What can we learn about abstraction from discussions about Gareth Southgate’s Leadership? (A lot)

Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more blogs about Gareth Southgate’s leadership and what we may/may not learn from him about school leadership, here comes another one. Apologies in advance. 

In the interests of transparency I shall say at the outset I am not looking to advocate in this piece for a particular conclusion to the ‘Southgate question’. Rather, I want to try to expose a little of the underlying principles in play and suggest why I think there may be some problems in the way the debate is playing out. 

(I should also declare an interest: I once stood next to Gareth Southgate in the queue for breakfast, so we’re basically friends now, right?)

Abstraction is key, in specific circumstances

Some ideas are more abstract than others. Most of the claims being made about the lessons of Southgate’s leadership – eg ‘good leaders do X’ – are at quite an abstract level. They tend to focus on things like integrity, process, communication etc. These concepts, by their nature, tend to sit at quite a generalised/abstracted level precisely so they can be applied in a range of fields/professions/practices. We’ll call these notions ‘A+’ (‘A’ meaning abstract, and ‘+’ signalling it is ‘strongly’ so). 

What is interesting though is that often when making the argument for particular leadership ‘approaches’, this is accompanied by specific examples – often things which by their nature make sense in particular context. These are less abstract so we might call them ‘A-’. In some ways this makes a lot of sense: examples can illustrate and add power to a claim. But it also creates a problem too, because at the point you move to the specific you are changing the thing you are talking about. You have moved from the abstract to the concrete: it’s a different thing. 

So, as an illustration, let’s take a look at the ‘lessons from Southgate’ debate, and the sort of claim that gets made. As an example we’ll look at a claim like ‘Southgate shows us that communication is the key to good leadership’ (A+).  

We might then expect this claim to be furnished with illustrations of Southgate’s communication (A-). Perhaps we highlight that he briefs his players in the buildup to a game on the opponent-specific detail of each of their roles during attack, defence and transition, supported by video footage (I’m making this up but it sounds plausibly like what Southgate might do and hopefully you get the idea). 

The argument then goes that because this activity, which has been filed under the banner of ‘communication’ (A+) works for Southgate, this is evidence that communication is the key. What gets missed is that the argument stopped being about the general/abstract notion of communication and was actually highlighting very context-specific actions (A-) that Southgate might undertake. So, what is it that’s making the difference here? The abstract notion of communication (A+) or the specific enactments of it by Southgate and his team (A-)?

This nuance often gets lost in the discussion. What we see instead is the claim that communication is key for Southgate and thus it must be key elsewhere. And here is the thing: ‘communication’ in a broad, abstract sense may well be key across a range of contexts, but what that looks like in each context will differ, potentially very significantly. 

For example, we might find consensus on the importance of communication as a key part of successful school leadership, but we wouldn’t necessarily expect a headteacher to play multi-angle TV replays to children of how they walk into assembly in order to communicate how they should behave on the way into assembly. And we might not expect a disappointing lesson from a member of the science department to be followed up by the head of department staring at them determinedly while pointing at their head – “think about what you are doing” – in the style of Harry Kane upon conceding to Denmark. Or maybe you would in your school, and that’s fine. But the point is that we shouldn’t assume that meaning is consistent across contexts. 

When we take an abstract notion like communication and unpack it into its component parts we do so in a particular context. And when we unpack that same abstract notion in a different context it has the potential to be different. 

The A- in football probably looks very different to the A- in school, and yet the claim is made that it’s analogous somehow because we think we’re comparing the A+ with the A+ (which might be the same because they are by their nature A+ concepts are abstract and thus reach across a range of contexts). 

 Level of abstractionSouthgateSchool
A+‘Communication is key’ Might mean same as…‘Communication is key’ 
A-Briefing players in the buildup to a game
on the opponent-specific detail of each
of their roles during attack, defence
and transition, supported by video footage. 
Probably does not mean same as…????????????????????????????????

