About neiljones

English Prep School Headmaster, writing on leadership in schools. Education anorak, a fan of the learning potential in the social web and of Leyton Orient FC.

All Change…?

This month I made a transition into a new post.  After 23 years in independent education, I have joined a Free School (state funded, independent of local authority control) as Principal.  And today was the first day of the new school year.  So what has been the difference?

I will write about the “on boarding” process at a future date.  I will outline the lessons I’ve learned and how best to approach leadership transitions.  This will describe the need to build strong relationships early on, to drink deeply from the cup of knowledge possessed by those who already work for the organisation you are joining and how to prepare and plan voraciously in the precious time you have in the lead up to the start of the new role.

Whilst there are more nuanced differences culturally, in all schools there are broadly speaking four groups that are the focus:

Staff are always adherents of what ought to be best for children.  That said, personal views can vary and the expression of this mindset can sometimes be at odds across teams.  School staff always know, regardless of sector, that they are in a vocation that puts young people at the heart of why we come to work.

Parents need to put their faith and trust in the leadership and management of a school.  Whether parents pay fees or not, whether they have the choice or not, parents must have belief that the best interests of the children are at the heart of the school.  And that their children will make progress equal to or surpassing expectations, age-related or otherwise.

Children.  Well they are children.  They are joyful, growing, curious, needy, learning. They are affected by their backgrounds, families and early childhood experiences, but they are not to be held to account for that.  Schools work with the children presented to them and, in essence, they are the same precious individuals wherever you go.

Good governance can be found anywhere – temperate, positive, supportive of Heads and ultimately transparent.  Governance should not be cabalistic micro-management that creates division by operating with subterfuge and in underhand ways; dividing communities and not uniting them.

The change I am experiencing most on moving sectors is one of the mindset possessed by the organisation above me – the Governors and the Trust that support our schools.  It creates a platform for the leadership teams to develop provision and a mechanism for reflecting on the success of that provision in the progress of the children and the operation of the business.  The fact that my school and the trust are only 3 and 4 years old respectively, is certainly a factor in this mindset but I know from experience, and knowledge of good governance models, that this is can also be achieved in much more established schools and trusts.

I am learning systems, working with the team at school to establish new ones and modify those that exist.  This is the function of school leadership.  As is building and sustaining relationships.  And given that this is arguably my first task, change has been manageable thus far.

I miss the parents, staff and children of the school I have moved from but I know that I can build strong relationships in the communities that I have been fortunate to lead.  I am looking forward to exploring the management of change and to forging the strong relationships between staff, parents and children that make schools successful.

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5 Ways to Develop Leadership Capacity

What does leadership really require?

I’m preparing to co-host a workshop at a forthcoming conference.  The aim of the workshop is to encourage participants to explore how schools can develop leadership capacity in any role.

In considering what lies beneath this topic, I feel there are 5 ways in which schools and organisations can support the development of this capacity.

  1. Creating Culture.  Starting at the top, Head and Governors, the school as a whole must embrace the notion that leadership is manifest in the role of every member of staff, in some way, at some juncture.  It is recognising these manifestations that will develop and effective culture of support and encouragement.
  2. Professional Development Pathways.  Whether within school or through hubs or teaching and learning alliances, the availability and promotion of professional development is essential within a school that values its supportive culture.  Opportunity needs to be given, but there needs to be encouragement to look for and then take it for the better development of the school.
  3. Role-modelling.  Leadership attributes are, can be, many and varied.  If others are to build their understanding of how leadership works, then they have to be able to see how these attributes are lived out and how they impact the workplace.
  4. Well-being. The Senior Leadership Teams are responsible for the development and sustainability of colleagues’ well-being, physical and mental health.  Developing capacity in people requires care over how motivation and productivity works.  Happy, healthy staff, make for happy, healthy schools.
  5. Start with assuming the best in people.  Lao Tzu is quoted: “A leader is at his best when people barely knows he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the will say: ‘We did it ourselves’.”  Developing capacity starts with providing the space, professional and psychological, for people to fill.  It is the role of school leaders to fill this space, but not with themselves!

The workshop itself, will provide feedback from others across the staff team about how leadership can be developed in any role.

The sole aim of school leadership is to provide positive impact on the growth and development of the children in school, socially, emotionally and academically.  This cannot be forgotten.  It is only in an integrated system, where capacity building through enlightened leadership exists, that the sparks and fire of inspirational learning and opportunity for the children can be ignited.

To be a Deputy

A friend of mine, about to take up a new post, asked if I knew of any good books on how to be a good deputy head.  Well, a search on Amazon brings up this little list.  Although I cannot vouch for how good they are, I’m sure they are written with the best intentions.

