“We may need more cowboys”: Australian school leadership in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Purpose, question/s and connection to conference theme

In early 2019, a network of local school principals in suburban Melbourne, Australia, discussed their interest in sharing their experiences of globalisation and its impact on their work in schools. As the research project began to take shape, a global health pandemic rapidly distorted the landscape of their school leadership work. By early 2020, the planned study, as with the planned leadership and school strategic goals for that year, were subverted by the global pandemic all that ensued (OECD, 2020, UNESCO, 2020). Everyday school life was replaced by a level of complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity which reflected a dearth in the scholarship (Sum, 2022). More importantly, as this study highlights, the experiences of school leaders through the sustained crisis of Covid19 placed significant pressure on professional networks, while making transparent the potential cracks in the confidence of leader preparedness. Participants reflected upon the nature of principal preparation as it is currently instilled, and questioned the need for potentially different approaches- from a hark back to the time of cowboys, who went out into the unknown and navigated what was needed, to the current model of manuals and policies on how school leaders may be best advised. Findings from this study on crisis, and the requisite responses from school leadership, highlights the potential gap in principal preparation. Furthermore, it presents experiences of school leaders which questions the nature and effectiveness of ongoing professional learning opportunities.

Research questions:
What happens beyond the initial appointment?
As significantly, what have we learnt in light of recent crisis and the volatile and complex demands of school leaders?

Framework, methods and data analysis

This study used VUCA leadership (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) as a conceptual framework to explore the case of the local principals in Melbourne (Barber, 1992; Bennis & Nanus, 2003). Through a series of focus group meetings carried out on a virtual platform (Archibald etal., 2019), due to the lockdown pressures on residents, but particularly educators at that time, participants reflected on their day to day experiences of leading through crisis, and the implications of this on a variety of work and life aspects. The data set consisted of the transcripts of these focus group meetings, which were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006; 2013).

Findings and significance

The key findings highlight the ways in which these school leaders experienced intense shifts in the nature of their roles as principals, the pressures these shifts caused to professional networks and personal opportunities to decompress, and the subsequent realisation that not all principals are being prepared in the same way for the same level of challenge and volatility. More significantly, narratives from the participants indicate that there is both a lack of adaptability and capacity to deal with the volatility of school contexts amongst many school leaders, which was most recently corroborated in a state government audit (VAGO, 2020) highlighting the gaps in professional learning of school leaders.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024
EventInternational Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement 2024: Quality Professional Education for Enhanced School Effectiveness and Improvement: International Perspectives and Approaches - Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 8 Jan 202412 Jan 2024


ConferenceInternational Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement 2024
Abbreviated titleICSEI 2024
Internet address


  • school leadership
  • crisis leadership
  • volatility
  • Uncertainty
  • complexity
  • ambiguity
  • VUCA leadership

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