A recent survey by Teacher Tapp found that teachers are most likely to leave teaching due to management issues, with 34% of respondents considering quitting due to poor management.
The survey also found schools are failing to build ‘collegiate’ environments. This is worrying news for senior leaders in education, but the good news is there is lots headteachers can do to develop stronger leadership skills in their senior management teams.
Leadership is a simple but powerful concept which anyone with an open mind can apply; it is about knowing where you are going and recruiting others to help you get there. Brilliant leadership can be learned, and anyone who chooses to work to improve theirs will be able to do so.
Better leadership means happier, stronger, more empowered teams, and better performance. In turn, that all means a better school environment.
It’s important to start with a clear and simple definition of what strong leadership is. The following is a good place to start: “Leaders achieve things far beyond what they could do alone, by engaging others intellectually and emotionally in pursuit of a clear and compelling purpose.”
Leadership has reach because it creates and harnesses energy in others. An effective leader multiplies their own effect by the number of people they lead.
They also connect with people on two levels. An emotional connection is essential to create energy and commitment. People are more likely to give time and effort to something or someone they feel an emotional connection to.
Intellectual engagement is also important, and elements of this would include a good plan, structure and order.
Where the purpose is not clear, activity is unfocused. Where the purpose is not compelling there is a lack of energy and engagement. When the purpose is both clear and compelling this supplies a powerful motivator, which gives direction and inspires creativity and useful initiative.
The asymmetric approach
In high-performing teams this is exactly what happens: leadership flows around and throughout.
Everybody is motivated and guided by that clear and compelling purpose, and the result is a creative and exciting school culture where leadership is encouraged and team members feel free to harness the energy of others to generate useful activity. I call this ‘asymmetric leadership’.
However, high-performing teams are rare. Very often process becomes more important than purpose, and schools tie themselves up with bureaucracy that actually discourages initiative and leadership.
Senior members of the school control everything, and energy is stifled. This means that there is a very traditional view of leadership, where it is linked to position, grade and status.
Decisions flow downhill, and nothing happens without the right level or authority signing up to it. There is an implicit (and nonsensical) assumption that with position comes immense wisdom and infallibility.
Normally the result of this style of one-directional leadership is that decision making is slow, and thinking is limited to only a very few authorised senior staff within the school.
If the purpose is clear and well understood, any member of the team can bring others together to work towards it. This could mean leading people of the same grade by harnessing their energy and getting them emotionally and intellectually engaged, or it could mean leading people of a higher grade.
Leadership should flow up, down and around in a vibrant, thriving school culture.
To avoid internal friction and to drive activity, senior leaders need to work hard to define the purpose of their team and the school.
That purpose should be ‘clear and compelling’, simple enough that everyone in the team will understand it (not too long and written in plain language), and emotionally engaging enough that people will want to work for it.
A structure that works well is for the statement to have two elements to it: ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’. The ‘What?’ guides activity, the ‘Why?’ fuels emotional engagement.
A well-defined purpose can be incredibly powerful. It can inspire and energise, but only if it is well understood within the teaching body.
Too often the purpose gets lost in corporate-sounding documents; even though people know it exists, the purpose is not a lived experience. This is where you as a leader need to ensure that everyone not only understands the purpose, but are also excited by it and focused on it.
The purpose will need to be discussed regularly to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds. It should be brought into meetings, linked to people’s objectives, and referenced in plans.
All work should be guided by the same clear and compelling purpose. If you get the purpose right, it will energise the whole school, pull people together, focus resources and give meaning to people’s work.
Effective leaders need to be good at connecting with people. Even if your nature is introverted and you lean more towards engaging in a task than connecting with others, as a leader, connecting with your team is essential.
One way to help senior management connect with their staff is by role-modelling this behaviour with them.
However busy you and they are as leaders, it is important to prioritise connecting with people. This will be an alien concept in many schools, where harvesting emails and filling space at staff meetings takes precedence over engaging with colleagues.
Becoming an effective leader involves challenging unhelpful organisational culture, so this could be a good place to start.
The aim is to get to know people: to break down the hierarchy, bureaucracy and status consciousness around you in order to form really meaningful connections. Connect with the people in your team and the people who interact with your team.
Five ways to connect with colleagues
A simple but effective way to build connections is to visit your team, and encourage senior leaders to visit their teams, in their classrooms or offices and spend some time with them.
This way you are meeting on their territory, where they feel most comfortable. It takes a lot of the friction and interference out of the process and allows a more relaxed and honest level of connection. Walking around school is always good too, as you meet people and see things that are not obvious from your desk.
I also have a few ‘rules’ that apply to connecting which might help you:
- Always accept a cup of tea or coffee when offered. This lets people know that you have time for them.
- Be yourself. Do not be tempted to hide behind your position or status. Instead, be relaxed, smile and look people in the eye.
- Be present, and occasionally take notes. Take the time to ask questions about them, and how they are feeling – and switch off or silence digital devices for the duration of the meeting.
- Listen much more than you talk. Try not to take any criticism personally and become defensive of school policy or your own decisions. Just listen to what people are saying and try to understand what is important to them.
- If there is time, talk simply and consistently about what you are trying to achieve in the school.
Neil Jurd OBE is the author of The Leadership Book (£15.99, available from Amazon.co.uk) and founder of skills platform LeaderConnect. Visit www.leader-connect.co.uk