Being tasked to lead an organisation already filled with talented and experienced leaders can be a daunting job for many, but for Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership Research at the University of Waikato Associate Professor Rachel McNae it’s just another challenge. Voted in last month as the National President of the New Zealand Educational Administration and Leadership Society (NZEALS), Dr McNae is a firm believer that if there ever was a time to talk, think and reflect on leadership in education, it’s now.
NZEALS is the national cross-sector organisation serving experienced, new and aspiring educational leaders. With eight regional branches throughout New Zealand, the Society draws members from all educational contexts, builds professional networks and connects leaders with research informed professional learning and research conferences, scholarships and research awards.
With a background in secondary school education and over 15 years’ experience researching leadership in New Zealand and overseas, Dr McNae is an international award-winning researcher and recipient of the International Emerald-European Foundation for Management and Development Outstanding Research Award for Leadership and Strategy. Her research demonstrates a deep and enduring commitment to the education profession, and the students it serves. As she steps into her new role, Dr McNae foresees many challenges ahead. “Recent calls for reimagining education demand changes to the ways educational leaders do their work,” she says. “The rapid pace of technological advancement and global connectivity presents a future that is constantly evolving. Balancing new demands, working in different ways and still meeting expectations bring significant challenges and opportunities for leaders.”
Dr McNae believes a lot is currently being asked of educational leaders. “We have exceptional leaders out there, but sadly we rarely celebrate their work,” she says. “They play a critical role in bringing the best of the past forward to maintain stability and continuity, while at the same time, balancing on the crest of fast-paced change and being responsive to policy and human demands.”
Firm in her stance that effective leadership is founded within and upon human relationships, Dr McNae believes that “leadership extends beyond the political, and is deeply personal". Through her work as the new NZEALS national president, she plans to shine the spotlight on leadership wisdom and the practices that engage and enable others. Dr McNae will call for those who champion social justice to deliberately model leadership that surfaces opportunities for collaboration, and develops purposeful partnerships which embrace diversity and inclusion.
Her recent book Educational Leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand: Issues of context and social justice surfaces the experiences of educational leaders and demonstrates the challenges leaders encounter daily. Dr McNae believes these leadership stories are rarely told and the book highlights the humanity of leadership, illuminating the good and the bad, the successes and the failures, the courage and the resilience of leaders in New Zealand. “Surfacing these experiences normalises leadership, and pushes it from its pedestal,” she says.
When asked about her own leadership, Dr McNae sees her actions being founded on fairness, social justice, integrity and trust. “I believe this allows me to generate hope, mobilise others to lead for good, while at the same time demonstrate what it means to be a good person who contributes to society in meaningful ways.”
It’s busy times ahead for Dr McNae. "And perhaps my biggest immediate challenge is getting the washing done so my children don’t have to wear their swimming togs to school tomorrow,” she jests. Dr McNae acknowledges the sacrifices leaders make, and how balancing the demands of personal and professional commitments can be a challenge. “We must stop using the word ‘juggle’. It's unhelpful and dangerous. Our personal lives and our professional roles are far too precious to toss up in the air with the hope of catching them again on the way down. The repercussions are immense if we miss. Embrace each in turn, mindfully and with deep care and attention. Hold them with two hands for as long as needed, be realistic about how many hours are in a day, and make decisions thoughtfully about when to place one down to pay attention to the other.”
The knowledge, experience and wisdom Dr McNae brings to her new role will be powerful contributors to the future work of NZEALS during the complex and exciting times ahead.