Guest Post:Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf Schools

This is the first guest post to appear on the anthropopper’s blog!

It’s from Bernard Thomson in Australia, who is particularly interested in the question of leadership and management in Steiner Waldorf schools.  The anthropopper is also interested in this issue and has previously written on the topic, here and here.  It was these posts that prompted Bernard to visit me when he came to England recently and, although we have differing views, I invited him to write a post setting out his thoughts. We both hope that this will start a discussion on an issue of vital importance to the development of Steiner Waldorf education.

But first, here is Bernard writing about himself:

“I grew up in the Midlands and attended Elmfield Rudolf Steiner School. In 1973 I went to Germany to complete my education returning to the UK in 1978.  I studied philosophy of science and economics at the LSE followed by a year at the Centre for Social Development at Emerson. In 1987 I moved to New Zealand and in 2003 arrived in Australia where I became a business manager at a Steiner school south of Adelaide. After 12 years I began to work as a freelance consultant initially specialising in leadership and governance in Steiner schools. My career and work experience has been predominantly in social welfare organisations, both Steiner based and ‘mainstream,’ with an ongoing interest in social and organisational development.”


Leadership & Organisational Structure  in Steiner Waldorf Schools

by Bernard Thomson

The issue of leadership and organisational structure in Waldorf schools is not new. Indeed one could argue that it began in the early years of the first school in Stuttgart and in one way or another has continued ever since. And this should be no surprise since organisations are living systems which defy any permanent structural solutions.

However this topic is pressing and engages many of us concerned with Waldorf education and its capacity to survive and thrive in an ever changing social, political and economic environment. To date the argument has often been between assertions as to what Steiner said or meant about school leadership and the pragmatic response to perceived and, indeed, evident failures in organisational governance and leadership. Steiner did say there shall be no headmaster and he did say that every teacher was to act in full personal responsibility without recourse to the comfort of receiving directions from an overarching authority*

In this contribution I will not debate the pros and cons of College versus Principal structure as I believe this misses the real question.

I take as my starting point that a school organism, like any other social organisation, needs a structure together with process leadership to guide its performance. And it requires such a structure and leadership that best supports its purpose and function. Unlike a production industry where the purpose is an efficient process to deliver goods to willing customers, a school is in the people business; its product is what goes on between human beings namely teachers, students and parents. The human relationships are the fabric which supports the pedagogical practice. The latter cannot exist without the former and the efficacy of educational practice is directly related to the health of the human relationships.

In the production industry, which can be considered as a system of inputs, process and outputs, we might conclude that it can be optimised through specifications which precisely control as many factors as possible. Frederick W. Taylor gave his name to the first so-called scientific management system which sought to do just that. Centralised control from the top appears to be the logical answer to co-ordinating a diversity of inputs and processes. However this authoritarian structure is being challenged because it fails to take account of human (f)actors whose motivation and hence productivity is directly affected by the workplace environment and culture. Indeed there is an increasing number of organisations which are being reimagined as living entities in which ecological systems thinking replaces the mechanistic logic of direct and control, cause and effect. The human subsystem (according to Lievegoed’s phases of organisational development) is, I believe, what is here being developed as part of a move towards the third phase of integration. This accords with my understanding of consciousness soul activity where we do not seek nor expect answers to the challenges we face to be available in a model or formula. Instead the ongoing engagement with other thinking human beings forms the basis for our decision-making processes. And this is the same for both production industry and human services.

This means abandoning certainty (or the illusion of it!) and becoming comfortable with the unknown, the ambiguous, in other words, the creative process. A recent book by Fredric Laloux, “Reinventing organisations” describes various approaches to this challenge, in a range of diverse industries. What they share in common is the removal of central control in favour of distributed authority in which accountability is achieved through clearly defined processes, a system for effectively disseminating information for maximum transparency.

The widespread shift in Waldorf schools across the globe to a more top down or principal leadership structure is mostly justified by the failure of a collective approach to school management. There are many examples of this failure, with which I am also personally familiar. The apparent solution, however, is also producing many failures if these are to be determined on the basis of school performance as judged by staff and parents. Indeed, in Australia at least, there has been a continual turnover of school leaders (variously called administrators, heads of school, directors, principals, etc.) where the common denominator is an authority structure in which the school board or council appoints the school leader with full authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the school. Accountability is one way, and that is up.

Now there are also good examples of leadership performance that build collective strength and support a strong collegial culture within the school. Thus we invariably conclude that it is not the structure but the people that make the difference, and this is true. So are we faced with either a collective approach which may work if there is a high level of individual and social competence, or a single authority which may also work if the “right” person is in charge? Is there nothing more to it than to simply hope or pray that we can get the right people in the right places? And who chooses the right people?

