“What is it to lead?” (Ted Aoki 2005)

Educational leadership involves (even as it cannot be reduced to) the exercise of authority (often institutionally conferred) to enlist faculty and students in realizing educational objectives, often institutionally conceived and now almost everywhere quantified. This profound depersonalization of education does not eradicate the personal character of curriculum conceived as complicated conversation, the leadership of which is enacted not only by policymakers and administrators but by parents, students, and, especially, teachersFootnote 1. Complicating these conjunctions (see Phelan 2015) of curriculum and leadership acknowledges educational processes of recognition, summoning, Bildsamkeit Footnote 2, as Michael Uljens and Rose Ylimaki (2015) underscore. These processes occur within relationships to authority and its exercise institutionally and educationally. Ted Aoki’sFootnote 3 insight that one instance of an education leader – the “principal” – once meant principal teacher, reminding us that authority could be exercised personally and pedagogically. So understood, educational leadership becomes the ongoing opportunity to engage colleagues in complicated conversation that renders experience within relationships educational.

That is my motive here: to engage colleagues in a complicated conversation regarding educational leadership by detaching the concept from its exclusively institutional affiliations and associating it with personal relationships rooted in early often imprinting experience, thereby invoking traditions of study and understanding associated with psychoanalysis,Footnote 4 with its emphasis upon infancy, during and after which dependence becomes renegotiated over time into (relative) relationships of reciprocity. The structures of these early relationships often remain (if modified) into adulthood, transferring patterns of relationality from caregivers to colleagues whose institutional obligations can inadvertently invoke efforts to re-enact (including contest) dependencies from decades earlier. Through the encouragement of candid encounters – parrhesia Footnote 5 or “frank speech” – both expressivity and communication might become clarified personally as well as professionally, enabling educational leaders to work with teachers and students more pedagogically.


The classroom is a space in which the personal is magnified, not diminished. (Bryant Keith Alexander 2005, 251)

I emphasize relationships because moving curriculum online threatens to destroyFootnote 6 them, not only students’ relationships with teachers, parents, and other significant others, but students’ relationships to themselves, and to what they study, and how they work. Relationships are forever fragile; they occur over time and allow for the establishment of trust and intimacy through free even fearless speech. They are structured according to circumstances: time, place, and point (pedagogical, professional, erotic) constitute “circumstance” but also does each participant’s relationship history (including the history of the specific relationship itself), one’s private situations and states of mind, themselves not unrelated to school climate, curriculum content, and teachers’ conduct. Relationships are specific to those engaged in them, and they shift in scale and significance according to the specificities of situations and the singularities of those involved. Today there is much emphasis on relationality – Sam Rocha terms it “irreducible”Footnote 7 – but often it remains an abstraction to which we pledge allegiance, not a concrete reality questioned in our lives. To appreciate the specificity of relationality we might study autobiographically the history of our relationships, with school subjects, ideas, teachers and other educational leaders, and with ourselves.Footnote 8

Over the twentieth century and not only in the United States “professionalism” seems to have stripped the personal from student-teacher relationships, rendering them almost anonymous, even when cordial. Intimacy is suspect, due less to rare but sensationalized instances of pedophilia than to fears of the corruption of assessment.Footnote 9 Even when stripped of specificity, the relational bond between teacher and student can be emotionally charged, even exploited.Footnote 10 Students too have been stripped of singularity, often no longer conducting themselves as students but as customers or clients, e.g. schooling as shopping.Footnote 11 For teachers and students, anonymity may be requested, even required, but to preclude the formation of relationship – especially when requested or advised – seems, well, unprofessional.

Despite conceptions of professionalism that strip specificity from teacher-student relationships, it would be easy to assemble anecdotal evidence for the significance of teachers and other educational leaders in students’ lives.Footnote 12 There can be imprinting qualities to especially early relationships.Footnote 13 Such imprinting portends – if unpredictably – forms of relationships later. The work of political theorist Nancy Luxon – focused on Freud and Foucault, on which I rely here – suggests as much.Footnote 14

