way-of-being where a leader’s relational sensibilities are attuned to the nature and subtleties of their immediate and dynamic interactions (Giles, 2010; Segel, 2010). This dynamic and changing way of being in leadership can be likened to a relational ‘play’ (Giles, 2010). In this play, Relational Leaders are increasingly attuned to what is happening relationally and, more particularly, to the motion of the space between those relating (Fullan, 2010; Segel, 2010). Relational Leaders appear to have a sense of how the relational spaces are mattering.

The relational nature of leadership can be seen in the relational sensibilities that are seen in everyday experiences of being ‘in’ leadership. While the study ‘of’ leadership can provide collective wisdom of other’s best practice for our consideration, the experience of being ‘in’ leadership occurs within specific and local contexts that are relational laden. In this way, the leadership experience is understandably dynamic and draws upon the leader’s attunement and nous in ‘reading’ the immediate context, accurately diagnosing and sizing up the situation in a grounded manner. In these moments, a leader’s relational sensibilities are shown in the way they attune themselves, improvise or remain resolute in a particular experience (Giles, 2010).

Relational sensibilities are exercised in everyday experiences of being immersed in a leadership context. Relational Leaders have a way of being that values relationships; they sense, read, and momentarily act relationally. Relational sensibilities, such as nous, attunement, moral judgement, improvisation, tact, phronesis and resoluteness develop over time and are seen in everyday, taken for granted, experiential accounts.


We refer to our research approach as hermeneutic phenomenology (Giles, 2008). The expression hermeneutic phenomenology identifies two major understandings of this research. Firstly, it is phenomenological, in that the inquiry explores a particular phenomenon, the relational nature of the Principal’s practice; secondly, the inquiry is hermeneutic, in that the inquiry seeks to open meanings of the phenomena in the process (Annells, 1996). Crotty (1998) suggests that “for Heidegger, hermeneutics is the revelatory aspect of ‘phenomenological seeing’ whereby existential structures and then Being itself come into view” (p. 96).

In summary, the hermeneutic phenomenological methodology is unlike other research approaches. It is a turning towards a phenomenon rather than a preoccupation with research techniques (Gadamer, 1994). The purpose of this phenomenological inquiry is to explore lived experiences of the Principal during a period of significant organisational change. The purpose of this research was to illuminate essential meanings of the relational nature of an educational leader’s relational practices as a way of uncovering new possibilities for the centrality of the phenomenological nature of relational leadership.

As a phenomenological inquiry (van Manen, 1990) this research explored the question: What is the relational nature of a new principal’s leadership from her appointment through to significant ideological change? Ethical approval for this research inquiry was gained from the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Law Ethics Committee, Flinders University, South Australia.


The context for this inquiry centers on a school principal in a high decile primary school in Auckland, New Zealand. The principal has had a long history in the educational sector. She had previously held school principal positions, been a lecturer and senior leader in a School of Education, and had served in the role of a Education Review Officer for the Ministry of Education. The Board of Trustees who were responsible for her appointment suggest that the new principal was “rich experientially with a strong academic base”. Of particular interest, this principal had had experience as a principal in both high decile and low decile schools.

 Participants and Interview Questions

The participants in this research included the Principal, members of the Board of Trustees, Senior Leaders, teaching and administration staff, and parents of the school community. Participants were involved in a series of semi-structured interviews having been directly involved with the principal over the three-year period. The focus of the interview was the participant’s observations and perceptions of the principal’s leadership style and her influence and initiatives over the first three years of her employment.

The following questions are indicative of those asked at the outset of the research. Subsequent questions were identified during the transcribing of initial interviews. The principal was initially asked:

  • How do you describe yourself as a leader? What have been some of the formal and informal contexts where your leadership abilities have been called upon? What do you identify as critical events that have shaped your style of leadership?
  • How do you distinguish between strengths and talents? What do you see as your strengths and talents as a leader?
  • What have been your aspirations for the School? What do you see the School as becoming? What changes have you initiated? How do you identify areas that need to be changed? What have been some of the highlights / challenges in your time of leadership?
  • Do you see yourself as a catalyst for change? Would others describe you in this way? Does change at an organizational level appear to frustrate you or excite you? Explain.

