“We ensure that everyone ... knows exactly what everyone is focusing on, giving a greater sense of community and shared ownership of goals.”
Well, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that there can always be an unexpected twist in the leadership of any school. I was impressed by how flexibly, quickly and creatively so many school leaders responded to the events of early 2020, and struck by what many of us take for granted when we start to train people in the ways of ‘leadership’. What became clear, from the schools we supported that coped best and maintained staff wellbeing to a very good standard, is that there isn’t a magic wand or perfect formula for school leadership. In this article, however, I’d like to outline what we have seen as being some essential ingredients in building and sustaining a leadership team and approach that can help you cope with – pretty much – anything that comes your way.
No surprises here, really, but relationships (or lack thereof) can be the making or breaking of a school. That doesn’t mean we have to be all soft and cuddly, but it does mean we need to invest in the people in our teams. Who are they? How do they cope under varying kinds of pressure? What do they need from me, as a leader, in terms of support, communication, ownership and autonomy? What is going on outside of school that might impact on their work or their wellbeing? A real lesson from recent times is that the strength of relationships with your team has a direct correlation to the strength and resilience of your team as a whole.
How do we build relationships?
Schools are like a giant mirror, held up to the senior leaders. The way they speak to each other, to staff, to parents, to pupils (and how they speak about all of the above) is, more often than not, mirrored all the way through the organization. Where you have cold, aloof senior teams who communicate coldly or not at all – you tend to find cliques, rumours, resentment and a lack of trust. Where you have warm, approachable, genuinely open communication – you tend to find trust, openness and a keenness to solve problems rather than point fingers. Not always universally true but, from experience (and a great many other writers and thinkers who believe the same), communication is key.
How do we strengthen communication?
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is an excepted truism in business and other organisations, but what does a plan look like? Few schools would have expected the removal of National Curriculum levels – until it happened. Schools cannot plan for budget growth or cuts, until they are announced. Planning to overly-tight, numerical targets often leads to tunnel-vision thinking and can stunt creativity and flexibility. Instead, plan for an overall intention of where you want your school to be. Paint a picture with words of what you would like your school to look like, feel like, sound like and work like in the next year / three years / five years. Then help your team see what they need to do to get there. Goodheart’s law clearly states “any measure used as a target ceases to be useful as either”. In other words, if we set our future out in terms of numerical targets, we will always be chasing the numbers – not necessarily the dream of what we’d like to achieve. Life happens – and when it does, it can really affect our capacity to reach a numerical target. It shouldn’t, however, damage our ability to reach the ideal as a whole.
Following on from the above, it’s important to remember that data does have uses – to help us measure our journey toward our intended outcomes, to help us spot people or groups that are stumbling on that journey, to help us to celebrate our stepping-stone successes. Use it wisely, use it well – but start ‘with the end in mind’.
In any situation – good or bad – there will be those who are coping well and those who aren’t. We must be mindful that, just because an individual is struggling with one aspect of life right now it doesn’t mean a) they always will, or b) they are struggling with everything. Equally, just because one person is coping well right now it doesn’t mean a) they always will, or b) they will cope well with everything.
We therefore need to ensure evenness in our dealing with everyone:
Leading a team includes leading YOU. As a senior leader (but especially as a headteacher) few other people are going to tell you to take a rest, have a breather – or that you’re doing a good job. When things change quickly, what have you done to maintain your own reserves? All the advice you give to others – are you taking it yourself? If you aren’t, or if you continually berate yourself for not doing a good enough job then a) well done! You are genuinely a professional with very high standards, but b) take care! You are possible damaging one of the important assets that your team has… and you wouldn’t let anyone else do that, would you?
In short, we can’t plan for every eventuality – so don’t try. Plan for accountability, integrity, flexibility, great communication, trust – and plan for your long-term goals on your journey to excellence. In this way, bumps and hurdles become manageable, not game-ending.
If you’d like to know more about how we can support your school in finding even more effective ways of leading your school, find us online at www.tteducation.co.uk
Published on 23 June 2020