Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Know your strengths

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What defines a great leader in the education profession? Does successful leadership look the same in every context? And are outstanding leaders born or can they be made? Experts from the worlds of education, business and sport argue the case.

Values not structures

My earliest recollection of school leadership is as a sixth-former, watching our headteacher from the library window on a Friday morning as he set off into town with his shopping basket. The dominant and highly respected figure around school was the deputy head. After these two came the heads of department who managed the syllabus which made up the grammar school curriculum.

Comprehensive education and curriculum development changed all this, bringing with them 'pastoral care'. Commonly, the leadership structure was headteacher, two or three deputies (curriculum, pastoral and buildings and so on) and a middle management made up of academic departments and pastoral year groups.

I remember vividly the debate we had in 1989 over whether my appointment as senior teacher funded by TVEI (Technical and Vocational Education Initiative) should entitle me to attend the meetings of the senior leadership team (SLT). At that time assistant heads were not part of the national structure.

Not only was I allowed into the SLT but I was treated in a way which made my work indistinguishable from that of my deputy head colleagues. I learned that it is not structures but behaviours, underpinned by values, which make the real difference to the quality of leadership in an organisation.

Financial management of schools and grant maintained status did much to change the nature of school leadership, widening the roles and skills needed within the team. Workforce reform is the natural progression from this.

The accountability framework, with its regime of targets and tables, brought real change to the role of senior leaders. The growth of federations and system leadership beyond the confines of the individual school is again leading us to a redefinition of the role of school leaders.

I think we are at a crossroads. The PricewaterhouseCoopers independent review of school leadership and the latest School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) report both point to the trend towards leadership teams - flatter, distributed leadership with little real difference between deputy heads, assistant heads and bursars. At the same time, we appear to have rediscovered hero-heads with a new breed of superhero-heads running federations of schools.

Two issues need to be addressed to enable us to move forward: legal accountability of the headteacher and the desirability of genuine distributed leadership. Can and should accountability be shared among a team of senior leaders, each responsible and accountable for an area of work of the school/ federation, overseen by a 'primus inter pares' - the first among equals? Or do we seek to find the modern equivalent of the traditional headmaster?

I have raised these questions and others in four chapters on distributed leadership which appear on the ASCL website. I would welcome thoughts, ideas and experiences.

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Be your best - not someone else's

There is a lot of hype around what constitutes a successful leader and TV programmes like The Apprentice and Dragons Den can make success seem cut-throat. In my opinion, 90 per cent of businesses are not run this way. If they were, there would be havoc.

There are many good leaders in business and many that you never hear about. Some are charismatic, high-profile individuals. Blair and Clinton, whatever you thought of them - and I've met them both - were intensely compelling. But there are also those leaders who, while appearing less charismatic, will be listened to when they speak because they know what they are talking about.

And while I passionately believe that the core of what makes a good leader is innate, I believe equally that leadership traits and talents can and must be added to. I have visited many schools throughout my career, most recently through IBM's involvement in Transition to Teaching - the programme for people who swap business careers to teach maths, science or ICT - and I see more and more similarities between leadership of schools and leadership in business.

Schools have to set budgets and lead a team. They also turn out a 'product' - the educated child - though whereas most businesses turn out lots of the same, in education, the 'product' is highly flexible and constantly changing.

As in business, school and college leaders need innovation and creativity to keep up with new trends in learning. We are all dealing with the ongoing impact of new technology on our workforce, as well as our customers, students or product lines.

It heralds new, more collaborative ways of working - a matrix rather than a hierarchy - and schools are having to grasp what this means in the classroom.

And, just as for a CEO, the role of head can also be a lonely one. (Admittedly, maintaining discipline in business is more of a given than in a school. Unlike pupils, employees are dependent on the school for their job, pension and career development!)

A critical quality for leaders in any sphere is trust. When we established our company values recently, trust was cited by employees as the most important element in successful relationships between staff and management. It means building faith in one's integrity and in one's competence.

Leaders and managers have to instil in people the belief that they will always have an opportunity to be listened to and that the outcome, whatever it is, will be just and fair. That way, you can take the employees with you, even when there is no hard evidence that what you are proposing will work.

The best thing a leader can do is to know his or her weaknesses. Then put in place around you a good team. So if your strength is operations but you are not terribly keen on presenting to an audience, delegate that public-facing role as far as you can.

My advice to anyone is to be the best you that you can be. You will only ever be a second-best someone else.

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Question the myths

The field of leadership is particularly prone to myths and misconceptions. And, given that many of our perceptions of leadership are formed by film and fiction, it is not surprising. The image of the charismatic, decisive and expert leader is rife in our culture and incredibly influential in shaping our approaches, even where we consciously reject it.