The initial questions for the participants (other than the principal) were as follows:

  • How would you describe the Principal as a leader? What do you see as the Principal’s strengths? How would you describe the Principal’s style of leadership?
  • What have been the Principal’s aspirations for the School? How does the Principal see the School in the future?
  • What changes has the Principal initiated? Can you describe some of these? How have areas that need to be changed been identified? Can you give some examples? What have been some of the highlights / challenges of the Principal’s leadership?
  • Would you describe the Principal as a catalyst for change? Does change at an organisational level appear to frustrate or excite the Principal? Explain.

 Data Analysis

The participants’ stories were explored using the phenomenological, interpretive, hermeneutic approach outlined in previous research (Giles, 2008; Giles & Yates, 2011). The benefit of such analysis is the opportunity of considering the data in terms of the meanings that are expressed ‘between the lines’. The findings that follow are presented after which a discussion of the Relational Leader construct and the evidence of relational sensibilities ensues.


In this section, the findings of the research are presented. The findings reflect the phenomenological nature of the principal’s leadership during a time of significant change. In presenting these findings, representative quotes are included to illustrate the particular intention. Initially, the context of the new principal’s appointment is described after which the principal’s purposeful approach is outlined. The principal’s strategic and ideological leadership is then considered along with the practice of being ‘in’ and being ‘where’ the new ideology was being spoken about. The principal’s ability to give opportunity for others’ strengths while also involving the stakeholders precede findings that are more reflective of the principal’s influence over her first three years in office.

 Initial Days: Establishing a Mandate for the New Principal

This phenomenological inquiry spans a three-year period from the appointment of a new principal to the significant organizational changes that led to the exploration and inclusion of strengths-based educational approaches within a school. The Board of Trustees (BOT) being the school governance, were explicit and articulate in giving the incoming principal a mandate for change. The Board (BOT) were looking for a leader who would assist in naming and shaping the niche or special character of the school in the future. A BOT member recalls the essence of these interactions as an invitation to the new principal to “help us find what the School’s niche or point of difference was. We want to be known for excellence in something, the question was what.”

There is a particular reason for seeking to identify a niche of excellence related to the school’s status as a normal school. Normal schools are public schools in New Zealand that have a closer association with the local providers of pre-service teacher education programs. As such, normal school staff are expected to host pre-service student teachers and provide expert demonstrations. Normal schools are also the site for practitioner-based research that contributes to the critique and development of the existing pre-service teacher education programs. Prior to the appointment of the new principal, the Board were concerned with the level of innovation within the school. A Board member expresses this concern as:

We are a Normal School – our responsibility is firstly to the kids in the school, but also to train the next generation of teachers – it behoves Normal Schools to be at the leading edge of what is good in education and to be pushing that boundary out further – I actually think it’s our job!

The principal engaged in the articulation of the mandate and then “hit the ground running” making her own informal and formal observations (Board member). The Principal believed that there was need for change based on her understanding of current pedagogy and recent experiences as an educational leader. The principal brought her point of view to the Board in terms of strengths-based learning and explained what it was. The principal began a journey of describing a possible future for the school. The chairperson recalls thinking:

She had a vision for what she wanted to do and was able to enunciate and convince us that where she was headed was what we wanted in a Principal, in terms of where to next? … this was in terms of how we were going to be, rather than what we were not going to be.

In these interactions the Board “appreciated her considered and personal approach … obviously well read in that everything had a basis for the ideas presented”. This important front end dialogue provided the basis for a trusting and positive relationship that was to become, and remains, an important source of encouragement for the principal (Board member, Principal).

A Purpose-full Leader

As a purpose-full leader, the principal is described by Board members, parents and staff as having a “clear view in her head of the vision or goal of where she wants to be and then she’s very good at organising people around that in a variety of ways”. She is said to jump in to assemble and turn the organization from the outset and in the process, “turning concepts that others may think were woolly into something concrete” (Board member).