I don’t think that there is any book on how to be a good deputy that would really make a huge difference to how you discharge your duties.  Rather, I would suggest reading around the idea of leadership: autobiographies, biographies, case studies.  Fallon’s “Six Secrets of Change”, Adair’s “Effective Strategic Leadership” and Lansing’s “Endurance, Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic” are three books, of thousands, I would suggest to gain inspiration on how leadership works in general.  In this way you can develop a sense of what you believe leadership to be and how you wish to use your own innate qualities to develop as a leader.

Beyond developing this sense of personal leadership style, I offer the following as a list of  what being a good deputy might entail:

  • Don’t choose sides.  You owe allegiance to your Head and the senior management team but you need to be sensitive to the mood and needs of the common room.
  • Be the eyes and ears.  Given the point above, your role is to support the staff team but also, more importantly, to support your Head in developing their vision for the school.  As long as your Head values your contributions, you will have the opportunity to discuss the direction of the school.  So when you do, speak up.
  • Remember who’s the boss.  Do your job.  Your Head needs your support to run the day-to-day operation of the school.   Speak openly with them about your aspirations and interests, set professional targets for your leadership goals but stick to your core purpose.

As with leadership at any level, there is no single or “right” way.  However, there are some key tenets that are immutable and I believe the three above, are a good jump off point for discussion on what might be needed to make a good deputy.

 

Qualities of Leaders #3

Are there other fundamental attributes that distinguish leaders from ‘non-leaders’? For example, what special attributes do you have that differentiate you from your teachers? Or does it just come down to circumstance/experience?
I’m hoping this might be a useful reflection to extend your August streak.

I am grateful for this comment and questions from JP on my last blog post.  Its testament to social media that this kind of encouragement to share thoughts is (and should be) common place.  The questions, as JP states, are an opportunity to reflect on my own understanding and hopefully this reflection will resonate with others.

JP initially asked how the qualities of a leader differ from a teacher.  My response suggested that, in essence, there are no differences especially when considering that leadership is found at all “levels” within a school.  This prompted the questions from JP, above, and here are my responses:

For me there are four qualities that differentiate those in leadership positions.  Two are perhaps shared with people in a wide range of positions, yet can lead to greater effectiveness for a leader.  And two which are essential for a leader to have, for without these their leadership would stall and quickly become ineffective.

The first two attributes are Humility and Service.

Humility: It would be hubristic for me to write about what qualities I might have that differentiate me from the team of teachers with whom I work.  Humility is a quality that leaders ought to possess!  Naturally it would be for others to judge to what extent I exhibit that quality.

Service: Through 10 years of life as a Head Teacher, I have have found that the second attribute required by those in leadership roles is a desire to support others.  If your career path has provided you the experience that offers the opportunity to apply for, and achieve, a role as a school leader, then you need to recognise that you are there to serve others.  As a leader, your role is to ensure others can discharge their duties effectively, that they can develop as professionals and their sense of well-being and fulfilment is sustained and grows.

Humility and service are clearly attributes shared by both leaders and non-leaders.  We can all be humble and a servant.  Yet when they are demonstrated by those who have been given the privilege and responsibility to lead, then that leader, and their leadership, will be far more effective.

So, the two qualities that I feel do differentiate leaders from ‘non-leaders’, and are therefore more uniquely possessed by individuals in senior roles are Vision and Courage.

Vision: A leader leads people and manages things.  Your team needs to know where they are going and how they are going to get there.  This means that a leader must be able to structure and articulate a vision and continue to communicate how the members of the organisation (in a school: children, staff, parents and governors) can contribute to achieving it.

Courage: The buck stops with you.  The community looks to you for guidance and it takes courage to create and sustain a vision and direction.  When things get tough, you are the one to hold challenging conversations, listen to complaints and deal with the administration of the organisation.  Whether this is Finance, Health and Safety, Staff Performance or, most crucial of all, Safeguarding, you are the one who has to knuckle down and deal with the c**p when everyone else has gone home.

These are, of course, personal views on the most significant differentiators when considering the qualities of leadership.  However, in my experience, the most successful leaders that I have worked with or have known all possess these four qualities.  There are many others, but to be a leader these four are the most significant.

Qualities of Leadership #2

Further to the last post, I’m a big fan of simplifying things.  Too much to remember, long lists of words or concepts will only result in confusion or mis-understanding.  Getting to the essence of ideas, as quickly as possible, is far more compelling.

Coming upon this video from England Rugby, Head Coach Eddie Jones elegantly summarises the qualities in being a successful rugby coach: observation and continued learning.

