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Balcony seat for leadership

Education leaders were encouraged last week to "get on the balcony" to gain a clearer perspective of leadership and how to effect change in schools.

A two-day seminar in Ayr, organised by South Ayrshire Council and part-funded by the Scottish Executive, took the leadership agenda in a new direction - which may be emulated nationally.

Marty Linsky, principal of the American leadership consultancy Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA), and Vyla Rollins, his associate, led a two-day seminar for heads, deputes, and education officials from South and North Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. They were encouraged to be braver, to take risks and to look at how they can move out of the comfort zone and be more innovative in their leadership.

Mr Linsky, a New York-based consultant who has been a journalist, lawyer and politician, said leadership required "getting on the balcony", or learning the skill of reflecting in the midst of action.

He differentiated between "technical problems", which can be defined clearly and for which solutions exist, and "adaptive challenges", which involve changing hearts and minds and choosing between contradictory values.

"You need to know what is really going on - and it's very hard to do that when you are part of the action," Mr Linsky commented. "We think of it as a skill of standing back and watching what is happening, or watching yourself even when you are in the midst of the play.

"I use the metaphor of being on a dance floor. It's hard to see the patterns, and it's hard to know how many are at the dance if you are down in the midst of the dancers on the floor. But if you go up on the balcony you can see other things."

Mr Linsky said that school leaders had to wear two hats - compliance and accountability at council and national levels, and innovation and creativity. "I think headteachers feel the accountability and compliance hat more than they experience the other," he noted.

Ms Rollins said: "We are trying to send people away with the idea that risk-taking doesn't necessarily need to be full on or full off - you can eventually move yourself along the spectrum of taking some risks."

This was the first such continuing professional development course delivered by CLA, but Mr Linsky said he was "in conversation" with the Executive about delivering leadership training for its own staff and the education leadership unit that is being set up.

Mike McCabe, director of education at South Ayrshire, who instigated the seminar after stumbling on Mr Linsky's book, Leadership on the Line, said:

"What we are trying to do is to ask how we can move from compliance so people are genuinely impassioned about what they are doing, rather than looking over their shoulder in case they are doing the wrong thing.

"Too often, people are doing things not because they fundamentally believe in them but to cover their backs."

Mr McCabe added: "In my experience, the system sometimes rewards people who keep a low profile rather than people who come forward and say what they genuinely feel; there is therefore a loss to the system.

"What we are trying to do through these two days in our own authority is to say: 'This is about going for it. If you don't develop that willingness in yourself and stay with it, you are selling the children and yourself and your staff short'."

Mr McCabe likened discussion on leadership to standing on the edge of a mountain, saying: "The view is wonderful if you can get out here."

Mr Linsky, he suggested, was looking at behaviours and how to engage with other people. "That is what we should be looking for in the people who run education," Mr McCabe said.

Alan Murray, convener of South Ayrshire's lifelong learning committee, commented: "There is a particular Scottish psyche that is afraid of celebrating success and afraid of being innovative. We have got to give people the confidence that, where they are innovative, they will receive backing and support from the centre and not feel it will be held against them if they get it wrong."

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