In this way, the principal set an agenda for change, repurposing the school’s endeavour towards the fullest development of every child. In this high decile school, where it might have been expected that extension and gifted classes were offered, this principal was unwavering in her moral imperative that schooling serve the greatest good of every child. As a parent commented, and teaching staff echoed, the principal’s “vision for the students really is around creating potential and experiences of success for [children] in a way that’s real”. After all, this is the imperative for leaders and teachers to sustain a creative concern for alternative and inspiring approaches to education. As the principal states:

If you are in education, you are always looking for something new that’s going to inspire students and staff to always better their performance. At my last school, they were always concerned that I drove such a long way to work because they would say that on the way I would come up with some creative idea and say ‘what about this’ and on the way back home I’d reflect about it. They used to wish that I lived closer to the school.

 A Strategic and Ideological Leader

Many participants describe the principal as a strategic leader in terms of her manner, initiatives, and the quality of the documentation and experiences that follow. Very early on as the new principal, a senior leadership retreat was organized which included two external consultants. During this time, a new school philosophy and vision statement were created from previous data collected from the community. For board members, the documentation was evidence of the principal’s strategic abilities; “The statements around the school’s philosophy was the first significant departure from just what had to be done. … We have a direction ‒ regardless of personalities ‒ this is where we’re going”. In due course, outside expertise would be engaged to assist in embedding these statements in relation to the school’s leadership, curriculum and pedagogy.

As an ideological leader, the principal had the challenge of reculturing the school around a new school philosophy and vision statement. As Fullan (2001) suggests, ‘reculturing is the name of the game”. Sociologically, the principal’s intentional engagement was in pursuit of an alternative ideology of education; a new organisational philosophy or storyline (Meighan, Harber, & Siraj-Blatchford, 2007). At the outset and in positional authority, the principal was in the minority in terms of advocating for, and enacting, an alternative ideology.

From the outset, the principal articulated the goals and aspirations of an alternative ideology by directly addressing her concerns about withdrawing children for gifted and special educational programmes restating the moral imperative that a strengths-based approach to education was to be a reality for every child. The school was establishing “an inclusive program … a vision for all” (teacher). In the principal’s words,

right from the word go’, I said very strongly, every child has a talent, and every child deserves their talent to be recognised. I am inclusive about talent. I made my intentions very clear ‒ we would favour an inclusive enrichment model for growing talent.

Similarly, “I don’t want any child in the school feeling that their strengths are not recognised by the teacher in the class, that is the driver for me” (Principal).

Initially, the language of talents was the catch cry for change. Very soon, the expression strengths-based would more deliberately identify an alternative ideology and its departure and difference from more typical and traditional practices in other public schools. The importance of establishing shared understandings and common language is crucial to ideological change. For example,

strengths-based education was seen as being more than just what good teachers do. As such, an alternative ideology gathered momentum and began to challenge the dominant ideology which appeared to be locked into best practices of a more traditional form of schooling.

The shift from talents to the language of strengths-based education meant that the expression was easier to articulate and more accessible for those within the school’s community. While the precise meanings of strengths-based education is not the focus of this paper, the participants had some consistency in terms of its essence. For example,

Strengths-based approaches to education are about encouraging somebody’s inherent capabilities so that that sense of achievement and confidence then informs the areas that they were perhaps less aware of as development areas (Parent)

Light came on for me in discussions with [the principal] around the philosophy. The conventional model is about patching up weaknesses. The research demonstrates that if you focus on people’s strengths, it’s a more effective way of learning; weaknesses improve. For me, that understanding that if you focus on the positive you actually get a much better result, than what we are currently doing, which is focus on the negative, and tell kids what they are not good at. We do it right through life – glass half empty.” (Board member)

Strengths-based approaches are an alternative value system that relates to identifying and valuing others input and strengths. It gives a person the power to be autonomous (Teacher)

And then you have the staff, their strengths being developed; students’ strengths being identified and developed. Then we have the community taking their partnership and they being included within the life of the School, which inspires and empowers them (Teacher)

If you know their strengths, you try and place them in the role that’s going to hopefully allow them to spend most of their time in their strength. (Principal)

In addition, the principal’s position was that strengths-based ways of thinking and acting was a matter for the teacher’s professional learning so that they would influence the children’s educational experiences. This priority for children’s experiences is described by the principal as,

For me, why I introduced strengths-based thinking into the school was to get the teachers to develop their strengths and talents, then it will become very clear to them that they need to do that for the students in front of them. It makes them see a connection, feel it, understand it. Then it’s their duty to ignite the strengths and passions of their students.

