One thing that is consistent in education and in schools all around the world is the process of leadership and change. By their very nature, school and system leaders are constantly trying to identify ways to improve the outcomes for their students. Most leaders keep the interests and aims of their students front and centre of any change initiative and work to build buy-in and capacity in their teams to implement the change.
In 2016, when I started in a middle leadership position as a learning area leader in my school, I had some clear ideas for where I wanted our team to be moving towards. What I didn’t understand was that those clear ideas were not enough to actually bring them into reality. I needed a greater understanding of how to bridge the gap between the current reality and the way I envisioned our school working.
Fundamentally, what I lacked was the skills to manage change in an organisation or the ability to lead change. This is a critical skill of a leader or anyone with a vision to change the way things currently are. And while you could fill a library with the myriad books written that claim to hold the key to effective and transformational leadership, all of them should be treated with an appropriate dose of salt.
In saying that, I think that there are some definite ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of leadership that I have picked up in my admittedly short experience of a formal leadership role. As will all leadership advice, take what follows with the obligatory dose of salt, but these four of what I think are the most important lessons that I have had to learn so far.
#1 Plan, plan, plan
Obviously before coming into a leadership position, I was aware that a good leader should probably have a clear plan for what they want to achieve in their role. What I did not appreciate was the huge difference that a detailed plan would have on making the work clearer. Even in a middle leadership role, such as a subject leader, the number of competing priorities are significant. Do we focus on developing a data-driven planning cycle? Or do we need to focus on developing effective assessment tasks first? Or perhaps we should focus on observations and developing skills in the classroom? All of these options could be the right choice and when you as the leader know this is the case, it can lead to a paralysis of progress, simply because you don’t know what you should prioritise.
The process of mapping out not only what you want to achieve as a leader but also the necessary steps to implement the vision, provides a clarity of purpose that allows you to strip away the things that are out of your control or peripheral to your main aims. In doing so, this allows you to be genuinely prepared to get your job done
#2 Make sure failure is part of those plans
This might run counter to the cult of positivity that can seem to exist in leadership development circles. But it is simply an acknowledgement that you are going to make many (many, many…) mistakes along the way as a leader. Some of these will be unforeseeable but many you will realise, albeit too late, could have been avoided with a bit of stoic preparation. Simply by conducting a few thought experiments as the ‘devil’s advocate’ and thinking about the roadblocks and possible hurdles that could slow down a project, you can put some strategies in place for how you will respond. In doing so, you stop yourself becoming purely reactive to problems and find ways to be proactive and flexible in the face of challenges.
#3 Be a ‘teacher leader’
In theory, teachers should make the best leaders. No other job personifies the need to be proactive and flexible quite like teaching. Yet when you move from dealing with the needs and unpredictability of children to working with adults, you can easily forget that they have just as many needs, and can be equally unpredictable, as the young people we work for. No group of adults, no matter their size, will have all those people on the same page. This is no different to the students in our classrooms. No matter the subject, no matter the setting, the 20 students in each of our classrooms will all be at completely different stages in the development of their knowledge and skills. Teachers who are completely aware of this fact, are equally unaware that the same principle applies to the members of the teams they lead.
I count myself amongst these teachers but one who very quickly realised the value of treating my team as I would my students. By that I don’t mean that you assume a position of authority and control, nor one of being the source of all wisdom. Someone with that attitude would make not only a terrible leader, but also a terrible teacher! Rather what I mean is that you approach the team working with you with the understanding that all individuals in that team are at different places in their lives and careers, with the assumption that every action or behaviour has an underlying function. You need to believe that it is your responsibility to help them meet their potential.
The idea of a leader as a teacher is by no means ground-breaking, yet it provides a lens through which to view how to approach the challenges of achieving a goal with a team. It allows the leader to see that they are dealing with individuals, each with their own motivations, priorities and triggers. It helps prevent the leader making assumptions about who they work with and to stay focused on helping their team improve and grow, both together and as individuals.
#4 Leadership is about the people
This final lesson flows on smoothly from the previous. The need to identify leadership as a concept dependent on people cannot be underestimated. Asking groups of people what constitutes ‘good leadership’ will lead to myriad different and potentially contradictory answers. This is because leadership is a socially-constructed concept, entirely dependent on the relationships and trust between individuals and groups. Without this recognition, leadership is autocratic and ‘top down’, and teams do not get to develop along the way to achieving goals. This idea of ‘people-centred’ leadership is again not original: one of the best examples of it being put into action is in the principles of adaptive leadership, which argues that it is the central component of leadership in any setting. Diagnosing the needs, biases and desires of the people in a team or organisation is the crucial first step to identifying how to help that team or in working out how to address the challenges of that organisation.
So, what should you take away from my experience? I’m not entirely sure to be honest… For me, what I have gained in the last two years is a greater understanding for the complexities and nuance of working with and leading teams. This is paired with a belief that the only way to achieve anything is to build capacity in your people. A good leader sets out with the aim to make themselves redundant, to create a culture and a team that can sustain their change and vision even if the leader were to no longer be a part of the work.
Perhaps that is the key thing I have learned, an over-arching ‘take away’ coming from the four lessons above: my job as a leader is to build a team and a culture that makes my presence unnecessary. By focussing on the people you work with, the goals you have for your team or school will flow almost automatically.