As I mentioned above we are in the people business in which human relationships are key. We are also in the human development business in which role modelling has a powerful influence and we don’t need Steiner to tell us that the character of the teacher, or indeed of all adults, is central in supporting healthy development in young people. So we can confirm Steiner’s vision that the school must be led by a culture of learning and human development, which he called a republican teachers’ academy.

I believe in the notion that you start working in a way that is congruent with the aim. If it is true that for the students, “Our highest endeavour must be to develop individuals who are able out of their own initiative to impart purpose and direction to their lives”(1), then we found teacher practice on personal initiative and self-responsibility. The supporting school organism supports and strengthens this by creating a culture of personal initiative and self-responsibility. The leadership culture embodies this.

In his 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline” Peter Senge introduced the concept of the Learning Organisation which has 5 key features which include personal mastery, building a shared vision and team learning. I suggest that in the Learning Organisation we find a close similarity with Steiner’s vision of how a College of Teachers and Waldorf School management is to be understood.

Steiner’s vision for school leadership and governance recognised the fact that the cultural/ social mission of Waldorf education requires a new form for human learning and collaboration. This insight is now finding resonance in a growing understanding of organisations as social organisms. The “Newtonian” mechanistic model is being replaced by a living systems approach (see “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley).

Organisms have an ecology which connects all the elements together in a living dynamic. They are not run or managed in the conventional sense, but may be said to operate and self-regulate according to a guiding motif. The guiding motif acts as a point of self-reference. In an animal organism we speak of the unique animal instinct which guides behaviour; in the human social organism we must speak of the mission or spiritual ideal. It is just this that Steiner said must replace the headmaster by becoming the focus for the College work. As self-responsible adults participating in a self-regulating school organism we move with our experiences from the periphery to the centre and take out to the periphery our newfound intentions. The task of leadership is to facilitate the collective learning which informs the mission and to guide the processes which transform the mission into individual resolve.

Social understanding and discernment is of course necessary for leadership. Leader-guides must be selected who have the maturity and social skill to advance leadership throughout the school. The school processes must be transparent and accountable and include practical methods for review and evaluation. But the old form where adults make themselves subservient to an “outside” authority which “knows best” has to be left behind.

This process requires a new understanding of leadership as something akin to an alchemical process in which everyone participates. The idea of an “external” reference point or standard against which to guide practice will be seen as always provisional and temporary and must ultimately be abandoned in favour of self-referencing also known as self-governance.

* Address by Rudolf Steiner 20 August 1919 on the evening prior to the lecture course translated as “Study of Man” (also known as “The Foundations of Human Experience”)

(1)Marie Steiner


Filed under Anthroposophy, Leadership in Steiner Waldorf Schools, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools

7 responses to “Guest Post:Leadership & Organisational Structure in Steiner Waldorf Schools

  1. ” Steiner did say there shall be no headmaster and he did say that every teacher was to act in full personal responsibility without recourse to the comfort of receiving directions from an overarching authority*
    This sounds as if he thought that teachers (and schools) do not have to operate within the framework of law (an overarching authority) which holds sway in every modern society. Did he really mean that?
    ‘…without recourse to the comfort of receiving directions from an overarching authority….’ How can this possibly work in a society as highly regulated as ours? As a headteacher I constantly turned to authority for advice and direction in matters of child protection, educational psychology, special needs, employment law, human resources, health and safety, compliance with education law, etc, etc.
    And yet I WAS the head, I was able to have an influence on the values and judgements that underpinned most things that happened in the school!

    Steiner’s dictum seems to me to be a form of self-sabotage.
    Was he unable to separate in his thinking the fact that someone may be an inspirational teacher of children and absolutely useless at relating to adults? Vice versa, there are those who are mediocre teachers but very good managers of people (in the sense of someone who can bring out the best in adults). Did he not notice that fact of human life?

    If the essential purpose of a school is to educate children it is more important that the majority of staff are excellent teachers of children. When I read that statement at the head of my comment I can’t help thinking that Steiner was being driven by an ideology when he made it and was not thinking of the best interests of the children.

    I have come to see the phrase ‘republican academy’ to be completely spurious. It gives the impression that the school will be run by the college, and that college somehow represents the will of the teachers. But as far as I know Steiner never set out clear criteria for how anyone gets to be on college, he just chose them or threw others off. My experience has been that the schools are run as oligarchies by power groups who choose their own successors, and schools are very often dominated by cliques and personality cults.

    If I had to name two of the most successful organisations of the last century I would name Apple and Microsoft. Both of them were led by decisive, visionary souls who knew how to get the best out of the people who worked for them. They certainly didn’t achieve it all on their own. No alchemical processes in these two companies, just good management of people. My son worked for Apple for some years and told me they had the best pastoral care he had ever seen. Apple had a supportive and challenging ethos, which was continually communicated to all the work force, with everyone always on a path of development. Promotion came slowly because very few people left the company.

