From an early age, like me, you have probably learnt that the reason that giraffes have evolved to have long necks is so they can reach the leaves on trees that other animals can’t reach. The long neck is the key thing that enables them to be successful and it’s the same for them all. But a quick look at giraffes across the world reveals that, whilst they may all share similarly long necks, their markings can vary considerably. Some are dark, some lighter. Some have large patches of colour, some smaller. The markings vary according to their environment and the age of the giraffe. They have evolved to suit their context.
For me, the same principle applies to school leadership. As a leader, you need to be clear what are the leadership long neck issues: the things about leadership you need to know and understand to ensure success. But you also need to understand your context, your own predispositions and be able to adapt to them to suit your situation, both in terms of what you need to do and how you do it.
Of course, the giraffe concept doesn’t just apply to leadership. It is equally relevant when it comes to teaching strategies, for example. As Dylan Wiliam (2015) argues, ‘In education, what works? is not really the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. So what’s interesting, what’s important in education is: under what conditions does this work?’ School leaders, with their staff, need to use the very best evidence to make sure they are using approaches that suit their context.
So what are the implications for schools? I guess it comes down to being clear about what are your ‘long neck issues’. What are the things you expect all your staff to do in pretty much the same way? Clarity on pedagogy and behaviour management are the two areas that jump out for me. Do you staff know what is non-negotiable as well as where they have (the important) flexibility to adapt their approach to suit their context? Getting this right isn’t about creating a straitjacket. Rather, it is about providing a solid foundation upon which creativity and experimentation can flourish, safe in the knowledge that the overall approach is secure.
This blog is based on an extract from Leadership Matters.