5 leadership mistakes to avoid

Whether it’s damning a colleague’s misstep in front of a parent or asking them to do something that jars with their ethics, it’s easy for a school leader to slip up and lose the faith of staff, writes Peter Mattock
17th January 2020, 12:04am
Five Things Good Leaders Don't Do

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5 leadership mistakes to avoid

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/5-leadership-mistakes-avoid

We all have a horror story about a school leader who, under extreme pressure, did something they normally would not, which left staff upset, annoyed or worse. Some of the tales I have been privy to are really horrifying.

By sharing the contexts in which such moments most commonly occur, I hope to equip you with the insight you need to prevent them from arising.

Here are the five leadership don’ts that I believe pose the most danger.

1. Abdicating your responsibilities to your team

You know this is happening when you hear the phrase: “Well, this only happens in your class/department/phase”. Even if it is true, this does not absolve you of your responsibility to support that teacher in correcting whatever needs correcting. Sure, they are going to need to change something or do something to address the issue in question, but clearly they either don’t know what to do or don’t even see the problem. Don’t abdicate your responsibility to support your colleague to see what needs to change, and then to make sure that change happens.

2. Undermining team members in front of other stakeholders

Most recently, this came up when someone contacted me to tell me about a parent meeting they were involved in alongside their head of department (HoD), where the parent wasn’t happy with something and the HoD very obviously sided with the parent against the teacher. This, of course, completely undermined the teacher, making it virtually impossible for the them to rebuild a suitable working relationship with the pupil.

Now, I am sure some people out there will be asking: “But what if the parent was right and the teacher wrong?” This could well be the case. But if it is, then the last place to deal with it is there in front of the parent.

Yes, the parent needs to know that they will be listened to and any concerns they have will be acted upon, but this must happen in a way that makes it clear that the teacher has acted in good faith, done their absolute best and retained your confidence. And if any of those three things aren’t true, then you must have this conversation with the teacher one to one, or with an impartial witness if need be, but never in front of a stakeholder.

As a leader, if you are ever in a position whereby you are in a parent meeting or a meeting with another stakeholder (a governor, for example), and you get some information that makes you question the actions of a member of your team, then listen carefully, avoid any judgement of the teacher (sometimes it is impossible to avoid judgement of the action, but be clear that this doesn’t reflect on the teacher as a whole), and then say you will need to have a conversation with the teacher before getting back to them. Anything else is likely to make your teacher’s job harder, which is the opposite of what you should be doing.

3. Forgetting to be appreciative

If a staff member does that little bit extra or creates something useful, most staff will forgive a leader if a lack of acknowledgement is out of the ordinary. But when contributions go consistently unnoticed, it does start to affect people’s wellbeing.

I was recently contacted by a friend who was feeling undervalued by the senior leadership. This is a person who I know is a top-class teacher, and who regularly goes above and beyond in making life better for the kids and teachers in their school, as well as others in social media land. Even with the validation that this brings, the failure of the SLT to acknowledge those “little extras” (to borrow a phrase) left my friend feeling undervalued to the point of real unhappiness with their situation.

And this wasn’t a bad SLT. This wasn’t an SLT that was actively trying to force my friend out, or was too caught up in its own importance to recognise when others were doing well (as some are). This was an SLT that usually gets it right.

As a leader, you have to be acutely aware of your team, and it is crucial to recognise and acknowledge their efforts and successes.

4. Using authority before affiliation

Authority and affiliation are two styles of leadership. Authority, as you may well have guessed, is a very direct style of leadership, in which staff are told what is expected of them and checked to ensure it happens. Affiliation is a very different style, in which a leader seeks to convince their team of the need for a course of action, and only when that “buy-in” is achieved does the action take place.

Teachers tend to prefer the latter, as it speaks to their sense of agency and professional capacity. It also tends to require less monitoring, as teachers are convinced that the action is useful without external pressures.

Occasionally, a more authoritarian style is required. Often this is when rapid change is needed or when a team is very inexperienced and needs clear direction. However, in general, an authoritarian style should not be a leader’s opening gambit.

If, as a leader, you find that most of your initiatives are introduced in an authoritarian way, you should probably reflect on whether that has been necessary on each of those occasions. When time is taken to involve your team, to discuss concerns and barriers, to listen to their ideas and adapt, this time is rarely wasted. A lot is made of teachers needing to feel things are “done with” them rather than “done to” them, and for good reason.

5. Forcing people to act immorally

Unfortunately, this is often a result of the high-stakes nature of accountability, whereby leaders who feel they need to gain an advantage make people act against their better judgement for what they see as “the greater good”.

Whether it is altering assessment results more favourably, giving that little extra “assistance” in coursework or simply omitting information when reporting certain things, it can be easy to rationalise these actions as necessary. But ultimately, to many teachers, such interventions go against everything they stand for.

Peter Mattock is director of maths and numeracy at Brocklngton College in Leicestershire. He tweets @MrMattock

This article originally appeared in the 17 January 2020 issue under the headline “Five things good leaders don’t do”

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