Ideological change in this school emerged as a critical mass gathered in support of the alternative ideology. The principal was clearly the champion for change and the primary “catalyst of change”. Several participants suggested that the principal “causes a change in other people”. “She’s a good influencer. She’s focused and goal oriented, so people come along with it” (Parent). “When you come away from [the principal] you have a sense of purpose” (Teacher). [The principal’s] ability to bring the vision to life, consistent alignment to what we said we’d do here; we’re actually doing it, which impacts on the standards and quality of education outcomes for the kids. (Board)

The political nature of competing ideologies invariably leads to tension. It is during these times that individual’s strength and convictions are tested. The principal is said to be unafraid of taking on resistance, at times listening rather than competing. More specifically, the principal has “never been scared to take on a battle if she truly believed it was worth going into the fight for” (Board).

The principal was also described as “pretty tenacious” and “having nerves of steel” (Board). These characteristics have been seen within the school and in interactions with other school principals who have openly expressed the view that we don’t believe in this strengths stuff. Being resolute and determined, the principal seeks to “persuade first, then after entreaties, would state, we are doing this” (Board). The intentionality of change remains resolute when, “alongside that is a real skill around displaying a degree of commitment that doesn’t allow a whole lot of waywardness with staff ‒ important when you are building alignment” (Board).

The moral imperative for the Principal can be seen in the determination and clarity of purpose. “She knows what she’s doing is right ‒ has a strategy and vision that’s endorsed by whomever she needs it endorsed by, so she’ll make it happen by doing anything that’s required” (Parent). In a similar way, the principal is seen as “very conscious of being aligned to her values. … She personifies all the things she’s trying to encourage in her students” (Board). The principal has also been described as one who regularly improvises. “She’s got a very clear idea in her mind ‒ she’s in the present but she’s always moving forward” (Teacher)

In as much as education is a human activity, engendering ideological change is a political activity that requires a degree of nous. Many participants describe the principal as being very astute politically and noted the significance of this in the success of the school’s ideological transition. The principal commented on her practice of “reading the dynamics” on a daily basis.

Within the challenge of ideological change, this principal is seen as being tuned into others. Not only is she “self-aware” (Board) and has a “sense of what people are like” (teacher), she “keeps abreast of what’s happening” (Teacher). Her attunement is such that the principal is “aware of what’s important to the individuals and can reflect that back” (Board).

Being In and Where the New Ideology was Being Spoken About

Leading ideological change requires practical wisdom (phronesis). This principal stayed on the cutting edge of the dialogue and conversations that were occurring ‘in’ the school. For example, the principal was intricately associated with changes to the expectations and practices for staff development within the school. Teaching staff worked as individuals or in pairs in a type of practitioner based professional development. The research activities investigated the application of strengths-based thinking to a particular area of interest related to curriculum or pedagogy.

This new initiative was critical to staff engaging with and experiencing strengths-based approaches. As such, the Principal worked alongside a senior leader ‘in’ the dialogue. The senior leader and principal formally met with each staff member twice at the beginning of the session. Subsequently they shaped and modified the intended project for each person. In this way, the principal was able to influence the focus of the inquiry for each staff member, monitor the process, resource as needed, and influence the senior leaders’ willingness to improvise with a new idea. Equally important, the Principal was able to demonstrate first hand her commitment to change, her ability to facilitate and inspire growth, and her ability to reorganize duties and responsibilities such that the projects were supported by two staff with librarian skills who had access to university libraries.

The previous example relates to the principal being ‘in’ the change process. The principal was also located ‘where’ the dialogue on the alternative ideology ought to be taking place, that is, in the classrooms with the children. She recalls, “on the whole I see great things happening, but still not enough. I have things in my head that I want to see and that’s what keeps the energy for me”. The moral imperative of an alternative ideology must result in the children experiencing a change in the nature of their schooling.

