Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Voyage of discovery


Becoming a successful leader is a never-ending journey, not a destination, says John Dunford. He offers ten tools which may help ASCL members develop their leadership skills throughout their careers.

I dislike the term 'middle leader', which underplays the importance of the people in the engine room of school and college improvement - the heads of faculty, department, year and house, the SENCOs and all the others without whose leadership skills schools and colleges would make no progress. I have never heard anyone utter the words: "I aspire to be a middle leader." Nor have I heard the term 'junior leader' used in the context of anything other than youth organisations.

Part of my dislike of the term 'middle leader' is that it categorises roles in an unhelpful way and detracts from the imperative that leadership exists throughout the institution, whatever its size or structure.

Similarly, I find the term 'leadership team' unhelpful, in that it suggests that only the few people at the top of the organisation exercise leadership, creating a situation in some places where staff say "Leadership will decide that", with all the implications of a dependency culture that that statement implies.

I can tolerate the term 'senior leadership team'. It is certainly better than 'senior management team', which was prevalent in the past and may still be in use in some places now.

However, the structure of the institution - and the names of the parts of that structure - should encourage the notion that all staff exercise leadership. Continuous professional development (CPD) should emphasise leadership at every stage of a teacher's or staff member's career.

Leadership is a journey, not a destination. I have been learning leadership skills throughout my career and I continue to learn. Continuous leadership development (CLD) should be our aim, both nationally and at the level of the individual institution.

One of the defining characteristics of Teach First, with which I have been involved since its inception, is that leadership is built into the training programme of all participants. Some of them will exercise that leadership outside education at some points in their career; many will stay in education and put that leadership training into practice as classroom teachers, heads of section, assistant and deputy heads, and as heads. Throughout their careers, their CPD is inextricably linked with their CLD.

In schools and colleges that embrace this culture of CLD, students will be given opportunities for leadership too. Not only will student voice be strong, but students will be active participants in leading the development of the institution.

Nor will these leadership-oriented schools and colleges, however large, be islands of development, divorced from what is happening elsewhere. Though much of the best development comes from opportunities within the institution itself - in activities on the five professional development days, for example - great CLD gives teachers the opportunity to link with teachers in other schools and colleges, expanding each other's vision of what is possible in their own context. Holding joint professional development days with other institutions is just the start of such a process.

Leadership ethos

So what should this leadership development focus on? How can schools and colleges create an ethos in which leadership is something that is seen by all to be something for them, not just for those above them in the hierarchy? I offer the following ten areas in which leadership skills can be developed.

  1. Create a leadership culture in which everyone acknowledges their leadership role and exercises it on a daily basis. This implies that CLD is seen by all as a component of CPD. The practice and development of leadership skills is a part of everyone's performance management.

  2. Focus on teaching and learning. This is the essence of being a school or college, as opposed to, say, a company producing a product or providing a service. Schools and colleges succeed or fail by the quality of their teaching and learning. Leaders at all levels are in grave danger if they take their eye off this ball. So keeping focus is vital.

  3. Moral purpose. At the core of this focus on teaching and learning is the moral purpose of maximising the life chances of every young person. Nobody is written off. If grade D is the peak of a young person's potential, it is as valued as the grade A* for another. With the perverse incentives created by the national accountability system, that is not easy, but the values of the institution must be clear on this.

  4. Communication is one of the most important skills of leadership. ASCL members will probably have heard me say on many occasions - but I make no apology for repeating it here - that good leadership is 10 per cent action and 90 per cent communication. No management decision is of any use whatsoever unless it is communicated well to the right people. So every decision should be followed by the two questions: Whom do we tell? How shall we tell them?

  5. Empower people by distributing leadership, not just distributing a list of jobs. Senior leaders have to be prepared sometimes to say, "You decide that," in response to a request for a decision. The principle of subsidiarity is important in creating a climate of good leadership.

  6. Trust others to perform and hold them to account intelligently. Just as ASCL is continually demanding from the government that there should be more intelligent accountability for schools and colleges, so senior leaders should adopt the same principles, creating an institutional framework of operation and giving staff flexibility to make decisions about how they work within the framework. People respond well to trust and there is far too little of it in the way that public services are governed.

  7. Innovation is closely linked to trust. A climate has to be created in the institution in which people have permission to fail. If they don't, they will never try anything new. In this climate, failures can be shared openly and lessons learned. A small innovation fund, available to staff with new ideas, can work wonders in encouraging staff to develop their teaching, management and leadership in new ways.

  8. Partnership. In exercising leadership, staff should be encouraged to work collaboratively with their colleagues in their own institution and elsewhere. No school or college is an island. No member of staff should be an island within it. It should be expected of people that they look elsewhere and learn, adapting what they have learnt to their own circumstances. That too is innovation.

  9. Smile. "There is no degree of enthusiasm that cannot be reduced with a sufficient amount of discouragement from above," is a variant of a quotation that I have used so many times that I can no longer recall its provenance. If the leaders isn't smiling, what hope is there that other staff will be enjoying their job and putting their heart and soul into it? Leadership with a smile brings encouragement to others and helps to get the best out of them.

  10. Lists of 10 have a long history, probably starting with The Commandments. There are plenty of things I could put as my tenth item in this list of leadership skills, but I will leave it to you, the reader, to complete the list with the most important skill or attribute that you think I have omitted.

Leadership is a personal thing and everyone exercises it in their own way. Whatever your way, everyone should be included in your leadership plans.


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