I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.
Building and sustaining relationships is one of the most important elements of any leader’s role. As the popular quote attributed to Peter Drucker says: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Translated for schools, you can have the greatest strategy in the world, but if relationships between you are your staff and amongst themselves isn’t good, then delivery and pupil outcomes won’t be what you want them to be.
Stephen Covey is very clear in his Speed of Trust about how the best leaders genuinely care for others and are naturally happy to show that they care in an open way. They respect the dignity of all the staff no matter what their role in school. Taking time to have a conversation with the caretaker who has a bad back during exam season is just as important as comforting a deputy head who may have suffered a personal loss.
School leaders who take the time and trouble to do something to support a colleague, or who take a personal interest in a particular pupil who is dealing with some really tough problems at home, send a clear message to the whole school community that people matter to you. You can so easily become embroiled with your own problems on a day-to-day basis that it is all too easy to forget about how important it is to get these things right.
Sending a card wishing someone well, or organising some flowers to be sent takes a few minutes to put in place, but can mean so much to the individual concerned. But taking this trouble does more than just support that individual. The message that colleagues matter as people and not just as employees doesn’t just go out to the individual concerned; it permeates the whole institution. That buys loyalty and commitment. It reinforces the ethos that staff and pupils are valued. It makes the school a place that people are proud to belong to, proud to be a part of.
The cumulative effect of lots of small acts of kindness is immeasurable. The little things that leaders do can build morale and a sense of trust. They play a significant role in developing momentum. If people feel valued and cared for they reflect that by valuing and caring for the place they work in and the people they work for.
If you also model that behaviour to pupils in school, they in turn gain greater trust in you and a sense of belonging to their school. It is a very simple, virtuous cycle that leaders need to remind themselves of frequently, particularly during times of stress when it becomes far more likely that the importance of respect and dignity become overlooked.
Many of the best schools I have worked with also make important statements about how they value their staff more generally. For example, some of these schools provide free tea and coffee in the staffroom at break-time, even though pressures on budgets are always tight. Others offer a free lunch for those staff sitting with students at lunchtime or who are running a club. These gestures are highly symbolic and represent a powerful way of building momentum and helping create a climate where people naturally begin to act in a self-disciplined way because they feel valued.
In one school, the senior team goes to great lengths to ensure staff are, in their words, cherished. This doesn’t look the same for everyone. The school believes it is vital that the senior team carefully works out a personalised plan for each member of staff that ensures that they feel valued and nurtured. Part of this involves ensuring every exceptional deed is personally recognised by the head.
The same school also ensures that relaxation is valued. Monday breakfasts, Friday cakes, fruit bowls and chocolates delivered to offices, end of term celebrations, social events, prizes and celebrations for attendance, great practice and team spirit are all part of the mix. The head even says to the staff ‘if you hear of anything another school does that means that they care more, then tell us and we will do it!’
All schools and individuals can face challenges and difficult times. Things just go wrong sometimes. What good leaders appear to do in these circumstances is keep faith with the individuals that make it successful. There is a clear link here with developing a ‘no-blame’ culture. Just because someone has made a mistake with the timetable or said something inappropriate to a student or parent, doesn’t mean leaders should suddenly forget the important contribution that the particular individual makes. In fact, quite the reverse is usually true. In these situations, what staff need to know is that they are supported and trusted and that they can be trusted to learn from their mistake and move forward.
In contrast, when things are going well, the very best leaders generously give credit to all those who have enabled that success to happen. There is nothing more disheartening and likely to reduce trust than for an individual to see a leader take credit for something someone else did. Openly acknowledging the contribution of others is critical.
Loyal leaders will also speak up for an individual even when they may not be present and even if it may be uncomfortable to do so. Rest assured, word will get back and the person concerned will feel even more valued and motivated than they did before. This, in turn, builds momentum and alignment towards the school’s goals.
Loyal leaders also resist the temptation to ‘bad-mouth’ colleagues behind their backs. As mentioned previously, they respect the individual concerned by dealing direct, and raising any concerns they may have face-to-face. They don’t say: ‘I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to them myself.’ They keep such matters private, however tempting it may be to talk about such issues.
One of the most frustrating things for members of staff in any school is when someone senior doesn’t keep a promise made. It is probably the quickest way that trust can be destroyed. Yet honouring commitments, especially when it is clearly difficult to do so, is also one of the most effective ways you can build confidence and trust with staff, pupils and parents.
Leaders can often be tempted to ‘wriggle out’ of commitments that they may have made. Often this will arise in situations where a promise is given before thinking through all its implications.
For example, a head that agrees, as a result of some special pleading, that a particular member of staff may have a reduced timetabled commitment may well find themselves in the position where other staff complain this is unfair. The temptation, of course, is to renege on the promise made. Yet it is probably wiser to honour the original agreement and openly apologise to the other colleagues that an error had been made which would be rectified in future. The ability to say sorry and acknowledge the error is critical here. Trying to make excuses and blame changing circumstances can be tempting but reduces trust.
This example also serves to illustrate the importance of carefully thinking through commitments and promises before making them.