Issues in Educational Research, 4(2), 1994, 1-14.

Leadership and the creation of shared meanings

Christopher S. Elliott
Koorana Primary School, Western Australia
A study into the leadership that occurred in the planning of a health network was conducted in 1992-3 following the announcement by the Minister of Health that health administration in a province of western Canada would be regionalised. The creation of health planning networks required a conceptualisation of health administration different from the bureaucratic thinking that had traditionally occurred in the administration of health agencies.

Common understandings about the nature and purpose of the proposed network needed to be developed and the differing values, beliefs and assumptions held by participants had to be taken into account. The conceptual framework for the study, developed from the analogy of leadership as language proposed by Pondy (1978), assisted in understanding how the values, beliefs, conceptions of organisations and the various world-views of the participants and their respective conceptions of their places in the world were taken into account in the creation of a shared vision for the health network.

The creation of this shared vision was facilitated by the development of an environment of honesty, collegiality and trust. The leadership in the study emerged as a shared phenomenon and participants displayed leadership that reflected the sense of reality that each held.


The study, leadership without bosses: Shared leadership in a multiorganisational context, was of a group of health administrators in a western Canadian province following the announcement by the Minister of Health that the provincial health system would be regionalised. Following the Minister of Health's announcement, health administrators were expected to negotiate the creation of health regions which would accommodate their local needs. There arose the opportunity to conduct a study in a situation where there occurred the requirement of leaders to focus on developing people and process referred to by Moeller & Johnson (1992, p.28) as a 'paradigm shift.' the 'paradigm shift' required a change in thinking both with regard to the traditional mode of organisation and in a shift from a treatment-and-curing function within the health system as a whole to one with greater emphasis on preventative medicine.

The necessity for administrators from different facilities to negotiate with one another about the use and sharing of resources demanded a level of interorganisational cooperation not previously required. Political issues were of extreme importance because the reform of the health system implied a reduction and redistribution in funding and associated competition for scarce resources. The study participants were from four health agencies which embarked on the planning of a health network which would use their combined resources with the aim of improving the delivery of health services to the community. The four agencies were two acute-care hospitals, a health unit, and a nursing home. The Timberwell hospital, Timberwell health unit and the Timberwell nursing home combined with the Eaton hospital to form the Richlands health network. While the study was of health administrators, the focus is on leadership and it is hoped that the findings will be meaningful not just for health administrators but for those working in a variety of contexts. This paper is a discussion of one facet of the completed study.

The research framework

The conceptual framework for the study described here was based upon an article by Pondy (1978) in which he uses the analogy of language to describe the leadership. Pondy (1978) describes the leadership process in the following way:
Grammar is the relationship between sound and meaning. In turn, grammar can be decomposed into phonetics, syntactics, and semantics.... To speak a language is to master all three components of grammar.... Suppose we think of leadership as a language. To practise, say, democratic leadership is to understand the set of meanings (values?) To be conveyed, to give them primitive expression, to translate them into stylistic representation, and ultimately to choose sounds and actions to manifest them. (p.89)
Figure 1 attempts to describe Pondy's metaphor, and is used as the conceptual framework for the study.

Figure 1. A conceptual framework: Leadership as language
(developed from leadership as a language game by L. Pondy, 1978. In M. W. McCall &
M. M. Lombardo (eds.), Leadership: Where else do we go?. Durham: Duke University Press)

Pondy contemplates,

What kind of insights can we get if we say that the effectiveness of a leader lies in his [or her] ability to make activity meaningful for those in his [or her] role set - not to change behaviour but to give others a sense of understanding what they are doing, and especially to articulate it so that they can communicate about the meaning of their behaviour. (p.94)

Applying the framework

The health network was first suggested by the Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell hospital. As the events of the case unfolded there appeared leadership "as a communal endeavour" (Foster, 1986) or "consensus or collegial leadership" (Van Fleet & Yukl, 1989). Certainly, what Van Fleet & Yukl (1989, p.75) describe as "where one person dominates, a conventional view of leadership exists," does not apply in the current study.