With these two qualities, as leaders we have in our grasp all that we need to understand the people we work with, make effective decisions and support others in achieving their outcomes successfully.

On the Qualities of Leaders

Reading “Effective Strategic Leadership”, author John Adair discusses three approaches to understanding leadership: Qualities, Situational & Functional.  Of the qualities approach to understanding – and developing – leadership Adair quotes a British military definition of leadership as:

‘…the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action; the art of controlling them, directing them and getting the best out of them.’

Such a definition – albeit a little blunt, perhaps – holds water in any field in which we have the privilege to lead.  Furthermore, in order to achieve that ‘influence’, there are personal qualities that will enable an effective leader to ‘get the best’ out of their teams.

Entering “leadership qualities” in a Google Search will return “about” 63.5 million results.  More than enough to be getting on with.  With a variety of websites of varying degrees of credibility pronouncing anywhere from 7, 10 or 101 skills, qualities or attributes of or for leaders.

There is clearly no definitive list of qualities that set leaders apart or would be beneficial for leaders to possess.  Adair suggests the following:

  • Leaders possess qualities that reflect their field – for educators, an empathy for children and learning would be a good start!
  • Leaders possess more generic qualities, such a enthusiasm, integrity, energy, toughness, resilience, etc.
  • There are always new qualities to learn from successful leaders – humour, humility, for example – but you should develop the natural qualities that you have.

If there are core qualities that a leader should posses, then they would be those we have known about for the longest time.  Therefore Adair offers us the four leadership virtues which Aristotle gave us:

  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Prudence
  • Fortitude

To cut through the “noise” of writing on leadership qualities, it helps enormously to focus on these few, simple terms.  From this platform we can build a broader sense of what we need to be, how we need to behave as leaders.

Why “Adventures”?

Adventure (noun)

  1. an exciting or very unusual experience
  2. participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure
  3. a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome

adventures-in-school-leadership

Transition is a time for reflection.  Inspired by Matt Cutt’s TED Talk and my 16 year-old’s setting of “streaks” in terms of behaviour change, this month (August 2017) I have pledged to write a blog post everyday.   I am starting with why I subtitled my blog “Adventures in School Leadership.”

This blog started 10 years ago, shortly before I got my first Headship and while I was still a Deputy.  At that time I had recently become a school governor and was starting to develop my practice as a coach for colleagues’ professional development.  In the intervening period I have worked at 3 schools, 2 as Head, been through 5 inspections (3 independent school, 2 OfSTED), elected as a chair of governors myself and worked with 5 chairs of governing bodies through my headships.

In this time I have had the opportunity to experience, develop and reflect on leadership in schools, both state and independent.  I have listened to and learned from leaders in a wide range of commercial and educational settings.  And I have grown a network of friends and colleagues across education, business and sport, all of whom have helped me, directly or indirectly, to find better ways to lead the schools with which I have been involved.

So to get the the “streak” started, here is why I called this blog “Adventures…”

An Exciting or Very Unusual Experience

To be involved with the education of young people is a privilege.  Therefore, to be a school leader is the most exciting opportunity of all.  You have the chance to influence the direction of your school, to develop and structure provision and build and grow teams of people to deliver exceptional experiences (from school lunches to science lessons) for the pupils in their care.

It is unusual because it moves you away from the reason you came into the profession in the first place – to teach children in a classroom.  The influence, therefore, is less direct, less immediate and other skills and attributes are required (more in subsequent posts) in order to establish and realise improvement in learning for the children – who now number a whole school-full, not just your class or year group.

Participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure

With this whole school focus – and this applies to senior leaders, not only heads – you are tasked with taking the entire community (or at least large parts of it) with you.  This requires the ability to communicate vision and demonstrate to people that your enterprise is one that is leading to greater improvement and success in children’s outcomes.

At the heart of great school leadership is the influence of others, enabling them to travel towards the goals that you have set – hopefully with their prior input!  The leadership adventure requires a spirit and a sense of collective purpose.

bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome

Children, colleagues, governors, parents.  One can’t be all things to all people and this brings risks and some hazards.  The adventure in leadership can stall if you fail to attend to your relationships across the stakeholder groups.  Therefore it is a bold undertaking to manage the risks, to work transparently and face-to-face with everyone, adapting and nuancing your style to ensure that you grow and sustain the necessary credibility and respect.

Yet you are alone in many respects and you have the responsibility to take action – that’s your job – to minimise the hazards you may be leading your colleagues to face.  Clarity of direction, the establishment of coherent, but flexible, plans, clear KPIs and relentless support for all will allow your outcomes to be more certain!