Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. Publilius Syrus
Leadership at any level in a school brings with it many challenges. This blog looks at the importance of having the courage to do the right thing and to keep going.
The challenges of middle leadership
If you are a middle leader, your job is undoubtedly one of the most pressurised in school. While senior leaders are in control of whole-school strategy and direction, as a middle leader, you sit at the heart of the school leadership team managing up, down and across, implementing the changes that come from above and managing the situations which arise below you. The role of middle leaders is also shifting, demanding more autonomy and accountability, which makes resilience and courage more important than ever before.
Changes stemming from government policies can often mean you are at the heart of implementing regular change coming from outside your school. You are faced with more ambiguity, inconsistency and change from above and outside, making long-term decisions harder to reach, and while in theory you may have more autonomy, it often doesn’t feel like that. Technology has removed physical barriers, so you can be reached anywhere, anytime and do not have the time and space to think.
It might seem obvious, but as a senior leader, while the potential impact of your work and the decisions you make can be much greater, so too is the potential for pressure and worry. Decisions you take have bigger implications for you personally if things go wrong, the school, your staff and, most importantly, your pupils. The pressure of public accountability, particularly for heads and system leaders, is significant. As with middle leadership, external pressures can be intense. It can sometimes feel like expectations keep rising, finding great teachers gets harder and there are never enough resources to do what you really believe needs to be done.
Added to this is the pressure that comes from dealing with the unplanned events that never fail to arrive at just the wrong time. I remember talking to one head a few years ago who described how she had to lead her school into an inspection in the same week that a member of her staff had committed suicide following a school-related incident. In such circumstances, the best leaders seem to draw on an indescribable source of inspiration and energy that lies deep within their psyche. In this case, the head concerned led her school to its first ever outstanding judgement.
The unshakeable conviction and determination to do what it takes in order to do the right thing for the school and the young people that it serves seems to be at the heart of the drive and passion that circumstances like this bring forth from these outstanding leaders.
So what is it that great leaders at all levels do which makes a difference?
Managing your emotions
In order to stay strong for your team, you have to stay strong yourself, which means managing your emotions, as we saw in Topic 5. Emotions are not a sign of weakness; in fact, recognising and identifying how you are feeling is a real strength. Different situations make different people feel stressed. Do you know what situations make you feel stressed? Do you know what makes you worry or feel anxious? The important thing is to recognise your emotions but not be governed by them.
If you recognise your emotions then you probably know how to manage them. Maybe when you feel stressed or worried you need to talk to someone you trust to get a different perspective. Maybe you need to create some personal space to think through the problem. Maybe you need to go for a run or do something different to clear your head.
Some questions to ask yourself might include:
- How do I feel?
- Why do I feel that way (for example a recent event, or criticism)?
- Is this something that normally triggers an emotional response?
- What would I tell myself to do if I were observing from outside?
Turning negativity into positivity
In the moments of highest pressure and negative criticism you have two choices: you can either let the criticism build into a negative spiral, or you can use it as an opportunity to respond positively and build support. If you can soak up the criticism, show you are listening, prove to others that you want to adapt, improve and learn, then you can turn negative situations into positive ones. The game is only over if you give up.
Put yourself in the position of the person giving feedback or criticism. Often they may just want to voice frustration, they may be under pressure themselves which they are projecting, or they may really care and only sound negative because they want things to be better. Either way, you cannot lose if you respond positively. If you can tap into why they are behaving the way they are then you can use their feedback to build support.
Some questions you may want to ask:
- How are they behaving (anger, frustration, or commitment)?
- What are they saying (do they want improvement, change, or vindication)?
- What is behind the words (influence, affirmation, or veiled support)?
- What do they want to hear (apology, commitment to change, or that they are right)?
If you can manage yourself and not let the external criticism get on top of you, then the next group to focus on is your team. Jon Coles, my former boss at United Learning and a former senior director at the Department for Education, talks about leaders needing to exhibit unwarranted optimism. Staff look to leaders in school for reassurance when things are difficult. They need to see leaders being optimistic, however hard this is to do, to make them feel secure in difficult or uncertain circumstances.
Here are some practical ways in which this can be achieved:
- Recognising and celebrating small successes to build momentum and positivity in the team.
