How to avoid being a dictator school leader

Being a dictator-style leader is easier to slip into than you might think – and sometimes, in certain contexts, people may even look to you to adopt that style, finds Christina Quaine. She takes a nuanced look at ‘authoritative’ school leadership
1st January 2021, 12:05am
How To Avoid Being A Dictator School Leader
Christina Quaine


How to avoid being a dictator school leader

Everyone thinks they know what a dictator looks like - after all, there are plenty of examples from history to choose from. But, in reality, spotting a dictator is not as easy as you might think.

Nevertheless, you've probably come across one or two dictatorial leaders in your career. Or (whisper it) you may even be one yourself. 

So, what does this type of leader look like? And how do you know if you are one? Psychologists and leadership academics agree that there is a list of characteristics that constitute a dictatorial leader. 

The dictator is charismatic and powerful. But they also find it impossible to hand over the reins to others and exert what Alma Harris, chair of the School of Education at Swansea University, calls "command and control leadership". 

"All the power is at the top and other people who may be talented, able, creative and ambitious might not have the same opportunities because all the leadership is concentrated, rendering everyone else dependent," she says.

Despite the dictator's charisma, this is a leadership style that can stem from a lack - rather than an abundance - of confidence, says Jill Berry, a former headteacher.

"I do understand it. When you become responsible for something, especially if it's a new responsibility, you want to do it well and it's tempting to be overly controlling," she says. "If you give flexibility to others, it can be destabilising. You wonder: 'What if they don't do the job as well as I would have done?' But part of leadership is developing other people, building their capacity and confidence. If you can't let go, you're not fulfilling that part of your leadership role." 

However, this unwillingness to let go doesn't mean that dictators never make good leaders. Experts agree that authoritarian types actually come in pretty handy when times are tough - but only up to a point. 

"If you think about it, dictators don't magically appear when everything is going well. They appear in moments when the country, the organisation or the school is in trouble," says Randall S Peterson, academic director of the Leadership Institute and professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. He is also a former chair of Parayhouse School in Hammersmith, West London.

"For instance, a string of negative Ofsted reports is very threatening for a school. Everyone wants to make it better. They are looking for a directive or dictatorial leader to get them through it," he says.

Peterson suggests that a desire for directive leadership in challenging circumstances may be based on a phenomenon called "threat rigidity effect". "When people feel threatened, they get rigid. They look for direction from the top. There's an instinct to cooperate, because the only way to survive is through cooperation," he explains. "In order to escape the predator or the threat, they work together. In that moment when they are threatened, they want their leaders to be pretty dictatorial.

"There is clarity about the chain of command, decisions are made quickly."

Once the threat has passed, however, this instinct to cooperate won't necessarily last - and that can lead to trouble.

"For a while, everyone is fine with that but there comes a point when people say, 'We have got past the emergency. Can we go back to normal programming where we can bring forward ideas and be more creative?' But the leader has the levers of power and they don't let go. That's when you start to see tensions," says Peterson.

Problems also tend to crop up when the dictatorial leader goes away, to take some time off for instance, resulting in a slump in the team's productivity.

"When the leader steps away, is absent for a week, everyone downs tools and says, 'Phew, we've got a break from that!' [Whereas] a more democratic arrangement allows the leader to step out and people will continue to work; they know what they're doing."

Filling the void 

Harris agrees that one of the biggest problems with this type of leader is the large, dictator-shaped hole that they leave behind whenever they go anywhere.

"The big question is what happens when this dictator-type leader leaves? What we know is they often leave [the organisation] in a weaker position, because everyone has been so dependent on the leadership of one individual," she says.

So, what can organisations do to make sure that they are not left in this position? In other words, how can you make a dictator less dictatorial? Berry suggests that leaders themselves first have to recognise their own micromanaging tendencies and take steps to curb them. This, she says, is a skill that has to be developed.

"[As a dictatorial leader,] take a deep breath and realise that if you're not going to show trust in other people, if you think you're the only person who has the ideas, the answers, the expertise, that's quite arrogant," Berry explains. "You are the person who has the responsibility to lead and inspire, but also to grow and develop others. Fight the impulse to be overly controlling - the best leaders are those who build the capacity and capabilities of others and, in turn, grow more leaders."

This isn't something that leaders need to do all by themselves, however. Other members of the school team can help here, as long as the leader can be humble enough to reach out to them for support.

"I think we can help people by talking about these issues. Just because you're the leader of the team, that doesn't mean you're the expert at everything. Teams work because people use their complementary skills, temperaments and qualities, and the leader coordinates and encourages that," says Berry.

One alternative to dictatorial leadership is what Harris calls "distributed leadership". This is the antithesis of the authoritarian model; it is the idea that it's perfectly possible to have leadership within whatever role you have, in a more shared, inclusive way. This might sound like simple delegation, but there is a bit more to it than that, Harris says.

"Distributed leadership isn't delegation," she explains. "It's about asking how we mobilise more people in an organisation to act within their sphere of influence to innovate and make changes. It's about creating an environment where people feel able to voice an idea and run with it. Within their job, are there things they think could be done better? They have more authority to step outside their role and think more organisationally, because most of the problems that schools face are best solved by people within them."

To give some idea of what this distributed approach might look like in practice, Berry offers the following example: when she was a headteacher, a member of staff came to her with a good idea; Berry suggested that person should present to their colleagues at the next staff meeting.

"She looked terrified. She wanted me to present it. But I said, 'No, it's your idea'. So she did it and the staff were very responsive and receptive, probably more so than if it
had been me presenting, because it would have seemed very top-down, while she was their peer," says Berry.

Asking a member of staff to take ownership of an idea to the point where they're pushing that idea through with the rest of the team is a simple step a leader might take towards a more distributed model. 

Taking steps like this will lead to a better working environment for staff, suggests Berry. "Leaders need to lift people, not grind them down. If you're micromanaged, you're ground down by that - you don't feel valued," she explains.

Leaders need to view themselves more as a conduit than a controlling force, she suggests.

"Don't see yourself as an umbrella leader, protecting, defending. You need to be a filter whereby you help people to do their job," says Berry.

Knock-on effects

If a leader has empowered their team to do their work without being micromanaged, that means that staff will be able to continue just as well if their leader has to step back for any reason, says Harris. Not only that, but giving more power to staff can also have a knock-on effect on pupils' learning.

"There's a lot of research around teacher efficacy, and what we do know is that when teachers feel part of decision making, it boosts their morale, their self-efficacy. And teachers' teaching conditions influence learning conditions," Harris explains.

Taking steps towards a more distributed model of leadership might not be easy, particularly for the dictators themselves, but there has perhaps never been a better time to reassess how we lead our schools, Harris adds. Ultimately, the fabric of school leadership is changing anyway. Thanks to Covid-19, we're already entering a new epoch that is signalling a move away from the authoritarian way of doing things. 

"During lockdown, schools were working in a distributed way online. That power of personality [from one leader] doesn't come through when you're working online, so I think we will see different leadership models emerge as a result," she says.

"One leader can only do so much. If leadership is influence, which I believe it is, then everyone in the organisation should have influence. If all the focus is on one person, what about the other 300 people who could have something to offer?" 

Through necessity, school leadership has recently been forced to become a more shared, collaborative and creative effort. And this is something that Harris believes should be celebrated. 

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "Tes focus on…not being a dictator"

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