Aditi Singh discovers a timely and persuasive argument for leaders to reflect on their values as education approaches a reckoning about its purpose

Amid this all-encompassing pandemic, schools are hives of activity and understated angst. Never has a need for visionary educational leadership been quite so necessary or apparent.

Thankfully, through the hum of this storm, those leadership voices that ring loudest and clearest are all promoting similar values: a deep-rooted care for and understanding of their pupils, advocacy for community health, and a firm insistence on drawing boundaries around support and accountability for staff.

But such leadership has not just been forged in the fire of this crisis. Circumstances had already made it necessary, and historical factors had precipitated their development. Angela Browne’s Lighting The Way sets out to explore these as well as the crucial issues today’s leaders need to take action on in order for education to evolve to a newer, more nuanced and more mature form – a form the book argues is long overdue.

Browne begins by systematically listing the ways in which education is racing towards a reckoning with itself: the rise in poverty and crumbling social support infrastructure; increasing workloads, lesser autonomy and an exodus of staff too beaten by high-stakes accountability to consider this a fulfilling vocation; a decline in mental health outcomes across communities visible to all but those that continue to drive unsustainable change.

Fundamental change is afoot far beyond our classrooms and we will all be a part of it

For school leaders to effectively navigate this sea-change, Browne argues, they will first need to have a reckoning with their “self”, explicitly or implicitly. She lays out the various “styles” of leadership and prompts us to explore how versatile we are, but also how honest, and encourages us to acknowledge the “imposter” within. Only by addressing the false selves we present can we decide where to turn next, what moral imperative drives our visions and how to make these known with clarity and integrity to our teams.

In doing so, we also learn the value of boundaries. As leaders of diverse organisations, how do we work with our teams to balance the need both for compassion and precision in our work? The book’s vision of ethical leadership is overwhelmingly one of “centeredness” – the singular quality that indicates we have done enough internal work to remain steadfast in crises, be they a global pandemic or epidemics of challenging behaviour, emotional dysregulation and exclusions.

Lighting the Way suggests that, as our understanding of human development and behaviour is changing, we are starting to embed wisdom around emotional regulation into our school and our community leadership. While this has been the basis of nascent school wellbeing programmes, Browne argues it needs to go beyond that and to define truly ethical leadership – the ability to support, direct, coach and lead while remaining true to our values and ourselves, to hold fast while those around us are changing.

Throughout, Browne is unequivocal that fundamental change is afoot far beyond our classrooms and school walls, and that we will all be a part of this change. This standpoint allows Lighting the Way to take a measured view of polarised voices in educational discourse, effectively standing above them and incorporating them as perspectives within a bigger whole. There are questions and prompts towards nourishing ethical behaviours with an emphasis on self-care and a consistent focus on growing and developing our communities, using school leadership as a platform to reach families and the world beyond.

Crises can lead us to question even our most steadfastly held assumptions. Many school leaders today will be asking themselves whether the role they find themselves in is sustainable or even for them. The questions Browne asks us to confront are challenging ones, but they are more productive. What does it mean to be a leader? How can I walk ahead of my staff to show them the way and allow them to walk ahead and show me? How can I be an adult worthy of imitation by the school community?

School leaders have been and will always be true community leaders, and Lighting the Way systematically shows us how to do exactly that for our changing and challenging times.