Karen Christensen, editor-in-chief of Rotman Management, published a fascinating interview with Mike Walsh, author of The Algorithmic Leader (2019), in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine. I frequently read about algorithms, mostly out of curiosity, so that I can learn more about their strengths and weaknesses, including challenges such as algorithmic bias. I am by no means a specialist in this area; however, I feel compelled to learn more about algorithms because so much of what we use as tools in education are driven by algorithms.
What I had not considered, until reading the aforementioned interview, was how algorithmic ecology (this may be a neologism…i.e., the relations between/among algorithmic softwares and the environments in which they are used) might affect leadership development. When prompted by Christensen to explain what he means in his book when he says, “every company is an algorithmic company, whether it knows it or not,” Walsh responds that “[…] every type of organization, at every scale, will soon live and breathe by its capacity to leverage data, automation, and algorithms to be more effective and create better customer experiences. […] Your future is likely to depend more on how well you leverage the data and information generated by your activities rather than how well you manage the traditional levers of a business” (Rotman Management, Winter 2020, 35).
Algorithmic leadership has a direct effect on decision-making (and strategy), creating a need for more effective decision-making throughout an increasingly networked organization. Walsh proposes that “algorithmic leaders are different (from leaders of whom we typically think) in three key ways: attitude, hierarchy, and toolkit. […] The algorithmic leader realizes that the real work is often to design processes around [her/himself] that enable others to make the right decisions from moment to moment” as opposed to in a traditionally-structured five-year plan with critical decision-making moments. He goes on to say that the algorithmic leader “is part of a large network of relationships where hierarchy isn’t as important. These leaders operate within what is more like an organic ecosystem” (35). I do take issue with the notion of making “the right decisions” (above) because the more informed way to look at decision-making, irrespective of algorithms in the workplace, is whether the precepts of decision quality were followed. Decision quality aside, though, there is a key question here for leadership development: are we developing current educational leaders and equipping aspiring/future educational leaders with the mindset and tools to make quality decisions within an algorithmic ecology? After all, as Walsh says (though Peter Drucker’s thinking in The Effective Executive would prompt me to press him on this…), “the way an algorithmic leader approaches problems and comes up with ideas is profoundly different, given that we are operating in an age characterized by automation and real-time data. Knowledge in an algorithmic organization lives everywhere—not just where the [school] directory says it belongs” (36).
An example of algorithmic leadership cited by Walsh that I found helpful was that of Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix. Years ago, when I was a department chair, I recall a colleague telling me about this fantastic way to rent DVDs and avoid the outrageous late fees and inconvenient return times held dear by so many videotape (VHS) shops: it was called Netflix. It was mail-order and mail-return DVD rental. Little did we know how much would change for Netflix just a few short years later. The algorithmic leadership at Netflix had (almost) nothing to do with its postal DVD service. When Netflix began streaming content, and chose to sun-set its DVD program, “it took the data from that streaming platform and used it to make decisions about which products to offer and what content to produce. […] Every aspect of how it thinks about audiences and how to plan its global expansion is driven by data and algorithms. When you are capable of knowing precisely what any of your millions of global customers are desiring at any point in time, how can you not see the world differently?” (36).
The analogy for the school world is this: algorithmic leadership in schools would involve taking the data from all the algorithm-driven platforms that we use, from admissions to learning platforms to whatever else, and learn what the patterns are telling us about the student (or family, or faculty) experience, thereby allowing us to design better experiences. However, the head of school cannot be the only person involved in learning and making decisions around this volume of data; a flattening of existing hierarchy would be needed. It is people (happily!) who need to interpret myriad data points and use social-emotional literacy to inform the design of what we call ‘school.’
We can debate whether algorithmic leadership is as different as Walsh purports (for instance, I don’t see it forcing a new, heretofore unseen general principle for decision-making), yet what seems to stick (nod to the Heath brothers here) is that this type of leadership is one that may come to sit alongside other leadership paradigms such as adaptive leadership or authentic leadership. It merits our consideration.