When the Minister of Health announced the plan for the regionalisation of health administration in the province the Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell hospital presented his concept of a health campus as a vision to guide the creation of a health region based around Timberwell, but in so doing accepted that he should not hold a dominant or overly influential position in the planning process. The reasoning behind this position was partly because he knew that the high number of patient discharges and large number of physicians with privileges at Timberwell Hospital would make other health administrators wary of the threat of their organisations being taken over by the bigger and better-funded Timberwell Hospital. He needed to take an obviously non-threatening stance if his overtures for the creation of a region were to be successful.

The Chief Executive Officer's leadership style suggested that he was in agreement with the sentiments expressed by Foster (1986) that, "Leadership is a communal endeavour wherein the direction of the society is discussed and debated. Leadership, in this respect, resides in actions and acts, not persons and positions" (p.18).

In using Pondy's metaphor as the conceptual framework to aid in the understanding of the leadership that occurred in the study it was considered necessary to go "beyond the traits, characteristics and situations in which the standard view of leadership are contingent" (Smyth, 1989, p.190). Foster's (1989) statement that "leaders, in short, create other leaders, and it is in this fashion that leadership becomes a shared and communal process" (p.57) was considered to be an important assumption for the study. Leadership as a shared phenomenon thus became the focus for the study reported here.

The vision

The expression of a vision or direction that has its genesis in the needs of the followers is at the heart of what Burns (1978) was addressing when he differentiated between transformational and transactional leadership. Sergiovanni (1991) describes this difference in the following way; "Transactional leadership focuses on basic and largely extrinsic motives and needs; transformative leadership focuses on higher-order, more intrinsic, and ultimately moral motives and needs" (p.125).

Community health campus: Draft, which became the vision statement for the health network, had been written some six months previous to the Minister of Health's announcement that the health industry in Western Province would be regionalised. The document had been prepared as the Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell Hospital's vision for the health sector in Timberwell because of concern for the survival of the hospital. The document was accepted in principle by the Timberwell Hospital Board largely because it was seen as perhaps the only way that funding for the replacement of the existing hospital building would be provided by the government.

As it transpired, the intent of Community health campus: Draft bore striking similarity to the Minister of Health's vision. Each or these vision statements included the call for the "effective use of resources and access to a spectrum of health services" and a "greater emphasis on health promotion and disease prevention" across the province. The Minister of Health's vision would have an expected appeal to health unit administrators because of the high degree of similarity between these objectives and the principles behind the operation of health units.

When presented his vision of a health campus as a basis for the proposed region there occurred what Handy (1989) describes as the 'ah ha effect' when "a leader shapes a shared vision that gives a point to the work of others... The vision must be different ... [but] must make sense to others" (pp.238-239). He presented the initial idea and invited others to modify it. Levey (1989) writes, "New ideas are often discovered by several people separately at the same time - they are 'in the air' in some sense. The shared environment is also essential if a person with a vision is to become a leader" (pp.136-137).

Stages of leadership

Survival was an important motivator for preparing Community health campus: Draft, and survival was an important issue that saw it take on importance for those that became involved in the health network, but the community health campus concept was directed at higher-level needs than just survival. The health campuses in the United States, that modelled his vision upon, had proved to be successful because they directed the delivery of health care at community needs.

The satisfaction of lower-lever needs, such as organisational survival and job security is described by Sergiovanni (1991) as 'bartering,' the first of five stages of leadership; bartering, building, bonding, binding, and banking. The second stage is "leadership by building [when] the focus is on arousing human potential, satisfying higher-order needs, and raising expectations of both leader and follower in a manner that motivates both to higher levels of commitment and performance" (Sergiovanni, 1991, p.126).