Referencing psychoanalysis – wherein intimacy is encouraged by the authority of the analyst and the dependency of the patient – Luxon (2013, 126) is interested how in the “repeated recurrence” of “rupture” and “repair” within the “transference” relationshipFootnote 15 “prepares” persons for the complexities of relationships in “other domains of activity.” Those “other domains of activity” include public domains, and Luxon is suggesting that, as in psychoanalysis, political life – I add educational life – is structured personally.Footnote 16 “Political theorists,” she judges, “missed the turn to ‘relationships’ among practicing psychoanalysts to orient a self-formation over –determined neither by trauma nor dominant social conventions” (Luxon 2013, 12).Footnote 17

These three categories of formation – relationship, trauma and convention – are intertwined. Within object relations theories – those summarized and extended by Nancy ChodorowFootnote 18 and Jessica BenjaminFootnote 19, for instance – the internalization of those early life relationships becomes refracted through gender and race, two structuring forms of possible “trauma” and decidedly “dominant social conventions” that Luxon references. Structuring yes, but sources too for “subjective and social reconstruction” (Pinar 2012, 207), within relationships, including within oneself as well as with others. “Uniquely,” Luxon (2013, 70) writes, emphasizing the point, “psychoanalysis privileges the relationship, not the roles, of analyst and patient.” Privileging relationship over roles seems prescient for a professionalism to be restructured, in part, by relationality, wherein institutional roles inform but not definitively define relationships, including within the exercise of leadership.

Not only in psychotherapy do such personal relationships of authority and dependency – and their ongoing renegotiationFootnote 20 and repair through complicated conversation – matter. Family life can underline how “dominant social conventions” and even “trauma” can be the beginning, not the end, of the story. How parents and other caregivers, including teachers (including the “principal teachers” upon whom institutional authority has been conferred), bond with children matters to their formation as persons, students, and as citizens. Political and cultural conservatives emphasize “character,” but platitudes depersonalize relationships as they overestimate predictability. Character is no template to be installed; it is to be threaded through the specificities of relationship, study, and circumstance, including the affective as well as material conditions that prevail at home, school, and society.Footnote 21 For children character becomes constituted within the accumulation of experience.Footnote 22 Through its reconstruction one can convert private passion into public service.Footnote 23 Luxon (2013, 292) emphasizes this point:

The attention to relationships, however, signals that for all that our ethical institutions rely on individual responsibility in different ways, they further contain an expressive dimension – one that touches on courage, generosity, solidarity, among other qualities – inseparable from commitment to public context.

Specifically Luxon (2013, 16) points to the “culturally salient figures of psychoanalyst and truth-teller” – I would add teachers and other educational leaders – as the “nodal points” that “bind self– and political governance.” These scales of governance are not the opposite ends of a spectrum, but intertwined subjectively, as Foucault notes: “There is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself” (quoted in Koopman 2013, 173).

Like many of Foucault’s ideas, this one is ancient, reminiscent of MacIntyre’s (2011, 11) reminder that “Aquinas says that we only learn adequately when we are on the way to becoming self-teachers.”Footnote 24 Such a pedagogical mode of self-self relationality reminds us that experience becomes educational only when we manage to learn from it. One studies and learns not necessarily to realize one’s potential – at least when that potential is construed only as human capitalFootnote 25 – but for the sake of self-formation the process of study itself supports: an openness to alterity that grappling with whom and what one does not know or understand can encourage.

Ethical self-formationFootnote 26 may not be predictably related to specified structures of pedagogical relations, but even the suggestion of a reciprocal relationship resonates with traditions of liberal learning in the U.S., as Michael Roth makes clear. A “liberal” education has been considered “liberating,” Roth (2014, 3) reminds, because it both requires “freedom to study” and aspires to “freedom through understanding.” In that sense, liberal education is also “useful,” he suggests, as the “free pursuit of knowledge” encourages the formation of “free citizens” (Roth 2014, 33).

Historically at least, the emphasis upon utility has been less intense in Canada, but similar ideas have been in play, as George Tomkins documents.Footnote 27 “Nobody is capable of free speech,” Northrop Frye (2002 [1963], 93) argued, “unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at.” While “free speech is cultivated speech … cultivating speech is not just a skill,” Frye (2002 [1963], 93) emphasized: “You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.” Reciprocity is implied in Frye’s pronouncement, relationship between the personal and the public, between self and society.Footnote 28 Frye’s (2002 [1963], 95) “subject” was “the educated imagination.” Accordingly, he emphasized education as “something that affects the whole person, not bits and pieces of him. It doesn’t just train the mind: it’s a social and moral development too” (2002 [1963], 95).