Our personal 'image' of what a good leader does subtly alters our behaviour. The danger is that many of these images are out of date or out of context. They are designed for the era of mass production and often taken from large corporations or military models.

These days we prize agility over control and collaboration over isolation. Loyalty to a single employer or career is uncertain, deference to authority declining. We can be more effective as leaders if we question some of the myths from a past age and find a style that works for us as individuals. More importantly, we can enjoy leading more.

Seven myths of leadership stand out as particularly harmful. These are that leaders should be:

  • Perfect - that a leader should know best and be good at everything.

  • Bounded - that a leader should take uncontested responsibility for a certain area and no more.

  • Authoritative - that a leader should make choices and decisions on behalf of others.

  • Important - that leadership naturally confers higher status, respect and reward.

  • Necessary - that all teams and activities require individual leaders.

  • Protective - that a leader should shoulder the burden and protect people from the consequences of their actions.

  • Predictable - that we can reliably spot leadership potential from an early age.

None of these are necessarily true; many of them are just plain wrong and all of them are unnatural and uncomfortable styles to adopt. In reality, leaders do not have to be experts, they have to deploy expertise.

They should welcome input into their area and be prepared to get involved in others'. They should delegate real authority - to succeed or fail. They rarely get to make unambiguous decisions or give orders. They should ideally be humble and able to take a back seat when needed.

Above all, leadership potential can flourish at any time in a career, and our pace of career development should vary depending on other priorities in our life. There is no reliable fast track.

A good test of this more modern and natural style of leadership is a simple question: "As a result of this interaction, have I left the other person stronger?" It is hard to go wrong with this test, whatever personal styles we prefer.

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There's no substitute for good leadership

One of the most important qualities in a leader is to be able to absorb ideas put forward by others without feeling threatened by them. I always try to be responsive to fresh thinking and to actively seek ways to improve, and I'm quite open to anything that I think can make a difference. That in itself keeps you, as the leader, fresh and motivated.

But to do it, you have to be willing to listen and to allow others - in my case players but also coaches, admin staff, press and medical teams - to share their views and ideas. And once people have offered their ideas, you have to let them take ownership.

That means accepting that 'it's not all about me'. Certainly leaders need to appear charismatic, when necessary, but I actually believe in leading quietly. You don't have to be in the limelight all the time.

In my experience, especially in a male-dominated environment such as football, it's quite often the one who shouts loudest who people think has the most to offer. But sometimes the person in the corner who says very little is the one really worth listening to and that's something which can be missed.

Women in leadership positions need to be clear about what they believe in and be very sure about what they are doing but they don't need to do it loudly, if that's not their natural way. I'm very confident that I won't be overpowered or overlooked - but I don't have to shout about it.

I believe it's important to develop leadership skills early on. Each year the FA runs a Young Leadership Camp which brings together young people from different backgrounds and environments. Especially at the moment, when most headlines are negative and concentrate on crime and anti-social behaviour, it is a way to celebrate the contribution of teenagers to their local communities as well as teaching leadership skills.

One of the things we try to instil in young people is the importance of teamwork. Obviously it's critical in a sport such as football but, as we try to bring home to them, it translates to other areas of life. Leadership is about bringing together a diverse group of people for the greater good and valuing other people in a team is very important.

Finally, good leaders need other people around them who they can turn to for support and advice. I have a mentor who was my coach when I started playing football whom I completely trust and value. I still bounce things off him.

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Moral purpose motivates the best

Today's school and college leaders face challenges and opportunities greater than many of them might have imagined when they first entered teaching. The best leaders - whether born or made - have been quick to identify how these impact on their own institution and context, as well as how they might best contribute to the wider debate on 21st century education.

They are motivated by a moral purpose that seeks to improve the lives of young people, not only within their own school or college but across the wider system.

I have seen evidence of this in the quite remarkable leadership given to narrowing the achievement gap between the most and least fortunate young people.

Great school leaders know that they cannot address the effects of poverty and deprivation alone. However, they also recognise that school is the one institution that comes into contact with every child and almost every family and that they have a crucial role in ensuring the school identifies and directs children towards necessary support.

The best are also proactive and passionate about sharing their capacity, resources and, crucially, their good practice, with other leaders and other schools. National Leaders of Education and consultant leaders are prime examples of how sharing support and expertise can not only improve performance in other schools but also have a positive effect on one's own performance as a leader.

These leaders are negotiators, brokers, facilitators, and good at empowering others. They work to bring people together in a coherent way with a shared vision to support vulnerable children and young people.