The second of Sergiovanni's (1991) stages of leadership, 'building,' and the third and fourth stages, 'bonding' and 'banking,' involve transformational leadership. There was evidence in the study of the planning of the Richlands Health Network that the types of "leadership by bonding [which] responds to such intrinsic needs as a desire for purpose, meaning, and significance in what one does" (p.126) may have occurred. Sergiovanni's (1991) 'bonding' stage had appeared to have begun but the degree to which the values of collaboration and sharing upon which the health network culture was based had become sufficiently ingrained to become assumptions (Schein, 1985) remained uncertain at the closure of the study. The implementation of the health network had not progressed to the stage where the institutionalisation involved in the 'banking' stage could have occurred.

In similar way to that above, Keenhert & Lewis (1989) suggest three stages in a "constructive/developmental analysis" of leadership. These authors suggest two stages of involving transactional leadership: 'Imperial' leadership, where the organising process involves personal goals and agendas directed at perceptions, immediate needs, and feelings; and 'Interpersonal' leadership, where interpersonal connections and mutual obligations are the subject and personal goals and agendas are the object of behaviour. The third of Keenhert's & Lewis' (1989) stages is 'Institutional,' or transformational, leadership, where the leader's behaviour is based upon personal standards and value systems and is directed at establishing interpersonal connections and mutual obligations. Like the stages suggested by Sergiovanni (1991), events in the current study could be described using these stages.

The creation of shared meanings

In order that real planning for a health region to occur there had to develop an organisational culture, referred to by Kreffing & Frost (1985) as, "Shared meanings - patterns of beliefs, symbols, rituals, and myths that evolve across time that function as the social glue" (p.155). An essential in this process was his desire, as he described it, to "let the creative juices flow" and to develop in the participants an "ownership in the process."

From the outset saw his vision of the health campus as a starting point that would be modified as time went by. He aimed for leadership called for by Smyth (1986) which would mean "the abolition of privileged and elitist forms of leadership ... and for their replacement with a form of leadership that stimulates dialogue and mutual learning" (pp.6-7). As described by James McGregor Burns,

The sources of both leadership and followership lie in a vast pool of human wants, and the transformation of those wants into social aspirations, and political demands.... True leaders ... emerge from, and always return to the wants and needs of the followers. They see their task as the recognition and mobilization of their followers' needs.... In this engagement with their followers, the leaders' own motives are altered. They may be transformed just as followers are. Both leaders and followers may be transformed to the point where followers become leaders and leaders followers. (Goodwin, 1978, pp.47-48)
In the way referred to by Burns, above, the wants and needs of the various participants were central to the way that the planning of the health network developed. The organisational needs of the administrators from the institutions varied. Those from Eaton Hospital sought to ensure the survival of that hospital by increasing the numbers of patients, and by being able to provide more programs and services in the hospital; the administrator from Timberwell Nursing Home wanted to ensure that those involved in delivering long-term care would have a say in the provision of long-term care in the area; and the provision of a more effective system of health care through improved preventative medicine and collaboration between the Timberwell Health Unit and various health care agencies in the area was the major need expressed by the Medical Officer of Health from that health unit. Each of these were taken account of in the process of planning the health network.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell Hospital always showed a willingness to listen to others and to accept their ideas and, as Mazlish (1984) asserts, a leader "does not exist fully formed until the encounter with the group" (p.13). Furthermore, in the context of the threat that many perceived the Minister of Health's regionalisation policy to represent, and where many administrators saw themselves in competition with those from other agencies, any implication of power-wielding by one party would quickly result in a breaking-off of dialogue by others. The circumstances demanded an openness and honesty in approach as referred to by Bennis (1989).

A values base for the network

The Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell Hospital presented a vision of a health campus that represented a number of values that the other participants were likely to support, while at the same time having the potential to satisfy their basic needs. Essential values for what was to become the Richlands Health Network were sharing and equal partnership and the creation of the regional group as a collaborative enterprise. The participants indicated they had differing basic needs and they were provided the potential to be taken into consideration in the planning process.