    “Steiner’s vision for school leadership and governance recognised the fact that the cultural/ social mission of Waldorf education requires a new form for human learning and collaboration. This insight is now finding resonance in a growing understanding of organisations as social organisms. The “Newtonian” mechanistic model is being replaced by a living systems approach”
    I am not aware of any research which shows how wide spread or effective Steiner’s insight is, or how much resonance with it there is.
    The great success of the Japanese car-makers was influenced by W. E. Deming, who certainly didn’t have a ‘Newtonian mechanistic model’ of organisations but neither was he into alchemy, an opaque concept in this context. Deming was interested in people and their needs and how to help them give of their best so that the company would flourish to the benefit of everyone in it. Deming worked with the production workers in a company at every opportunity, as well as the managers. He modeled the co-operative behaviours he wanted the management and workers to adopt.

    Did Steiner actually ‘model’ collegiate working in his meetings with teachers?
    I have the impression that he just said how things should be and everyone did what he wanted.


  2. Dear Tom,

    Steiner’s model for Waldorf education was formulated ten years before it actually occurred, which means that he envisioned it as a necessary prerequisite for a true form of choice in the educational milieu. So, he gave this lecture in 1907, which was worth revising into essay-form here:

    Whatever dilemma exists in the modern scheme of education can be rendered moot when we consider Steiner’s faculty meetings recorded over some five years until 1924. Herein, he dealt with all manner of issues concerning curriculum, and even individual child issues. So, we know that he cared for the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart with meticulous concern.

    Today’s world simply needs to know that a carefully-crafted spiritual education exists that wants to keep the child in connection with nature, and that the ordinary system of education wants to exclude, in favor of the mechanical and material. Thus, abstraction should rightfully be a much more slow and progressive process, as Steiner outlined. The child comes out of the environment in which the “Kingdoms of Nature” speak through their respective educators. To refine that into a modern world conception which maintains the primordial correspondences is the goal.

    One day it will be keenly understood what it means when Christ said: “Lest ye become as little children, ye cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
    Steiner’s school-concept wanted to keep that connection from the very beginning of the educational process.


    Steve Hale


  3. Tom hart shea

    Thank you, Steve. I do not see anything in your reply which would point to why the healing process of education cannot happen without being lumbered with counter-productive and at times destructive college system.


    • Tom, you wrote:

      “I do not see anything in your reply which would point to why the healing process of education cannot happen without being lumbered with counter-productive and at times destructive college system.”

      Tom, I think that in a general sense I answered the above when I said that Steiner’s educational model was based on a “new concept of education”, which relates the child to the external world, while wanting to maintain affiliation with the nature-kingdoms of originating perception. What did he know at the time, c. 1919-1924, that the entire system would be made into a bureaucracy with ever-increasing complexities of standards, like inspections and meeting testing criteria?

      The original model was a private school for children of the Waldorf factory, in which Emil Molt, owner, saw in Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science, the means to give a proper education to children that retained spiritual perception. Steiner’s faculty meetings with teachers were about how to best conduct classes in the real-world situation, and not about the administrative concerns of the future. He had one school to lead in a new direction.

      Today, it is all about the headaches you imply. Any public school that seeks to model itself on the Waldorf concept is going to have to compromise. That is why Steiner schools are best kept private, in order to keep the original pedagogy intact. Read the lectures that Steiner gave to the Department of Education, Basle, in April-May 1920, “The Renewal of Education”, and you will be convinced that he had it all worked out exactly from the principles of spiritual science.

      Sorry not to reply sooner, but I only saw this earlier today. Please help me if I still do not get your concern.




  4. Dear Bernard, Tom and Steve,

    Thanks for your comments on Bernard’s post. In principle, I agree with what Bernard says in his article. It is a great ideal that Steiner has set out for the schools to follow. In practice, I see a good deal of less than satisfactory school performance. There is a strange paradox, in that we have what for many families is the ideal kind of education for their children but we also have some schools with an unfortunate capacity for upsetting and alienating parents. My experience and observation is that this weakness resides in an unreformed College of Teachers system.

    Where is the leadership to come from that will take us from where we are to where we ought to be? Unless that leadership capability resides within the school, and can be given time and the authority and support from colleagues to do what needs to be done, how can change be brought about? Anyone who knows Steiner Waldorf schools will know of teachers whose inadequacies are never addressed, who are hiding away from the world rather than engaging with it and all its challenges; and the College system suits them just fine, because nothing ever changes and they are never challenged. Too often College is run in the interests of the teachers, not the children. If the College system worked as it should, then we would see other organisations wishing to replicate it, but I can’t think of a single example of anyone wanting to introduce it anywhere. Tom Hart Shea who was himself a head teacher in the state system but also an experienced trustee in a Steiner school, knows all this from bitter personal experience.

