A general or a conductor? The art of school leadership

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to school leadership - it's about adapting to the situation, says Mark Steed

Mark Steed

School leadership: What's the secret to being a great leader?

“Stand by the picture which best captures your leadership style.”

On the walls around the room were some images: an orchestral conductor, a general briefing the troops, a duck and a line of ducklings, a shepherd driving sheep, a firefighter in the heat of the blaze, a visionary looking into a digital matrix and so on.

Once we had opted, we took turns explaining why we see ourselves as conductors, firefighters or generals.

Discovering your leadership style is a staple of leadership courses from MBAs to the NPQSL as part of management theory that posits a range of styles ranging from "boss-centred, autocratic leadership" to "subordinate-centred leadership".

Reflecting on 20 years of headship – many in the international arena – it is clear though that there is not one single right leadership style, it’s about finding the right leadership style for a particular context. 

Adapting your school leadership style

All leaders have a “natural habitat” – a preferred leadership style that suits them best.

Circumstances may dictate that school leaders adopt a different style for a period of time, but our natural habitat – the picture in the exercise that resonated most with us – is the default setting to which we are working. As such, living in our natural habitat can be hard.

What’s more, most teachers tend to gravitate towards distributive models that promote a high degree of autonomy. After all, our classrooms are our castles.

By the time we make it into leadership roles, we carry with us the years of relative freedom of running our own domain behind us, and that often dictates the way we want to lead.

However, schools are increasingly operating in a top-down context. The combination of ever more demanding government regulations, more stringent inspection criteria and tighter mark schemes from examination boards mean leadership innovation and creativity is harder to come by. This is often what pushes school leaders to a more authoritarian approach.

Furthermore, as attractive as a distributive leadership style is, the reality is there needs to be a number of conditions in place for school leaders to be comfortable giving teams greater freedom, autonomy and independence.

Here are a few factors that school leaders may like to consider:

1. Are team members ready to play a role in leadership decisions?

New school leaders need to consider what sort of leadership style has been the norm in the organisation that they are joining.

In schools where there is a tradition of strong, top-down leadership, it can be challenging to be confronted with an expectation to be more involved in the decision-making process.

Conversely, teams that have enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom resent school leaders who begin to make all the decisions.

2. Is the team ready to assume responsibility for decision-making?

While some will relish the opportunity to step up and to lead, others would rather not have the responsibility or may see it as "passing the buck".

It can take time for individuals to develop the skills that allow them to play a greater part in leadership.

School leaders need to invest time in helping their team to develop key skills – often this entails modelling distributive leadership by handing over responsibility to the team.

For example, "rotating the chair" for meetings – whereby members of the team take it in turns to be responsible for putting together agendas and chairing meetings – is one way to help more junior colleagues to develop key skills in meeting management.

3. Does the team buy into the values and goals of the leadership?

It is important that everyone is pulling in the same direction. If there is not alignment, the distribution of leadership will be counterproductive.

The leadership style that a founding school principal adopts is likely to be very different from a principal taking over an established school.

A founding principal is faced with the challenge of forming a new team and setting the standards and norms for the new organisation. It is a blank sheet of paper and there will be fewer preconceived ideas, so it may be easier to foster a collegiate approach to leadership from the outset.

Conversely, coming into an established school may require a different style. Taking over someone else’s team, you can meet with resistance and require a more authoritarian approach.

This is especially true where there are entrenched ideas and practices or where there is a need to manage institutional or cultural change.

It may be necessary to have a period of more direct leadership in order to realign values and goals, before moving to a more collegiate approach down the line.

Taking over in crisis mode

Perhaps the last point to cover is around crisis situations – something the past few years have underlined well.

Indeed, one of the things that has struck me during the past two years of chronic crisis management (first of the protests and civil unrest in Hong Kong, and then of Covid-19) is that, however much we resist the idea, we are all firefighters at times.

In these times leaders often must make important decisions in the moment, without reference to a wider group. There is rarely time for wider collaboration or consultation.

Instead, leaders need to make the best decisions they can, based on the information available and, most importantly, communicate them effectively.

This may be autocratic, but it is still good leadership and there is no reason to fear this moment when it comes.

Ultimately, it comes down to realising that there is a toolbox of leadership styles and the real art of leadership is reading a situation and knowing what the right approach in that context is.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British international school in Hong Kong, and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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