As suggested by Pondy (1978), the syntax of leadership relates to the vision, whereas the meanings and values relate to the semantics of the leadership. The third component of the conceptual framework, the phonetics of the leadership, was the participants' activities that were observed as the events of the case unfolded. The conceptual framework helped in reaching the understanding that, like the facets of language, there is a complex interaction between the different aspects of leadership.

Because the planning process that was established was based on collegiality, honesty, and trust, these values - which originated as part of the semantics of the leadership - became a part of the syntax of leadership and assisted in allowing the participants' differing conceptions to be taken into account and to contribute to the moulding of the vision. The individuals' beliefs and understandings were essentials of the semantics of leadership. Their conceptions of the world and their place in it, and their individual understandings about organisations were vital components of that facet of the leadership.

Together the semantics and syntax of leadership influenced the participants' behaviour - the phonetics of leadership. The behaviour from the various participants can thus be understood as an expression of the way each participant's view of the world and of their place in it interacted with the vision for the health network and the common understanding that had developed. Those that saw themselves as managers contributed to the planning process as managers and those that saw themselves as visionaries contributed as visionaries.

Differing expressions of leadership

The individuals' realities were constructed through the filter of their values, beliefs, needs, and wants and the way these were applied to their situations determined their expectations of themselves and from others. Perhaps what is important in the way people express their leadership is the way that they perceive themselves as leaders. Sergiovanni (1991) identifies a hierarchy of five leadership forces that may be used by school principals and the way that an individual expresses their leadership may be explained in terms of the leadership force that they see as being the appropriate one for them to use. The leadership forces are technical leadership, human leadership, educational leadership, symbolic leadership, and cultural leadership. These leadership forces, with modification so that they apply to the health-administration context, may be applied to the current study.

The major difficulty with applying Sergiovanni's (1991) hierarchy of leadership forces is the existence of the educational force when "the principal [takes the form of a] knowledgeable colleague or leader of leaders who engages with teachers on an equal basis on matters of teaching and learning [with the aim of improving educational practice]" (pp.102-3). If this third level is thought of as being aimed at improving administrative practice the notion of this third level in the hierarchy of leadership forces proves useful for the current study.

Rebore (1991) writes, "Administration is the process of managing human, financial, and managerial resources toward the fulfilment of a mission" (p.9) and Hodge & Anthony (1991) refer to management involving planning and controlling; organising, staffing, and directing; and decision making and influence. If administrative leadership is considered as being facilitating the improvement of these activities, then that kind of leadership was displayed by participants in the study.

Sergiovanni (1991) describes the first three levels of his hierarchy as being necessary for a competent school, but if excellence is to be aspired to, the leadership forces from the top two levels for the hierarchy are also required. For the first three levels the values and beliefs that make up the school culture are implicit whereas with the expression of the symbolic and cultural leadership forces, those at the top of the hierarchy, the cultural values are made explicit. Different participants made the values that were expressed in the vision for the health network explicit by expressing them verbally and by their actions, and other participants in the study made those values explicit as they expressed symbolic leadership by their actions.

The multiplicity of individuals showing leadership resulted in participants reporting that no single individual was dominant in leading the planning process. At one meeting one participant talked about the leadership in the organisation, and related to what had occurred up to that point. "The leadership has been shared," he said. "This is leadership without bosses. There are no bosses. It's shared leadership." In supporting this comment, another participant went on and said, "We don't have one leader. That's been our practice all along. Not one leader. We move meetings and we move chairs." While most participants agreed that the Chief Executive Officer of the Timberwell Hospital was the key leader in the planning of Richlands Health Network, when she was asked about the leadership in the organisation one participant nominated the Medical Officer of Health from the Timberwell Health Unit as the most important, but said that a third participant - the CEO from Eaton Hospital - had also shown leadership. She also paid tribute to the efforts of an additional participant - the Director of Patient Services from Timberwell Hospital - who she felt also made an important contribution to the success of the planning process.

