Knowledge Building and Leadership: Exploring the Intersectionalities

By: Karen Steffensen, Student Achievement Officer, Ontario Ministry of Education.

In 2012, as part of my ​graduate thesis,​ a framework for leadership came about as a result of a narrative inquiry I was embarking upon — exploring the spaces within organizations where innovation and creativity can flourish. At that time, it was my hope that through this inquiry I would uncover key factors that contribute to greater agency, supporting the emergence of innovative practices that improve the quality of outcome for those at the receiving end of an intended innovation.

In a ​research interview​ with my dear friend and mentor–Tsimshian artist, Elder and Hereditary Chief ​Roy Henry Vickers​– the ​Four Directions of Leadership ​emerged as a way of grounding possible ways forward. The graphic shown below, frames these four directions. Through the way of ​Teacher, Healer, Visionary, Warrior/Leader​, we move through challenge with the knowledge necessary to arrive at a new place of being.

During this past academic school year (2018 – 2019), I have been contemplating the intersection between the ​Four Directions of Leadership ​and specific ​KB principles​, in particular,Epistemic Agency, Democratizing Knowledge, Improvable Ideas, Rise Above, and Community Knowledge and Collective Responsibility. ​I am wondering how understanding this intersection might further support leaders navigate complex change, particularly in turbulent, rapidly changing times. How might KB principles underpin and further inform our collaborations as we journey forward?

Which KB principles are embodied by leaders (both formal and informal) as they navigate complexity and change, innovating the systems and institutions for whom they serve? In what ways do these principles leverage successful change?

I believe that ​Idea Diversity & Democratizing Knowledge​ connects with ​the way of the Teacher​, as they each embody

○  being open to new possibilities and potential, constructing new paths to explore;

○  taking risks, learning from mistakes and failures;

○  expanding understanding through co-construction of learning with a knowledgeable other.

I see ​Epistemic Agency ​as having connections to ​the way of the Healer​. These principles and ways of being involve nurturing, caring, guiding, supporting, and ultimately, moving out of a space of hurt, anguish, challenge or despair into a space of renewal. Epistemic Agency and the way of the Healer offer hope because of new beginnings and connections that arise from the deep learning in the process of healing. The relationships fostered by these leadership directions (Epistemic Agency and the way of the Healer), enable us to grow as we work together for a common purpose, which gives rise to voice and contribution, moving us forward into the new spaces of possibility.

Improvable Ideas and Rise Above​, connect to ​the way of the Visionary​, allowing us to get beyond “what is” (from a current state) and move into “what could or can be” (a future state); enabling us to see beyond what is, to be open to possibilities and to intuition, and to embrace wide-awakeness as we strive to move forward. Improvable Ideas, Rise Above and the way of the Visionary, embody the creative process, ignited by inspiration or challenge and result in the emergence of something quite innovative or possibly new. As Roy Henry Vickers describes, the way of the Visionary uses our ability to see without our physical eyes, to be aware of the images that come to mind every day “because we human beings have been given this incredible ability to have vision that is beyond our eyes”. This, for me, is the ability to Rise Above, seeing and seeking the new possibilities not yet seen.

Community Knowledge and Collective Responsibility​ connects with ​the way of the Warrior/Leader ​as these require

○  walking in truth and wisdom of our ancestors; being grounded in knowledge from those who have come before us;

○  not being afraid to take a stand or seek the changes necessary to move beyond a current reality;

○  leading forward in possibility (imagination), joined by action;

○  embodying a form of leadership that ignites the passion in oneself and in others.

I see strong connections and intersectionality between KB principles and the Four Directions of Leadership. I wonder how this understanding might offer to further support and deepen our work as leaders– beyond a pedagogical approach that resides solely in classrooms with students, particularly if we consider how might KB provide strength of purpose, as a way of being when embodied in one’s leadership for and with others?

When we understand and navigate through layers of emotion, we are afforded the opportunity to enter into the “spaces of possibility” (as Maxine Green might say), enabling our ability to Rise Above, co-exploring ideas and seeing every idea as being improvable. By growing connections to KB principles within leadership practices, it is my belief these connections will give rise to meaningful innovations and ideas that truly uplift us through complex changes and challenges that are unfolding in and across today’s educational landscapes.

-Listen to a short (4 min) excerpt from Karen’s interview with Roy Henry Vickers, where Roy shares important perspectives around student engagement, success and learning, and ways we can ignite and inspire learning and teaching:

-You can also read more on the Four Directions of Leadership in Karen’s graduate thesis

-For more information on Roy Henry Vickers and his art, visit