    Bernard has said “As self-responsible adults participating in a self-regulating school organism we move with our experiences from the periphery to the centre and take out to the periphery our newfound intentions. The task of leadership is to facilitate the collective learning which informs the mission and to guide the processes which transform the mission into individual resolve.” But a school today, certainly in the UK, does not have the luxury of allowing much time and effort to be expended on a system that can make lots of mistakes on its journey towards becoming a self-regulating school organism. It has to deliver a good education, every day. All schools today need a much more professional approach, because both the regulators and the parents demand and require it.

    This is why I am interested in the interaction of principal and College. as we see in some of the new publicly-funded academies, because surely there is a possibility here of useful checks and balances that will enable all parties to give of their best. Interestingly, we are starting to see similar models in some of the independent schools, such as at Wynstones and Canterbury.

    Best wishes,



  5. Bernard Thomson has sent some further thoughts:

    Can leadership be taught?

    The criticism of so called “College run” schools is rightly based on the many examples of poor performance and even abject failure to manage the various demands of the school as an institution. I suggest this is due to a lack of leadership capability, process clarity and accountability, and not the vision of College leadership.Leadership has become a buzz word of our time and has acquired numerous definitions depending in part on the circumstances in which it is to be applied. Invariably however it includes an internal dimension related to personal authority, authenticity, self awareness. In this connection the question has arisen: can leadership be taught?” This question is usually answered in the affirmative but with qualifications. Sometimes the response goes: “it cannot be taught, but it can be learned” or “leadership potential can be developed but not everyone is born with the same potential”. The same kind of question is sometimes put about teaching and we may refer to someone as a natural or born teacher and equally suggest that someone is not “cut out” for teaching.We don’t ask the same question about learning to knit or wash the dishes, becoming a mechanic or a bricklayer. These are skills which most people with the physical capability can learn. The more a skill draws on inner capabilities such as self-reflection, positive attitude or mindfulness, then we consider that these require a degree of maturity or character formation which may develop over time but imply an inner transformation. The task of education is in part to assist with the acquisition of skills in the students, but more importantly to support the unfolding of the individual and character development. Hence aside from specialist subject knowledge the Steiner teacher is expected to work on his or her inner development as this directly impacts the learning environment.In an article on the social task of organisation development by Michael Ross* the distinction is made between specialist subject knowledge and organisational capability. It is suggested that in the second phase of organisation development (cf Bernard Lievegoed: “The Developing Organisation”, what was united in the pioneer is now differentiated out and organisational management and leadership are developed alongside or “over and above” technical or subject expertise. Typically, the subject specialists are no longer expected to run their own affairs and the organising is handed over to a new breed of “specialists”.* An English translation of this article can be downloaded Here.There can be no doubt, that the increasing complexity of the work place, not just in a technical sense but perhaps more importantly on the human level, demands new skills and capabilities in general management, human resource management and a whole host of other coordinating and leadership functions. While professional expertise is achieved through the specialised development of human talents, leadership in particular is built on self awareness, strength of character, the capacity to discern and ask the right question, just what we want to achieve with our education. Hence my contention that management and leadership are practised throughout the organisation since every thinking human being is involved in managing and exercising leadership regardless of the professional specialty. It is part of what it means to be a modern human being and it is what we aspire to with our “Education Towards Freedom”.
    This is not to say that we do not need appropriate structural forms (which will change over time) to focus and direct our collective efforts. We cannot all deliberate on every matter that needs attention within a school. Many of the challenges facing schools have both technical and legal aspects which many teachers are not sufficiently familiar with. This presents us with a particular challenge which applies in many areas of social life: how to exercise our responsibilities as adults, participate in decision making when issues are complex, potentially requiring specialised knowledge and expertise? Well, the fact is we do do it, and we claim the right to form our own judgments, seek out new information and assess its relevance to a particular situation. Ricardo Semler demonstrated how the employees at Semco could take ever greater control, not only over their respective roles and functions, but over the whole enterprise itself. And there are other examples of employee-run enterprises, using various forms of decision making (see Reinventing organisations). Indeed there is an open field for practice and the so called “College model” could also be one.Personal responsibility, standing in front of the students in full consciousness of the affairs of modern life in all their complexity, these are not trivial matters and certainly worthy of pursuit. But we need to start where we are and not confuse an aim with a model. Marvin Bower, founder of McKinsey & Company determined that there are two main tasks of leadership, 1. to intensify the company mission from year to year and 2. to enable as many co-workers as possible to lead. I see this as the challenge of leadership in a Steiner school, namely to develop a “College” culture of leadership.On our way towards this goal we will apply our best efforts in attending to the whole range of tasks that confront us, from the mundane to the overarching vision. We expect teachers and all other staff to apply their specialist knowledge while continuing to learn. School leaders are challenged to pursue the vision of a “teachers’ republic” with their feet firmly on the ground.


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