Giving Opportunity for Other’s Strengths

“One great aspect of the model of leadership that the principal portrays is that she gives room to people to grow” (Teacher). In this way, the principal models a relational and strengths-based style beyond just the words of change. The principal describes her intentions in creating space for others as follows; “where I always want to go is to where staff can feel that they can fly. The biggest challenge in leadership is providing the next leadership step for these flyers, I suppose”. This aspiration is held for those in leadership, teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents.

There were a large amount of evidence of individuals experiencing an opportunity to grown and develop. Some examples of these follow. An administrator recalls;

When the new principal came she gave me the flexibility to look at where I could expand myself in the job and allowed me to make a lot of the decisions myself, which was much appreciated. The principal would more or less tell me we need to look at this area and would give me an idea of what she was thinking about and then allow me to go out and startorganizing things. At the regular senior leadership meetings, both the Office Manager and I have a section in there where we can report to and answer any questions that the team has ‒ every Monday. I found it ‘surprising’ to be invited (Administrator).

The language of strengths and opportunities was regularly recalled by staff as being a topic that the principal was keen to pursue from the outset. A teacher recalls,

When the Principal first arrived at the School, she wanted to interview us all one by one. I was at the end of my second year of teaching beginning my third year. She was encouraging me to find my strength at my class level and strength in a curriculum context as well. She asked what area of expertise would you like to focus on … and then her support has been fantastic for me.

Another teacher recalls an experience with the principal that involved a presentation at the local university. Her story captures the strengths and enabling approach by the principal. She says,

An opportunity arose to go to the university and lecture in maths. The university had contacted the principal and said that they needed someone. I was a new team leader at the time and the principal said, it’ll be fine; it is good for my career! She took me in the car and sat me there in the room. By the time I was with the university lecturers, I felt as prepared as I possibly could be. The principal can talk you into doing anything really and it is very much ‘we are doing it together ‒ we are strong’.

Drawing in Stakeholders in an Authentic Manner

The principal shows a particular concern for other minorities that exist with the school community.

She’s made terrific strides in becoming more of a reflection of the community even at the Board now there is more a racial mix which is more reflective of the school. It hasn’t come about by accident. I attribute to her relational qualities as she’s made quite serious efforts to interact with many different sectors of the community. She has met them individually and encouraged them to come as part of a wider school group. We have a small Maori and Pacific island percentage, who she very much values, she recognises minorities (Board).

In her “strong vision for individuals and for the School” (Teacher) her inclusive agenda is seen as applicable to the stakeholders as it is to the children. As a result, “parents are very positive about the School” (Teacher).

Looking Back on the Principal’s Influence-From Strength to Strength

Looking back over this three-year period, participants readily point to the changes in the school’s ideology and the influence of the principal in this. This view has been expressed as follows:

You can see an evolution and a stepping up from bricks and mortar to people and philosophy (Board)

It’s really gaining momentum and I can see the sense of satisfaction and appreciation (Teacher)

[The principal] has given the School direction and impetus and I’m on board with her 100 per cent (Administrator)

I’ve been most excited about the strength based learning (Teacher)

It’s changed the way I think – made me remember some things that I’d forgotten about children and about myself, what an important lesson it is to focus on the positive – powerful – a profound shift! (Board)

What I really like from this Institution is when you see the strengths being developed- you see diversity in the children, in their eagerness, the way they are motivated, connect with the process of learning; it’s heartening (Teacher).

Where to next?