Not only in North America but also in North Europe do these definitions circulate (if differently), as Michael Uljens and Rose Ylimaki (2015) reference.Footnote 29 Gert Biesta (2003, 62) traces self-formation to southern Europe, to ancient Athens and Rome, defining Bildung as “the cultivation of the inner life, that is, of the human soul, the human mind and the human person; or, to be more precise, the person’s humanity.” Contrary to twentieth-century progressivism, “content” was key, as it was constitutive of the process.Footnote 30 In the vernacular one might say you are what you know.Footnote 31 Since Herder and Humboldt, Biesta (2003, 62) asserts, “Bildung has always also been self-Bildung.” That may be so, but “always” took different forms in different historical eras.Footnote 32 In our time, potential tethered to employability threatens to end such education. In such circumstances what forms can educational leadership take?


Simply, parrhesia is frank speech irreducible to power or interest. Nancy Luxon (2013, 133)

While a form of truth telling, such speech is not necessarily equivalent to truth, nor is it independent of time, place, and relationship.Footnote 33 While no panacea, parrhesia might provide one passage through the present. For Freud in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Luxon (2013, 133) notes, parrhesia encouraged the cultivation of interpretative skills that might stabilize patients facing psychic “disintegration”; for Foucault almost 100 later in Paris, its “potential” was the contrary: disrupting an “over-stabilized self.”Footnote 34 The “link,” Luxon (2013, 134) suggests, is “their insight that self-formation results from a confrontation with authority, under certain conditions, even as this confrontation simultaneously negotiates and rewrites the terms of authority.” Parrhesia is communication that could reconstruct the circumstances in which it occurs: complicated conversation in service to subjective and social reconstruction.

The emphasis on what Luxon 2013, 134) characterizes as the “irreducible relationality of parrhesia” enables her to posit that people can be “subordinated subjects” and “yet nonetheless become authorial agents of change.” It is within networks of relationality – including relations of subordination – that one, through truth telling (even if only to oneself), participates in subjective and social reconstruction, even through institutional reorganization.Footnote 35

For Luxon (2013, 136), the point is that the cultivation of “liberty” occurs within “personal relationship to authority.” No doubt she would also acknowledge that anonymous authority depersonalizes; intense or extreme personal authority can crush. One prerequisite of leadership, then, is an institutionally encouraged willingness to work through in relationship the educational situation one faces. For Luxon (2013, 141) “risk” – intensified in situations of unequal power – can become articulated as engaging with a specific “authoritative interpretation” rather than resisting “all authority,” suggesting how the “broader relations of political hierarchy” could “come to be re-interpreted, challenged, and exploded from within.” Those “broader relations” can also be reconstructed, I add, if apparently accepted, through acts of dissimulation and intransigence Luxon does not here allow.

For Foucault, Luxon (2013, 141) points out, parrhesia implies both a kind of “speech” and a “set of practices,” not mutually excluding categories. For Foucault, Luxon (2013, 142) continues, parrhesia “encompasses a broader set of personalized ethical practices that finish by constructing relationships to oneself, to authority, and to truth.” Crucially, she (2013, 142) concludes, parrhesia “aims at truthfulness rather than at persuasion or entertainment.” The relationship is not only or even primarily about itself, but about the truth of the educational situation in which the relationship is embedded.

Truth is, in part, what in curriculum studies we have characterized (often dismissively) as “content.” In Luxon’s (2013, 142, emphasis added) reading, Foucault associates the practices of parrhesia with “context” and “manner of speech, rather than in the matter, or content of that speech.” Surely content is as least as (if not more) important as context and manner, a point driven home by civil rights the patina of No Child Left Behind.Footnote 36 Of course context and manner matter, but so do the facts.Footnote 37 As style and substance, parrhesia is a medium of subjective and social reconstruction that, as Luxon (2013, 155) notes, an “obligation one bears to oneself, absent any reinforcement from political context; while parrhesia can occur in a democracy, in a monarchy, or in a dictatorship, it cannot be compelled.” Monarchies and dictatorships are surely more restrictive than many – maybe not all, especially in this age of accountability and surveillance – schools, a point of comparison that could discourage teachers and other educational leaders from claiming institutional climate as disabling parrhesia altogether. In authoritarian regimes, intransigenceFootnote 38 relocates parrhesia to the private sphere where private plotting replaces public planning.

