According to Matt Hood, “leadership” is not really “a thing”. Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Leadership podcast, he explores the concept of leadership: what it is and isn’t.
One of the problems with leadership as an idea is that it is presented as “this slightly magical, generic, transferable concept,” Hood says.
But context is incredibly important when it comes to trying to interrogate the concept of leadership and what it actually means, he adds.
“When we disconnect the idea of leadership from what it is you’re leading and the context in which you’re leading, the concept starts getting very slippery, very difficult to define,” he argues.
“Being a leader in a biscuit factory is incredibly different to being a leader in a school and if you're successful in one of those contexts, I think there are lots of reasons why you're probably not going to be successful, or at least as successful, in lots of others.”
This poses problems for the development of school leaders, Hood continues.
“We aren't doing as much as we could do to equip school leaders with the knowledge and skills they require to do the incredibly difficult and demanding job that they have to do each day,” he says.
How do we help leaders to grow?
So, how do we develop expert leaders in education?
Hood believes we can turn to the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson to help us here. Drawing on Ericsson’s theories of expertise, Hood explains that your expertise as a leader is a function of your “mental models”.
“[That’s] a fancy term for what you know and how that knowledge is organised to guide your action,” Hood says.
We have mental models that help to guide our actions in a whole range of different situations, he adds. For example, we have mental models for ordering food in a restaurant – we know from our knowledge and experience to wait to be seated in some restaurants or to go to the digital screen and select our food in others.
Expert leaders know how to deal with the persistent problems faced in education because they have more knowledge and experience about which steps to take. We can therefore help new leaders to grow by giving them the knowledge required to develop their mental models for a range of situations they are likely to face.
But what about personality, dynamism and vision?
While school adverts, especially for headteachers, still often include what Hood calls a “superhero list of personality traits”, the reality is that what’s needed in schools is expertise.
Hood suggests that if you look at the Ofsted reports of schools that have not done so well, you’ll find comments about a lack of knowledge in particular areas of expertise required to run a school successfully. What you won’t find is comments about leaders needing more dynamism.
“We have narrowed our conception of what a successful school leader is far beyond what I think is realistic,” Hood says. “School leaders come in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of quirks and foibles and brilliance.”
You can listen below or by typing “Tes – the education podcast” into your podcast platform (including Spotify).
Rebecca Lee is head of English and specialist leader of education at Wyvern St Edmund’s Learning Campus in Wiltshire