Leadership, Influence and the Zone of Acceptance


Phil Cullen

[When I first developed a model that highlights the levels of acceptance by subordinates of administrative decisions, it was more complicated than the one illustrated in this presentation. I like the way it looks now, better.  The present controls of compulsory schooling in various places around the western world suit the model perfectly, so I have resurrected it. I have put some comments around the notion and italicized the comments that have special reference to Australian schooling. It suggests, as history also suggests, that the survival of Naplan in Australia and NCLB in USA has a limited life.  In both places the zone of acceptance will remain low; as long as professional ethics remain low. When the child and its learning become the focus, there will be a revival for the sake of progress.]

I have sometimes wondered why Australia’s most respected learned society for educators changed its name from the Australian Council for Educational Administration to the Australian Council for Educational Leadership. Because I once considered the Council to be my professional home-base, I presumed that a great deal of thought had gone into the decision. Words can have deeper than first-sight meaning. The change from ACEA to ACEL now seems to be most appropriate for these declivous times.  Australia needs the establishment of sound educational leadership principles more than it ever has.

Terms such as organisation, administration, management, and leadership all refer to roles played by humankind within small and large social systems, and deserve to be used with real meaning.

Organisation as a term is easy to describe. It involves activity that is undertaken to help establish and maintain order within an enterprise. The enterprise could be one where there is very little social interaction or one of close, regular contact between human beings. Organising them to do what is expected of them starts with drawing linkages and boxes to illustrate the activities.  It’s a planning term.

Australian compulsory schooling was first organised as the responsibility of the States and Territories. As each colony developed, schooling was provided free of charge. Each established linkages and boxes for the supply of resources for the legal limits of compulsory schooling only; and the ages of attendance were arranged so that all children had to attend a primary school for their entire school life. There was a similarity of design, terminology, text books, learning resources and teacher quality for the States. Depending on the limits of legal schooling ages, the number of ‘Grades’ aka ‘Standards’, aka ‘Levels’ aka ‘Years’ was determined. Supervision of school quality was undertaken by teachers who were expert at the craft. They were called Inspectors. It was a teaching-learning accountabiliy system of compulsory schooling at its purest. This child-centred, learning-focussed form of organisation established Australia as a significant country on the world’s stage.

Opportunities were later offered for pupils to engage in post-primary schooling. Grammar Schools and the like bore the brunt for a while, but the state had enormous obligations and governments expanded operations. Things went well until populist trends over time ensured the commitment to ordinary school children diminish in attention. Technical and rural requirements were the first to move in to take large hunks of government interest and provide more boxes. Hungrier populist movements have since encroached on Government’s provisions. Compulsion has lost its raison d’être and its emphasis on quality learning. More and more elephants moved into the room. Organisational changes, especially those of the latter half of the 20th Century, have produced a gallimaufry, unattended by meaningful administration.


Administration starts when the organisation’s boxes are peopled. As a term it applies to the social and personal reactions to what the organisation expects the operatives to do. It would be foolish to think that an organisation would simply expect that those who occupy the boxes will comply with the aims of the organisation, just because they are told to do so. Note that ACEL’s affiliate international society is called the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management [CCEAM], separating the two terms because there is a difference between them.

The terms both refer to the pursuit of an organisation’s prescribed aims at the least social, financial and industrial cost. Administration is the more personal and humane term; a term more suited to caring professions such as teaching and those professions that involve reliance on a professionally [vis-a-vis bureaucratically] generated code of ethics. When bureaucracy controls the code or allied memoranda of understanding, anomie prevails.

Management refers to those organisational activities that have a profit motive, a construction mode or project completion. Formal, technical and economic, it deals with the coordination of things and people.  It relies more on contractual obedience than on ethical commitment. Task oriented, management is less sensitive to human reaction and welfare.

Writ large, Administration is PERSONAL and Formal; Management is Personal and FORMAL.

In any case…making sure that the individuals within an organisation give of their best at all times requires forms of Leadership that are commensurate with its purpose. Leadership refers to an overarching, up-front, reality-centred supervisory activity concerned with influencing the nature and direction of organisational synergy towards certain accomplishments. Some movies have illustrated the concept well. Played by Lee Marvin, Major Reisman’s command of a [dirty] dozen low-lifes relied on coercion and hard-nosed training. His focus was on team-building whose goal was a one-night operation with a one-only objective of killing as many German officers as possible. The admirable Crichton’s [played by Kenneth Moore] leadership role was quite different. Because of his knowledge and experience, he emerged as a leader from the pack; recognised by, selected and admired by his followers, whose survival and welfare were paramount. Their level of acceptance of his expertise and knowledge was very high indeed; and he was able to use these upper levels of administrative power to persuade his followers to do as he expected. This acceptance of his power exceeded general enthusiasm, with followers often displaying initiative during assigned tasks because they confidently anticipated his approval.

It would be difficult to see these two leaders exchanging roles just because we have described them as leaders. There are role requirements. Successful leadership recognises the requirements of a particular situation; and combines various personal, organisational and administrative devices to exert influence over the actions of others. Successful attempts at influence establish and maintain control over followers, doing what the organisation requires and the followers are happy to do. Experience is the key element of control. Knowledge of the million things that happen in a busy organisation is absolutely essential. If a person runs a school, for instance, one has to know what happens in the classrooms and needs to maintain hands-on contact to keep up to scratch. Garages don’t appoint plumbers as managers nor does the military engage butlers to lead tense military manoeuvres just because they have had a successful academic experience in some field of intellectual endeavour. Caring professions, in particular, cannot afford to be wanton in such appointments. Ignore the levels of acceptance and the operation suffers.