Luxon’s final point in the quoted passage above – that parrhesia cannot be compelled – acknowledges agency. For parrhesia to be experienced subjectively as ethical obligation implies a wedding of relationships. Let’s call it a commitment ceremony that becomes public however private its history, invisible its participants and singular its subjective formation. Whoever, wherever, and whatever comprises the present circumstances in which one works, fidelityFootnote 39 to those no longer physical present informs – indeed may structure – one’s engagement in the present, including those persons occupying it. Autobiography provides one means to issue invitations, register who is present, what vows are made, and how they might be honoured.

While one is wedded to others, fidelity is finally personal. The “ethical” obligation of parrhesia,” Luxon (2013, 156) acknowledges, “draws on the speaker’s capacities to bear alone the burden of speaking truthfully.” Such subjective coherenceFootnote 40 is prerequisite for the struggle – social and subjective – that speaking frankly can entail, “life lived in relation to truth,” as Luxon (2013, 164) summarizes the matter. It is truth constantly uncovered, critiqued, and reasserted, truth “underwritten by relations of care” (Luxon 2013, 175), care for others and oneself through care for truthfulness.Footnote 41

While relations of care can structure speech within classrooms and with colleagues, including figures of authority, it also inspires engagement with persons no longer present, with ideas past as well as present, and with oneself. Noting that the practices of parrhesia enable us to rethink conceptions of “free speech,” “democratic contestation, and “rhetorical persuasion,” Luxon (2013, 180) points out that “these” are not the practices Foucault invokes. Rather, she (2013, 180) continues, Foucault’s parrhesia “schools” one to recast “these practices from within.” Working from withinFootnote 42 means, as Luxon (2013, 159) appreciates, that “freedom” is to be “exercised rather than attained.” (Or conferred, I might add.) Such exercise is less in the service of getting it right as much as it is, Luxon (2013, 177) notes, the “shakiness” accompanying efforts to “orient” and “steady oneself” within relationships with “oneself, to others, and to truth-telling.” For parrhesia to inspire “ethical self-governance,” Luxon (2013, 177) continues, its “practices” must contribute to the formation of “coherent subjects,” without “objectifying the individual into a ‘body of knowledge’,” or, I might add, a “role-defined” professional. Roles may be contractually specified, but learning and leadership are personal.


Self-government without authority is a sham, and site-based management programs can be a hoax when it comes to enchanting professionalism. (David Berliner and Bruce Biddle 1996, 339)

Relying on Luxon’s linking of Freud and Foucault, I have worked to “rethink” the relationships between “ethical self-governance” and “political governance” as threaded through “personal relationships” (Luxon 2013, 186). The scale, intensity, and intimacy of such relationships alter according to time, place, and circumstance, but in each instance affect is acknowledged, singularity affirmed while privacy is to be protected. Working through the complicated conversation of classrooms – saturated as such conversation is with class, culture, and the unconsciousFootnote 43 – requires personal enactments of expressivity, parrhesia, tempered by professional discretion and animated by psychological courage.

By situating individuals within relationships, Luxon (2013, 186–187) reminds, Foucault made relationships the domain of “ethical experience,” provoking “action” as they provide “structural constancy” supporting “stable ethical norms binding one individual to another.” Indeed, she (2013, 187) adds the “dynamics” of specific “personal relationships” can “educate individuals to the arts of ruling and being ruled.” These – “ruling” and “being ruled” – may seem overstatements in schools in democratic societies, but such words are also unadorned instances of parrhesia, frank speech that, recontextualized within discussion of leadership, spell out the subjugation educators risk when leadership is reduced to administration or management.

In our era of endless collaboration, leadership practiced instrumentally in the service of implementation can become an Orwellian dissimulation of enforcement. Exercising authority transparently, within acknowledged relationships, relationships with histories and characterized by candour, committed to truth telling, enables “principal teachers” to demonstrate leadership as seeking the truth of the present situation. Seeking and articulating what is found affirms the relationships through which ethical governance – of oneself with others – can recast those patterns of professionalism our predecessors have produced and that we can summon the courage to reconstruct.