The table above illustrates the problem. A+ Southgate and A+ School might be analogous (because they are at a high level of abstraction), and therefore it is not necessarily wrong to say in abstract terms that ‘communication is key’ in both contexts. But that level of abstraction is very limited in describing what’s actually going on. The moment we depart the abstract and move into the concrete we see difference. 

What problem are we trying to solve?

So, does this mean that all abstract ideas are useless? No, I don’t think so at all (more on that in a bit). But I do think we have to consider what problem we are trying to tackle. Often the debate in education about generic/domain-specific knowledge gets off on the wrong foot by not first explaining what is that we are trying to achieve. What is the problem we are trying to solve?

Much of the debate, I think, is about trying to better understand what effective leaders do so that we can make more high quality leaders: it’s developmental in nature. Therefore, if we are trying to unpack the knowledge, behaviours and perspectives of successful leaders we must move downward from the abstract to the concrete in order to reveal the nuts and bolts of what effective leaders do. This is because we can’t meaningfully construct a curriculum for leaders that consists only of top-level abstract words and phrases. For example, if it were enough to simply say ‘good leaders communicate well’ and for this to have a transformative impact, by the time you’d read this sentence your leadership would be transformed. But just in case it is working for you, here’s another: “good leaders have an effective strategy.” You’re welcome 😉

As with the Southgate example above, the argument that draws on abstract concepts MUST be unpacked. In fact, even proponents of the generic leadership narrative probably don’t realise they are often doing exactly this and in doing so are baking into their argument a fundamental category error: they may begin their paragraph arguing the abstract point but it’s not possible to do so convincingly unless specific examples are deployed. So they risk thinking they are talking about one thing when actually they are talking about the other. 

It seems inescapable to me that if we are trying to address the problem of ‘how do we improve leadership’, our argument hinges on the concrete stuff, whether we realise it or not. 

In defence of abstraction

But this doesn’t mean that abstraction is useless. Quite the opposite in fact, depending on what it is we’re trying to do. Moving from the concrete to the abstract is powerful and often essential. It gives us the language for a shorthand and the concepts to move beyond describing the world only in face-value as we experience it and, therefore, avoid talking/writing/thinking in a prose of infinite length. It is after all the power of abstraction that allows us to reach beyond the everyday and to make predictions and so forth. 

So, if we already had a good idea of the specifics of what made school leaders successful and we wanted to draw all of that together into some sort of high level shorthand then it might be useful to say ‘good leaders communicate well’, or ‘good leaders have integrity’ etc. Abstraction gives us the tools to repack and take a zoomed out view. 

The problem I think though is that it’s often not an upwards escalator to abstraction (A+) that we need when trying to work out how to shape highly effective leaders – we already have quite a lot of that. What we don’t know so well are the specifics (A-).

Summary

To summarise, it is tenable that we can agree with A+ statements like “Southgate’s leadership shows us the importance of communication” while also recognising that such a comment is of limited use if the problem we are trying to solve is to better understand what effective leaders in schools do. It just doesn’t take us there UNTIL we unpack it in a school context (A-). 

So, let’s marvel at what Gareth Southgate does, let’s use the power of abstraction as a useful shorthand where it adds explanatory power, and let us contemplate too the specifics of what he does in his context. But let’s also recognise that the specifics of what school leaders do may well be quite different, and not make the mistake of thinking that because the A+ looks the same that the A- will too. 

Most importantly though, let us hope that Gareth Southgate’s impressive leadership holds out for just one more game…

Note: Unfortunately England lost the game on penalties, but Southgate and the team remained impressively dignified. Even though the game was lost we can be proud of the way this young team conducted itself throughout and we might celebrate that by representing a modern diverse Britain so well, they did something more important than win a football competition.

The analysis in this blog was informed by the dimension of semantics in Legitimation Code Theory, specifically the concept of semantic gravity. In the interests of this blog I simplified it a little and used an alternative term (A+/-).

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