Given the changes that have been initiated and embedded in the school, participants have postulated as to the changes that might emerge in the short to medium term. These views are summarised as follows:

There will be a whole lot more alignment in terms of the quality and attitudinal behaviours of the staff towards the strengths-based initiative (Board)

She’ll have a staff who will be very empowered and expert teachers in a different approach (Teacher)

The school will become more & more of a community school (teacher)

There will be more research happening in the School, more teachers engaged in Postgraduate study (Teacher)

Experiencing the Principal First Hand

Participants were asked to reflect on, and describe, the nature of their first hand experiences with the principal. The views here span the three-year period where an alternative educational ideology was articulated and implemented. In this context, the relational nature of the principal’s leadership is very evident. What follows is a sample of the comments made:

I don’t think there’s been a single moment when we’ve thought that it was the wrong choice (Board)

A strong leader who is considered and calm (Board)

A wonderful Principal who knows what it is to be a leader (Teacher)

She’s a very loving caring kind of person (Board)

To have someone like [this principal] believe in you is really, really important (Teacher)

Approachable and works in a relational way (Teacher, Adminstrator)

I absolutely know that if I knock on her door I’d be very welcome (Parent)

She personifies all the things she’s trying to encourage in her students (Parent)

A pioneer for empowering teachers to build that strengths-based model within their own classrooms. (Teacher)

The Effort Given by the Principal

The principal is applauded for the effort she gives to the school. She is repeatedly described as very hardworking and determined. Sustainable ways of leading require a consideration of the effort given balanced against the need for personal renewal. Ideological change is indeed a political and taxing experience. The principal is mindful of the need to “be refreshed in the job. I need to know that I have people around me that I enjoy for my own survival … people that give me life.” The concern for the principal’s personal renewal is echoed in the following comments:

There’s a challenge for the Board to keep her motivated and interested and that she’s continually being challenged (Board)

It is a lonely job at the top – while clearly within her capabilities – it’s not effortless. (Board)

A summary of the research findings has been presented. The findings are representative, but not exhaustive, of the data.


In this section, the findings are considered in terms of a model of relational leadership style presented in the introduction. We argue that this principal is a relational leader who exemplifies many relational sensibilities.

The model of leadership presented in the introduction considers Relational Leadership as a way of being that:

  • Attunes to the subtleties of the immediate and dynamic relational context through refined relational sensibilities,
  • Lives ‘towards’ a deep moral commitment to critical, humane and connected inter-relationships,
  • Lives ‘out’ a way that authentically models and embodies care-full relationships (individually and organizationally).

Within this model, the relational sensibilities of nous, tact, attunement, improvisation, resoluteness, and moral judgement are integral to the experience of leadership (Giles, 2010).

The first characteristic of relational leadership is that relational leaders attune to the subtleties of the immediate and dynamic relational context through refined relational sensibilities. The research findings directly and indirectly show the principal’s ideological commitment and attunement within the school. As a strategic and ideological leader, attention was given to the language and dialogue around an alternative strengths-based approach to education. Attuning to the subtleties of this dialogue, the principal remained in and where the dialogue was taking place, establishing and advocating for this alternative ideology.

The principal’s recollections and the participants’ responses show the relational sensibilities within the experiential nature of the leadership. The principal’s moral judgement was evident in the articulation of an alternative priority for the school and the manner in which she repurposed every-day aspects of the school’s organization in realizing the strengths-based ideology. Participants were very aware that the moral imperative in this agenda for change focused on a holistic concern for children and their formation.

The principal’s resoluteness was critical to the agenda for change. We noted that ideological change is always a political experience. As such, the principal’s personal fortitude characteristically reinforced the need for change and the nature of that change. On the one hand the principal was approachable and relational, however, the moral imperative meant that there were many occasions when actions and not words were required. Specific examples here can be found in the findings.

This principal could read individuals and the nature of the relational interactions that occurred within the school. Such nous enabled the principal to strategically engage in a dialogue which involved ideas that challenged the dominant ideology. In this sense, the principal’s nous was critical to the reculturing of the organization. Nous is essential to political astuteness. Without nous, a leader is potentially blind to critical events and attitudes that can shape an organisation’s culture. In this research, the principal demonstrated her nous in her movement around, and observations of, the curriculum in action. Her concern was to see how children were experiencing strengths-based practices. Her observations enabled her to get a sense of the extent to which the ideology was being translated into practice. These perceptions and observations informed the principal’s decision-making as she built a critical mass around an alternative ideology. On a different occasion, the principal wisely co-led a change to the professional development expectations for staff. Being involved in a series of conversations with each staff member enabled the principal to see and hear first hand how the teachers were thinking and feeling about the new initiatives. These conversations enabled the principal to engage with teachers in a one-on-one and face-to-face manner.

