Hargreaves and Fink: Sustainable Leadership

Sustainable Leadership (2006), a comprehensive volume on sustainability leadership, is a neatly organized, accessible read for all audiences. Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink nicely bring together 15 years of leadership research and theory into a comprehensive, applicable framework that is of great worth for educators, academics, policy makers, parents, and community members. Overall, Hargreaves and Fink organize the book simply but impeccably, and write harmoniously.The foundation of the book is that education should take a lesson from the environmental movement, where it is not the bottom line that counts, but sustainable practices that focus on preserving our human or financial resources and caring for our educational environment/community. Hargreaves and Fink maintain that sustainability is “inherently moral” (p. 17) and that education can and should be long-lasting for generations to come. They frame sustainable leadership as three dimensional; that it has depth, length, and breadth. In other words: it matters, it endures, and it spreads. The authors build a strong argument that the current climate of standards and testing is moving us away from true learning, and is not sustainable.

In Chapter One, Hargreaves and Fink emphasize that deep and broad learning, which is often slow, is central to a sustainable purpose and that all principles framed in the book are secondary to this one. In Chapter Two, they focus on length and how leadership stretches far beyond one leader’s professional lifetime with effective succession. In Chapter Three they discuss breadth as the need to recognize distributed leadership in communities, networks, and organizational layers. Hargreaves and Fink go on to fill out those three dimensions with four more areas that give sustainable leadership more substantial meaning: justice (does not harm the surrounding environment), diversity (promotes diversity and cohesion), resourcefulness (conserves expenditure), and conservation (honors the past in creating the future.) The next four chapters touch on each of these through specific examples, as well as action principles for making sustainability real.

Overall the authors stick to their argument and offer a one-two-punch of both theory and practical applications. While the book offers a variety of actionable steps that make it worth a read for practitioners, it avoids simply being a primer by offering a philosophical framework that inspires change. They expertly weave parallels between the environmental movement and sustainability in corporations, while applying these theories to education in a way that makes them accessible to the reader. For example, in the section on length, the authors bring in the theories of corporate and public sector succession and then apply it to education. Hargreaves and Fink write about the emotional aspects of succession and give six actionable steps, so an educational leader could open to the page and easily see what actions to take. In a similar way, they tie in conservation theory, recognizing that conservationists wish to preserve biodiversity within the context of current situations, and encourage a “more complex and less romantic understanding of the conservation ethic” (p.243-245). As they weave the connection with education, Hargreaves and Fink offer ten specific ways to honor the past and move into the future. The flow from ecological and corporate theory to clear actionable steps is seamless, reinforcing the book’s strength of incorporating both theory and action.

For some readers this book may feel too idealistic for true implementation, as the authors stress that the principles should be viewed as a meal to be consumed together, and not a menu from which to pick and choose. This means that practitioners must implement all seven principles in order to have truly sustainable leadership, creating an all or nothing objective that may feel overwhelming and create reluctance in adopting the strategies. This hesitancy, however, may be more symbolic of how far educational policies have deteriorated the current state of education, and I cannot fault the authors for setting the bar high.

There were moments in the book that raised some issues for me, including some poor word choice that implied hurtful assumptions. As an example, Hargreaves and Fink laude the regeneration of some cities, to the gay community “with its creativity and disposable income” (p.163) reinforcing a stereotype. While these are only short lines in the book, the word choice and stereotyping are jarring and interrupt the otherwise strong fluidity of the writing. There was also a strong Western influence, and the diversity of examples was lacking, as all the schools referenced were from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Additionally, I would have liked a more robust conversation on the greater community, not just policymakers or parents, but concerned citizens and the role they play in encouraging sustainable leadership in education.

Overall, the authors expertly bring together leadership theory and an actionable framework that creates a strong reasoning for sustainable leadership. Their diligence in mapping out each principle and building from one to the next crafts a strong argument. This book has a clear place in educational leadership theory, and is a must-read for any constituents invested in our educational systems.

Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable Leadership: San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 325 pp.

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About Aislinn Doyle

Aislinn is a part-time doctoral student in UVM's Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program, while also working as a Career Development Counselor at Saint Michael's College. Her research interests include arts in education, specifically how the arts function epistemically and the role the arts play in cross-cultural conversations. She is passionate about access to education for girls and young women around the world and currently serves as the President of the Board of the Mariposa DR Foundation.