- Praising the team to keep them positive, you will find this makes you more positive too.
- Communicating so that others hear your voice regularly and you control the flow of information and messages.
- Being authentic and honest so they feel they can trust you to deliver a tough message when it is required.
- Copying role models – when you are feeling vulnerable, copy the behaviour of others who appear in control.
- Communicating your vision – your vision will inspire the team and remind them about the big picture and the reasons behind what you are doing.
Learning and improving from criticism
The first thing about criticism is to try not to analyse it in the moment. Often it is hard to be objective about criticism and pressure when you are receiving it because emotions, sensitivities and fears are heightened. If you feel like you want to give feedback or find yourself using language of blame or fault, then it may not be the right time to analyse. The heat of the moment is not the time to start saying ‘if only we had done this…’
Keep a log of the feedback, problems and actions so that you can look back once the crisis has passed and everyone has found something to be positive about. You are then in a safe space to look back and analyse what has happened. Let everyone share their perspectives and what they would do, finding time and space to listen and digest the different information you are hearing. Make sure that any face-to-face conversations are held in private and not in public if you need to have tough conversations.
Finally, make sure everyone commits to the changes you want to make. Allowing them to feed in will be critical, but make sure they know you are still committed, motivated and certain that the team can succeed moving forward.
Peter Matthews in his Ofsted publication, Twelve outstanding secondary schools (2009) talks about the ‘tireless energy’ that leaders in the schools he studied demonstrated. Their schools didn’t become outstanding overnight. It was the culmination of hard work over a significant period of time. The building of this momentum is the result of ongoing determination and a rigorous focus on the school’s core business. For school leaders, the implication is very clear: running a successful school takes a huge amount of hard work! Not just because it is important that school leaders need to be seen to be leading by example, but also because there appears to be almost no other way. Just when you have one thing sorted, something else crops up. There is always something else to do.
None of the heads I have met in the last few years give the impression that their workload had diminished in any way. In fact the reverse is probably true.
Taking calculated risks
The last area this blog relates to is the importance of school leaders taking risks. This takes courage in itself, not that these risks won’t have been carefully considered before they are taken. To take one example, giving relatively junior members of staff key roles within a school can easily backfire. Yet this approach can have a major impact by helping create a culture where people learn on the job and develop themselves, becoming self-motivated and self-disciplined. It also provides a clear sense that the leadership of the school values the people that work there, which builds a positive climate. Together, taking these risks and having the courage to believe in colleagues builds momentum and leadership capacity, and enhances trust.
The very best leaders also have the courage to take risks about what they are not to going to do. Jim Collins’ ‘hedgehog concept’ is all about keeping the focus on what an institution knows it does well and is its core business. Deciding not to undertake certain activities, even when all around them are, takes courage. I remember as a head, a few years ago now, when we decided our school would not engage with the new Diploma qualification. We just weren’t convinced it was going to work in practice. This was most definitely a risky strategy, as the government had set a date when all schools needed to provide their pupils with access to the range of Diploma qualifications. But it was a calculated risk and one based upon doing what we thought was right for our pupils. In the end, the qualification wasn’t popular with pupils, parents and schools nationwide and the initiative folded.
The excellent NCSL publication A model of urban leadership in challenging urban environments (2004) describes how the best leaders show courage by:
- standing up for their beliefs and defending them in the face of opposition and entrenched interests
- doing the right thing rather than taking the easy option, despite the possible risks and complications
- taking calculated risks, where appropriate, to improve provision for pupils.
One leader of a multi-academy trust I know decided with senor colleagues a few years ago that they would only take new schools into their trust if they were within a close geographical area, to allow for meaningful collaboration and the flexible deployment of staff. At that time, government policy was to grow the academies movement as fast as possible, and the trust was risking losing government support because of its stance. In the end, however, time has shown this approach to growth to have been a successful strategy and indeed government policy has changed to reflect this.
A model for resilience
One useful model for considering the key elements of resilience has been developed by an organisation called Robertson Cooper. They believe there are four key dimensions to resilience, as shown in the diagram below.
If you are interested in finding out more about your strengths in each of these areas, you can access an online diagnostic tool via the LM Insight section of the Leadership Matters website at leadershipmatters.org.uk
This blog is based on an extract from my book Leadership Matters 3.0