I have been led by others and I have led others. I have studied leadership and I have experienced good and poor leadership. I have worked for leaders and worked with leaders. As a leader I have made mistakes and learnt from them and I have learnt from the mistakes made by other leaders. This article is about what I have discovered about leadership (in a nutshell).
Google leadership and you get definitions, styles, skills, theories, books & courses. There are probably T shirts and I know Edward de Bono came up with a set of coloured hats. What can I hope to add to what has already been written? Well this is a more a practical reflection on leadership, experiences of leadership if you like triggered by a #SLTchat session on leadership. It is also specific to education. You may not think education leadership is any different to any other form of leadership but I believe it is. Yes there are similarities but the process of becoming a leader and of being a leader is somewhat different. So instead of an article about being a leader or leadership, of which Google suggests there are millions, this is more about working with leaders, being led by good and poor leaders, true leaders and simulacrums.
Firstly all teachers are leaders, they lead the learning of their pupils. This relationship is no different to the relationship between any leader and those they lead. The maxim of “lead by example” is often forgotten by teachers, they forget what it is like to be a learner. This makes them poor leaders and poor teachers. Poor leaders because leaders should never stop learning from those they lead. Poor teachers because forgetting the anxiety of learning, the need to belong, of having to face choices and needing a voice will limit your ability to build learning relationships.
Secondly the route to school leadership is based on teaching less. Doing less of the things you love doing, things that brought you into teaching in the first place. An ex head teacher shared what drove her to be a school leader; it was “the sphere of influence” factor. The more responsible the position the greater the sphere of influence you have. There is certainly passion and belief attached to this drive but perhaps also ego and they make for difficult things to balance in leadership roles.
As a teacher you have influence on the pupils you teach, as head of department this extends to the teachers in your department and as a leader of a school the pupils and teachers in your school. Some would argue you have an influence in the community too. Others are driven by other motives, those of ambition, status, responsibility, notoriety. It often strikes me as strange though that we draw these people from a pool of talent that came to teaching to teach and many may be poorly suited to school leadership although they pursue such ambitions. Perhaps that is one reason for so many leadership books, courses, and even qualifications. There is more about suitability for leadership in my next observation.
The third observation I will make concerning leadership in teaching is about the nature of teachers and I know there are exceptions but bear with me. I have a theory that we explore careers that reflect the environments we favour, that we feel comfortable in, have the talent for, or are thrilled by. Fate may decide that is not where we end up but that is another story. If we take the case of teaching then I would argue that those who are successful in school, and who enjoy school and benefit from the rewards of being compliant (a requirement for success as a pupil in school) will tend towards seeking out careers with a similar environment. Teaching is one such career. The result is, since teachers were compliant students, a compliant teaching workforce. This has its benefits but when we consider many of the leaders we hold in high regard, those who have been successful, are mavericks, non-conformists, even rebels it begs the question about the suitability of compliant leaders when it comes to doing what is right rather than what is required. There is certainly a case for “horses for courses” and at times any organisation requires different styles or types of leadership however this is another example of how leadership differs in schools.
Education is exposed to political will, ideas and pressures. Schools are not autonomous and be it a board of governors, an academy chain, local authority or any other body that is responsible for the school they ultimately set policy. Where that influence extends to inspection, standards, and regulation (as in the Government) a particular set of powers are employed to direct what happens in schools. Many leaders in schools (at all levels) may disagree with policy but few will be obstreperous. A few will find creative ways around the direction and quietly do what is right other than what is required. Ultimately though, unless successful, there is no reward for challenging policy or being anything other than compliant. This creates its own set of problems for leaders in schools, how to operate a sphere of influence in line with their own experience, philosophy, and ideology when it is in conflict with a government directed policy. It is also responsible for setting up a certain style of leadership, one that is to do more with “enforcing and regulating” than engaging and enabling.
My final observation is possibly less specific to education and it is that there are two types of leaders. I am not talking about styles of leadership, anyone can adopt a style or at least try. I am suggesting that there are those for whom leadership comes naturally and those who aspire to leadership but who lack the understanding and drive to truly understand what leadership is about. Knowing which one you are working with is essential for your own wellbeing. I believe you can tell which one you have by observing and noting certain behaviours. The first type of leader is the true leader and the second is a simulacrum, an imitation that looks like the true leader but gives themselves away in the following manner. I have tried to layout in the table below what their approach is and what happens to individuals and teams when being led by each type of leader.
|Engages and consults before making a decision.||Narrow and selected consultation before making a decision. Often vulnerable to pressure from individuals.|
|Makes decisions in a timely manner and describes rational.||Decisions are often delayed and changed without providing a rational.|
|Carries out actions with minimum delay but ensures resources are available with acknowledgement of consequences.||Actions are instigated without considering incidental consequences. A lack of planning or co-ordination evident.|
|Accepts when an error is made and willing to re visit decisions openly and without seeking to blame. Evaluation of events provides useful insights that are acted upon.||May blame others and events when things go wrong. Reluctant to re visit decision more likely to adopt another course of action without evaluation.|
|Views evidence objectively and without ego||Tends towards subjectivity with possible bias based on self.|
|What you see is what you get. Although diplomatic also open and honest.||You are never sure of the reaction you will get.|
|They build trust fostering the ethic of working with or for them.||Those being led tend towards being sceptical, they begin wondering what is behind the actions or decisions.|
A poster I designed to emphasise these points under “Good” and “Poor” leadership actions, something to print or pin on your wall, is available to buy and download. The links are at the bottom of this article.
If you have the option to work for a leader then look for the signs of a simulacrum before you decide. If you have no option but to work with or for a leader then “forewarned is forearmed”!
So there you have it, a practical look at leadership in education. As for my own approach to leadership it is best summed up by the way of a poster I designed based on the mnemonic “ENABLE”. I see this as the most apt verb to describe the actions of a successful leader. “Leaders enable” has a certain ring to it I think too!
What each letter of ENABLE stands for:
- E is for Engage – with those they are leading
- N is for Nurture – both the team and future leaders
- A is for Articulate – a vision, the challenges and the way forward clearly and convincingly
- B is for Bridge – the gap between people, ideas and strategies in order to move forward
- L is for listen and lead with empathy and understanding
- E is for Encourage – all to participate, to challenge and to take risks
Leaders ENABLE high resolution poster file at £1 *
What Leaders do high resolution poster file at £1*