Testing the ‘glass cliff’ theory at school

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“When an organisation is in crisis women are often seen as being able to come in and take care of the problem. They’re effectively handed the mess to clean up,” says Anna Beninger, senior director of research and corporate engagement partner at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on promoting women in business. Research shows that in many instances, women are put in charge when organisations are in trouble. Although this “glass cliff” has shown propensity for setting them up to fail, in many instances many women have proven to be successful at orchestrating a turnaround.

Becoming principal in January 2020 at a school she previously taught at was not the homecoming Ntshanaka Selone Ramadimedja had expected when she took over the reins at Albert Luthuli Primary School in Bela Bela. The school had seen a turn down in enrollment and learner numbers were declining — a sign that the quality of education at the school was lower than it should be. Then the  Covid-19 pandemic brought disruptions that even the most seasoned principal could not be prepared for. This would have been a rocky start for any newbie because there had not been time to problem-solve, to cultivate a new school community or cement relationships with the existing school management team so that joint leadership could be maintained. 

I first encountered Ramadimedja in March 2020 through the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) Sandbox Project which aims to initiate programmes and set up channels to improve the quality of learning and teaching.

Her first expression of concern was the small school management team with only two permanently appointed heads of department and a non-functional School Governing Body (SGB) that did not partner with the school in curriculum matters. At the core of the conundrum was the lack of leadership structures — a weak school management team (SMT) and governing body — and the immediate imperative of salvaging the school year for learners who had limited access to alternative modes of learning.

In my many conversations with Ramadimedja last year, the need for “action” leadership for her school became increasingly apparent. In the introduction to her book Action leadership: Towards a participatory paradigm author Otrun Zuber-Skerritt describes this concept as “active, creative, innovative, collaborative, shared and self-developed leadership in partnership with others. It involves taking responsibility for, not control over, people through networking and orchestrating human energy towards a holistic vision and an outcome that best serves common interest”. 

In deliberating over strategies for action leadership with Ramadimedja we worked on how to develop closer bonds with teachers at her school who were amenable and open to co-leadership. In this way she co-opted five staff members to serve on the SMT under her direct mentorship. They found themselves in a new role with responsibilities that were not always as clear-cut, requiring a participatory approach to leadership and decision-making. In this regard Ramadimedja used strategically facilitated meetings to explore joint decision-making on several issues that the school had to immediately confront. Some of the more urgent ones being curriculum coverage and a gap in subject expertise among the teachers employed at the school. It was jointly decided that an invitation would be extended to the local district curriculum office for additional support, and a consultative restructuring process with staff would be a priority so that expertise gaps could be effectively managed. This, together with several other functional interventions, has ensured that the school could operate effectively as a first point of departure. 

This included sometimes taking a hardline approach, particularly with regards teacher absenteeism and late-coming. Towards year-end much had been achieved and a better school-community relationship was also starting to develop. There was a lot for Ramadimedja and her team to be proud of.

I was therefore excited to touch base with her in 2021 as I had expected a continuation of the good work Unfortunately, this was not the case. It seemed that the momentum required for the continuation had been broken by a late start to the school year and other well-being issues that had debilitated staff morale. 

Glass cliff evidence

She was effectively “back to where we started, back to the drawing board”. But, despite the setback, what convinced me of the “glass cliff” that she was experiencing was her response to my suggestion of mediation. She said: “As the principal I must see what I can do first, how I can build bridges, before I bring in others to mediate.” This stuck out for me as possibly a “womanly” thing — the kind of resilience and agency that propels us forward to never give up. 

There is a perception that women contain certain (stereotypical) qualities that make them better able to manoeuvre through tough times, that these qualities serve leadership well in such circumstances. In a study published by Harvard Review, 69% of respondents chose a woman leader when a company was in crisis.

This also came out strongly in the SWOT analysis we engaged with for Albert Luthuli Primary School to ascertain the way forward. It brings to light several renewed interventions that Ramadimedja together with Moseri Mafafo one of the HODs willing to share in her action leadership will bring to the fore in participatory processes that will serve to strengthen, renew, and forge forward the main agenda — everything in service of learners. 

I took the opportunity to revisit the school’s vision and mission and asked her the fated question: “Do you think this needs to change?” Without hesitation, she answered: “Even though we are not there yet, we are not living up to what the board outside promises, it’s a yardstick, a place where we can definitely go.” 

No one would have blamed her for lowering the bar given the leadership and expertise challenges the school currently faces … but it takes a woman to admit “we are not there yet, but nothing stops us from working towards getting there”. 

One could speculate on the feminine “solutionary” instinct or the internal drive to make things work no matter the circumstances — only time will tell. For now, what makes Ramadimedja the best person for leading Albert Luthuli Primary School is doing what chief executive Anne Mulcahy described when she successfully engineered the turnaround of an almost bankrupt Xerox: “I bled for Xerox and that’s what helped me succeed.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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