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Contours of Great Leadership

The Science, Art, and Wisdom of Outstanding Practice

by Rosemary Papa, Fenwick English, Frank Davidson, Mary K. Culver and Ric Brown, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Md., 127 pp., 2012, $18.95 softcover


Contours of Great Leadership is a book that starts strong, but one that ultimately loses steam. From the start, it promises to look at leadership with a unique perspective. The authors introduce the concepts of reflective and reflexive leadership and discuss how these approaches differ in application. Then they examine the accoutrements of leadership, which are the “special characteristics and skills” that make up a person’s “identity, his or her orientation and competence within the context and culture of a special kind of institutional space, the school.”

While the beginning of the book does indeed offer a new look at leadership, unfortunately the book fails to deliver anything new or creative.

The initial focus of the book was quickly lost and the new concepts raised seemed to wander. The multiple authors appear to have worked separately, and writing styles vary from highly formal to casual. This is a a distraction and takes away consistency in the message. The book offered a potential new look at leadership, but failed to deliver.

But despite its stylistic troubles and failure to conceptually hang together, the book still has enough rich content to be of real interest to practitioners. Throughout, the book carries nuggets that could stimulate thought and conversation among a group of leaders. For instance, the statement, “One of the highest-regarded characteristics of great leadership is honesty. When leaders are honest with themselves, and their followers, about their capacity and limitation, they demonstrate a commitment to a process of continual growth on the job, and a respect for human dignity” could easily launch a discussion among administrators at a staff meeting.

Contours of Great Leadership missed the mark of defining a new frame for leadership in a systematic and thoughtful manner. But the real value of the book may be found in that fault – the way the discussion skips around and offers a compendium of best practices in the context of public schools. The book also has some rich concepts on school leadership that could serve as a foundation for discussion among school leaders.

For a superintendents who likes to present high-interest concepts on leadership to their administrative or board team and then engage in powerful discussions, this book offers a treasure trove to be mined.

Reviewed by Paul M. Hewitt, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville 


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