The secret of great leadership? Putting staff first

It is easy for school leaders to see the speed at which they rattle through their to-do list as a measure of success – but being too focused on tasks, rather than developing your staff, is the opposite of good leadership, warns executive head Helena Marsh
26th April 2019, 12:03am
Put Staff First For Successful Leadership

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The secret of great leadership? Putting staff first

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/secret-great-leadership-putting-staff-first

The temptation in school leadership is to focus on reducing your to-do list: so much of how we are judged is based on what we have done, so the efficiency of task-completion becomes the focus of how we see ourselves.

But while this may make you an efficient leader, it is, ultimately, likely to make you a bad one. That’s the argument of Rebecca Zucker in a recent Harvard Business Review article headlined “Why highly efficient leaders fail”.

The leadership development expert highlights the need for leaders to achieve a balance between being task-focused (getting things done) and people-focused (inspiring, developing and empowering others), and argues that while achieving results is vital for any organisation, without a sufficient focus on developing others, success will be limited at every level.

Claiming that a pace-setting leadership style can quash talent, Zucker advocates a “go slow to go fast” approach, which invests in building relationships and inspiring and enabling colleagues.

Great leaders, Zucker asserts, are driven by the pursuit of excellence, but keep the broader organisational needs in mind; such people recognise that it’s not just about being efficient in their job - it’s about being effective.

As a headteacher, I can understand how you can become more focused on efficiency rather than effectiveness. The human condition enjoys the satisfaction of task completion. The German word entlistungsfreude captures the joy that one experiences from ticking items off a list. Meanwhile, the Zeigarnik effect (remembering incomplete tasks better than completed ones) is a familiar phenomenon: there is an obvious sense of gratification when completing outstanding tasks. And a task-focused approach also gives leaders a sense of control; it is appealing for those of us with perfectionist tendencies.

However, having been involved in supporting newly appointed middle and senior leaders, I recognise this task-driven mindset and its limitations. Leaders who are overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of priorities can be tempted to “crack on” and get things done, rather than step back and strategically consider how best to achieve the goal and who is best placed to complete the necessary tasks.

Stepping up in leadership involves a change of gear; often leaders rely on the habits and ways of working that proved successful and got them recognised for promotion, which aren’t always relevant to leading effectively at a higher level.

The current climate in education does not help people to shift away from this mindset: schools are obsessed with demonstrating impact, so it is understandable that leaders resort to being productive, solving problems and driving action. The accountability regime demands results at speed with minimal resources. Task-orientated behaviours convince us, and reassure others, that we are being “impactful” and “leaderly” (two of my most loathed leadership buzzwords).

We need to ensure that we all shift away from this mentality. While securing speedy impact may be necessary, especially in challenging contexts, if a task-driven leadership style becomes the default, then headteachers and those around them are at risk of burnout, in what Zucker refers to as the “doom loop”. When in this zone, leaders can, often fuelled by fear, be reactive and rely on trusted directive strategies that risk alienating and disempowering those they lead.

Even when we are trying to be helpful by contributing to reducing workload, we can slip into trouble by inadvertently limiting our colleagues’ motivation and efficiency. In The Multiplier Effect, Liz Wiseman identifies six “accidental diminisher” leadership types: The Optimist, The Rapid Responder, The Rescuer, The Idea Guy, The Pacesetter and Always On.

All of these traits are well-intended management practices that inadvertently shut down the capability of others. Pace-setting is a particular feature of task-focused leaders. Through attempting to role-model exacting standards, they risk creating unrealistic expectations, leading to poor morale and high levels of staff turnover.

Finally, leading by “doing” is also expensive. Being hands-on may achieve a level of credibility, but there is the risk of spending a disproportionate amount of time involved in lower-level operational matters: doing others’ jobs for them.

So how do we get ourselves out of this mess? It is important that leaders manage their time and energy to achieve the right balance between people and tasks. Zucker recommends that leaders get feedback on how they balance these aspects, and regularly review their own practice. Finding the sweet spot between people and task focus is not easy, but we can make it simpler by keeping an eye on our own actions and asking others to monitor us, too.

Zucker also advises debunking limiting beliefs (such as the view that people-focused activities will slow down and impede success) and identifying high-value ways to focus on people in your organisation.

Many leaders fall into the trap of thinking “It’s quicker, easier and better if I do it myself”, or directing others to complete tasks without providing the necessary people-focused communication and development, resulting in a vicious cycle of micro-management.

The art of delegation is complex; very little leadership training addresses this skill. At a senior leadership level, the “Four Ds of Delegation” require further sophistication to include consideration of how best to discuss, distribute and develop leadership rather than just direct tasks for completion.

Meanwhile, Wiseman’s strategies for multiplying leadership capacity include: shifting from giving answers to asking questions; dispensing your ideas in small doses; and expecting complete work.

Jill Berry, a leadership consultant and former headteacher, adds that prioritising people in the day and leaving paper (and electronic alternatives) to outside the school day can be effective (though my advice would be to try to limit the amount of work you are doing outside of school hours). She also advises leaders to routinely ask themselves the question, “Should I be doing this?” It is imperative that being approachable doesn’t encourage learned helplessness or result in a crammed diary with no capacity to complete necessary actions without working ridiculous hours.

Overall, it is crucial to be strategic about task- and people-focused leadership and to ensure that nurturing others and multiplying leadership capacity, rather than diminishing it, is a priority.

Helena Marsh is executive headteacher at Chilford Hundred Education Trust

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