The participants' agreement that there was a sharing of leadership in this case is referred to by numerous recent writers on leadership. Indeed, the emphasis in the thinking on leadership appears to be shifting to the promotion of collaborative, complementary or shared leadership by both theorists and practitioners. In a report on CEO selection trends in the 1990s Fulton (1992) writes, "Industries faced with dramatic differences in their external environments are giving priority to CEO candidates who are experienced and comfortable with directing change over traditional management styles" (p.31).

The 'dramatic differences' outlined are referred to by Bennis (1989) who describes the modern world as being one where "environmental encroachments and turbulence, ... the fragmentation of constituencies ... multiple advocacy, win-lose adversarial conflicts between internal and external forces ... has led to a situation where our leaders are 'keeping their heads below the grass,' as L.B.J. once put it" (p. 12). Effective leadership is needed more than ever.

A new paradigm for leadership

Foster (1986) calls for a 'new paradigm' in the consideration of leadership, founded on 'praxis' . He states, "The leadership idea should be reconstructed ... [because] our research efforts into leadership have born little fruit" (pp.78). He goes on to say,
Praxis, in this respect, stands for the ability of all persons to engage in acts of leadership which help in the transformation to a way of life which incorporates participative principles; leadership, in this regard, is both critical and a shared leadership. It is shared because no one individual has the right way ... [and] resides in actions and acts, not persons and positions. (pp.18-19)
Barth (1990) reflects on such comments and writes, "I find that the concept of shared school leadership has become both fashionable and controversial. It appears that concerns about that relationship between teacher and principal, around school-wide decision making, will be with us for a good while. I hope so" (p.122).

Sergiovanni (1992) writes of the involvement of all members in an organisation and that, "When professional socialisation, purposing and shared values, and collegiality are emphasised, they become substitutes for leadership. This means that direct leadership from administrators can be less intense - indeed much more informal" (p.96).

Perhaps the most influential thinker and writer on leadership, Burns (1978), describes what he says is the most potent form of leadership, transforming leadership, as "a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.... Moral leadership emerges from, and always returns to, the fundamental wants and needs, aspirations and values of the followers" (p.4).

These issues proved important in the study reported here. Hopefully, the study report will prove meaningful to readers and assist in the development of an increased understanding of leadership and the way it is manifested.


The planning for the health network was meaningful for the participants because each became a part of the process and was able, in some way, to contribute to the leadership. The presentation of the vision for the health network as an idea that was 'in the air' and the vision was considered to be the implementation of the values that the participants were likely to accept. A key issue was the participants' expressed desire for 'leadership' rather than 'control' and all participants sought to work together as equal partners in the creation of a common understanding that was premised on agreed upon values.

The health campus vision was presented as the beginning point for the planning process and all contributed to its modification and development and the respective values, beliefs, needs, and senses of reality had to be accommodated in the creation of a group culture. The conceptual framework developed from the metaphor of leadership as language, developed by Pondy (1978), proved to be of assistance in understanding this process.

The vision and the common understandings that developed were considered to form the syntax of the leadership and the values, needs, and beliefs of the participants were considered to be the semantics of the leadership. The observable behaviour of the participants was the third component of the conceptual framework, the phonetics of leadership. In addressing this third component, the leadership roles played by the various participants in the developing of a shared meaning were considered and analysed as another essential part of the study of the planning of the health network.


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Author: Dr Christopher Elliott is Deputy Principal at Koorana Primary School in Perth. After completing his MEd at Edith Cowan University, he studied educational administration at the University of Alberta, Canada, where he gained his PhD in 1993. His research interest embraces all aspects of educational and administrative leadership.

Please cite as: Elliott, C. (1994). Leadership and the creation of shared meanings. Issues In Educational Research, 4(2), 1-14.

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