Australian schooling of more recent times has been typified by the introduction of changes induced at the whim of politicians and change freaks for no sound reason. Witness the differences between states of starting ages, starting times, vacation times, levels of emphasis on how to cope with the evils of  testing, names given to the first year of compulsory schooling, number of years spent at primary schooling, whether pre-schooling means something else. Untidy.

Feckless business management theories, introduced to various public services in the later 1980s and 1990s, ignored the zone of acceptance. Things went pear-shaped from the beginning, because ignorance of the zone included the pear in its design. Government-controlled theorists were intent on promoting obsequious Eichmannism to lower-order leaders and sequacious followship on hard-working operatives. Political helotry at the federal level of politics in Australia has become fiercer since the 90s.


A schooling model from the child upwards, not from such managerial-dictatorship downwards, is still possible. Recognition of a zone of acceptance in which people work with enthusiasm is not beyond us. Getting the elephants out of the room will be the first problem.




The design, illustrated below, presents a powerful message indicating the degree of influence that leaders can bring to the success of a company, institution, education sector, military manoeuvre or any project of consequence where a group or groups of people are brought together for a set purpose. Superordinates, who appoint leaders who have demonstrated thespian skills at interview, or who have produced imposing curricula vitae, or who have provided evidence of academic accomplishments in a left-field endeavour, make serious mistakes when they ignore the experience and knowledge  dimensions of power, as described by French and Raven.


Organisations and systems try to influence respondents to do as they want them to do. Leadership is clearly an influencing operation; a matter of gaining positive control over operations, using idiosyncratic modes of influence that have developed and matured from previous experiences. The level of control over an organisation’s direction is revealed in the success of attempts at influencing others. French and Raven provide five critical dimensions of power, the potential for control, arranged in order of effectiveness, the upper levels of which are essential for an effective and efficient leadership role.   Below is an outline of an influence system that reveals the kind of responses that particular power-based leadership roles can expect of respondents. Leaders get what they deserve.



Lower level dimensions of power produce lower levels of acceptance. Ordering people around and threatening some forms of punishment can influence the organizationally and professionally weak, and responses are usually cold and formal. The professionally stronger usually reject the power of the superordinate. If the leader has only a hammer to use as a tool, she or he tends to treat the operation as a nail. Reaction to Reisman-like hammering on caring professions, such as teaching, only generates border-line rejection.

Remuneration also works and, on its own, produces lower levels of response. A regular and healthy pay-packet will persuade people to stay on the job, but, as with bossiness, responses will be typified by unhealthy formality and subtle rejection. If an organisation relies on reward and coercive powers only, that is the response that it will get. The imposition of Naplan on the operation of Australian schools is an example of a legitimate operator, albeit a totalitarian-disposed government, using only the lower levels of power to induce normally compliant operators to follow. Outcomes are as expected in the lower zone of acceptance.

It was noted in The Week [P4 April 8, 2011] that ”…nearly two-thirds of Australian teachers are considering a new career. 60% believe that their school’s direction is unclear and 27% say their Principal is unapproachable.” That’s a disturbing statistic even if it is half-accurate. The zone of acceptance is too low. Our political leadership and Naplan supporters seem to expect only the very lowest levels of acceptance for its teaching force to achieve its basement-level hard-data curricular aims, by using the lower level bases of power. There’s a pear in there.

A schooling system that is future-oriented can scarcely afford to appoint any second-best or dysfunctional operators to positions of control. They carry lower level authenticity. Australia has surely learned its lessons from elsewhere. If it claims to run a true-blue schooling operation it needs to have the best schoolies available to run the show…those professionals whose experience in classrooms and schools is of a kind that has developed in them an understanding of all the dimensions of teaching and learning. Expertise is essential and while book-learning helps, it just does not provide all the requirements for child-sensitive operations. Experts in various fields of school operations – curriculum writers, researchers, subject specialists, measurers, assessment boffins, planners, forecasters and the like – need to be on tap, but never on top. The teacher knows more than anyone else what is needed to motivate a child to learn. Compulsory schooling in every country requires leaders who are as high as possible in Referent and Expert powers.  At every level, school children deserve no less.

When my child goes to school I want him or her to be in the hands of quality enthusiastic schooling professionals whose perceptual overview of the multitude of pupilling acts that happen each day at school, borders on perfect.  I want the kind of leadership at the political and organisational level that is ethical and keen and pleasant, unhampered by the actions of hammerers and measurers. I want someone who thinks about the consequences of their actions, not just measure and hammer; someone whose anticipation of acceptance is high. I’d much rather have a Crichton than a Reisman.


J.R .P.Raven and B.Raven first presented their article “the Bases of Social Power” in D. Cartwright & A. Zander : Group Dynamics [N.Y. Harper & Row 1952]. The concept has stood the test of time.

Charles Barnard in Functions of the Executive [Cambridge Press1938] wrote of Zones of Indifference where accept, without discussion, the decisions of superiors. H.A.Simon in Administrative Behaviour [4th edition, The Free Press, 1997] noted that the acceptance of leader decisions was determined exogenously by circumstance; and wrote of the effects a of management’s authority over the obedience of subordinates.