The principal repeatedly demonstrated a practical wisdom within the context of her interactions. The principal brought to her position a wealth of experiential and tacit knowing from previous educational leadership positions. The principal had previously considered some of these new initiatives in a low decile context. These and other professional experiences provide a backdrop to the manner in which the principal wisely engaged in the school’s ideological change. This wisdom can be seen in her decision-making practices and the manner in which the principal provoked individual staff and members of the wider community to fully engage with the alternative approach. Asking provocative questions, creating opportunities for staff to experience strengths-based approaches, and consistently informing the Board of Trustees of her intentions, is evidence of a practical wisdom that underpinned the significant changes made over the three-year period.

The second characteristic of relational leadership is that the leader “live ‘towards’ a deep moral commitment to critical, humane and connected inter-relationships” (Giles, 2010). This principal was explicit about her purpose and the nature of the re-purposing that she sought for the school. Her conduct repeatedly pointed to the intention for change. Indeed, the school’s development and relationship with the wider stakeholders is evidence of a commitment toward an inclusive agenda and a repositioning of the community within the life of the school. The principal took every opportunity to state the purpose and the agenda for change within and beyond the school context.

The third characteristic of relational leadership is that they live ‘out’ a way that authentically models and embodies care-full relationships (individually and organizationally) (Author1, 2010). A particular strength behind this principal’s success was that she authentically embodied the change she wished to see in others, individually and collectively. As previously stated by a Board member, this principal “personifies all the things she’s trying to encourage in the teachers and her students”. Creating opportunities for others was not without the principal’s ongoing encouragement and willingness to resource the opportunity. Many staff expressed their appreciation of the principal’s encouragement.

The principal embodied a strengths-based philosophy and expected staff to do likewise. What is important here is that the principal expected action and would tolerate for a time inactivity if this meant that a staff member was genuinely seeking clarification. The priority for the principal was action that would lead to a change in children’s educational experiences at the school. For this principal, discussions around the definition of talents, strengths, strengths-based education, only “tangled up the vision”. On more than one occasion, the principal stated the view that “I’m not interested in defining it; we’re just doing it”. The principal’s comments here should be read as privileging theory and practice in an integrated manner. In the context of ideological change and critical pedagogy, we argue that the principal was concerned that the school’s praxis aligned with an alternative educational process that empowered children beyond their time in school.


The findings of this phenomenological inquiry show a principal’s way of being in leadership as that of a Relational Leader. As a Relational Leader, this principal lived a moral imperative that energises her intentions for ideological change within the organization. Similarly, as a Relational leader, the principal represented and embodied the change expected of others. Finally, the principal intuitively demonstrated a range of relational sensibilities in her everyday experiences of being ‘in leadership. Over the three years, and within the context of significant ideological change, the principal repeatedly demonstrated an attunement, nous, tact, improvisation, moral judgement, phronesis and resoluteness; sensibilities that enabled an ideological shift within a primary school.

Relational Leadership is a reminder that leadership relates to how we are ‘in’ leadership and how relationships matter in everyday experiences. Leadership is not for the faint-hearted as the call to be an organizational leader who intentionally repurposes strategic and operational activity towards a moral imperative is indeed a challenge. This research presents the story of a relational leader in action, successfully reaching for an ideological shift that would bring greater connectivity and humanity to the project we call schooling.



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This article was accepted for publication after a double-blind peer review process. Receiving Editor: Patrick Blessinger, International HETL Association, New York City, USA.

Suggested Citation

Giles, D. and Palmer, C. (2015). Exploring a Principal’s Practice during a Period of Significant Organizational Change: Relational Leadership and Sensibilities in Action. The Journal of Meaning-Centered Education. Volume 3, Article 1, http://www.meaningcentered.org/exploring-a-principals-practice-during-a-period-of-significant-organizational-change-relational-leadership-and-sensibilities-in-action

Copyright © [2015] Institute for Meaning-Centered Education (IMCE), David Giles, and Carolyn Palmer

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