But just as great leaders strive to provide every child with a platform for learning and development, they also create an environment, an ethos even, that provides children and young people with a sense of the benefits of learning. They understand and support the aspirations of the children in their school and foster in them a lifelong desire to learn and achieve.

Another important sign of great leadership is a commitment to develop the leaders of the future, for the benefit of the wider system. By recognising the skills and experiences of the young leaders and supporting them to step up into leadership roles, today's leaders can instil confidence and feed the desire that many of today's young teachers have to take on this exciting role.

Some people may be born as leaders but the great school leaders I have had the privilege of meeting were 'made' as a result of their experiences of working in schools and with young people. They know how to harness the opportunities around them and know the value of working with others to ensure that the moral purpose of education is fulfilled and sustained for future generations.

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Changing face of leadership

Leadership is always essentially about leading change - whether as a reactive or proactive response to external factors which emerge in a dynamic and fast changing or more stable environment.

In education, the pace of change and reform is fast, and the transformation of the FE sector is well underway at every level of the system - staffing, mergers, new buildings, IT, qualifications, funding, and self-regulation to name but a few.

Good leadership is needed at every level of the system if this ambitious change agenda is to be realised. This means active engagement, thinking and questioning as part of a collaborative leadership taking forward a common purpose.

A good leader must have the capacity and skills to influence the behaviour and performance of others, and recognise that their role is to set the frame within which all members of staff are able to bring their creativity and skills to their work.

Good leaders know when to create space for the team to 'step up' and grow, and in this way they contribute to sustainable leadership.

In this, they use a complex and subtle interplay of skills which combine an understanding of the college, the sector and how it relates to wider parts of the system, with a sophisticated emotional intelligence, helping staff and stakeholders see a clear way ahead.

They are able to diagnose particular phases of their organisation's life-cycle and flex their leadership style accordingly. They are secure enough within themselves to reflect on their practice and seek out feedback from others in order to help them refine and calibrate their leadership practice and its impact.

A good leader will therefore inspire trust, respect and commitment, presenting a compelling vision of where the organisation is heading, so that students, staff, governors and other stakeholders will want to be part of creating that future.

They will be the chief learner, leading their own learning and shaping the learning space within which their students, staff, governors and the wider community learn and grow.

As a newly configured further education system takes shape, the leadership challenge is to create the new and different 'spaces' for discourse that will give rise to new connections, organisational forms and relationships, releasing new creativity and innovation as part of a distributed system of leadership within which staff, students and stakeholders have a voice.

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Rewarding but tough at the top

Some say that the best form of leadership training for headship is to observe closely the heads you have worked for along the way. In many cases, it will at least tell you how not to do the job. It is a theory that the young staff at St Aidan's appear to have espoused with some enthusiasm.

The first two heads for whom I worked both had experience of the war. One of them seemed to think he had virtually won it single-handed; the other appeared to think that rationing was still in place. His forte was to give us a goody bag in September, which had one roll of Sellotape, a counted number of drawing pins and a box of paper clips. And that was it for the year. Oliver Twist would have stood no chance.

His other party trick was to open the classroom door a fraction. A disembodied hand would then reach in and switch the lights off. It's not much, I know, but from the outset of my headship I have been very generous with the stationery.

The other tip is to pick a leadership style. For guidance you could look to politics or history. Maggie, Tony or Gordon may, however, not be your 'bag' and personally I would avoid Napoleon, Henry VIII or you know who.

If it's a faith school you might look to the church. However, Archbishop Rowan's beard is frankly off-putting and, if you are female, acceptance of your leadership may be lukewarm at best. I went for cricket without, it has to be said, too much success.

Will you be a Botham, or a Brearley? The former, a swashbuckling biffer, the latter a cerebral thinker with a Cambridge degree, who captained England even though he couldn't bat...or bowl. In other words will you try to be 'one of the boys/girls' or will you keep a lofty distance and plan the strategic vision from the safety of your office?

The real barometer of your leadership style is the end of term staff 'do'. Will you pompously let it be known that you prefer the staff to 'let their hair down' without your embarrassing presence? If so, you are a stick in the mud.

Or do you join in with gusto and drink them under the table? In that case, you are really, really sad.

Or do you grace the evening with your presence, accept the unspoken vibe that the troops might be bribed into civility if you buy the drinks, look meaningfully at your watch at 8.30, loudly say 'gosh, is that the time', and head for the exit? Thus, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and spends the rest of the night slagging you off.

In other words, you can't win. Get used to it... that's leadership.

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© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders