It's not easy to avoid taking sides when you become a middle manager in schools, says Mike Fielding. The real stars have that valuable quality: teambuilding.
Treading the thin line between being "one of the boys (or girls)" and a member of the school's management structure responsible for implementing important decisions is one of the most difficult aspects of being a middle manager in school.
The least successful are those who cannot cope with that tension and fall firmly on one side or the other. They either lounge in the staffroom orchestrating complaints against "the management" or they carry clipboards ostentatiously round the school conversing in unintelligible management-speak. Either way, they're not doing the job they're paid for.
And yet the reasons are easy to understand. In both cases they'd probably rather be doing something else: the whingers would prefer to teach with just a little light administration to justify the extra salary; while the clipboard carriers really want to be deputy heads -out of the classroom and allowed just "to manage".
What neither perhaps realise is the damaging effect their behaviour can have. Middle managers are the engineers of school improvement. So much emphasis is placed on heads and senior managers that it's tempting to assume they can do it alone. They can't. In the end a vision must be implemented and this is in the hands of the heads of department, subject, year or section. They are the people who translate policy into practical procedures and ensure that colleagues follow them.
The general health of the organisation also depends on them. By sensitive bridging of the gap between senior managers and staff on the ground, they defuse difficult situations and ensure effective communication. As the new target-setting regime beds in, responsibility for ensuring targets are met will fall even more heavily on theirshoulders.
To be effective as managers - unlike most people in comparable positions in industry - they must also be excellent practitioners, producing good results from their classes through a constant stream of creative and challenging lessons. Without that, they lack credibility.
So, how can they keep on top of this multiplicitous role, avoid the pitfalls of cynicism or naivety and stay sane?
The best hope is in teamwork, but many lack the skills or confidence. They concentrate on crisis management or administration and forget that their most important role is to lead a group of people, each one of whom has a contribution to make and a role to play.
Getting a group to function as a team takes time. Most teachers are not natural team-players. Even when they are, they assume others aren't. A successful middle manager will spend time developing the individuals while, at the same time, emphasising and facilitating their interdependence. There are many strategies, but the vital features are a shared sense of direction, trust, and a willingness to incorporate the range of talents into the collective benefit.
A spirit of openness, the ability to cope with conflict and disagreement and the capacity to celebrate each other's achievements are other aspects of teamwork that the successful leader must instigate.
By promoting the idea of working together and encouraging colleagues out of their isolation, the successful middle manager is demonstrating the kind of leadership qualities that will elevate the role into an entirely different dimension from the old head of department who was paid and given extra time for "administration". It also releases creative and organisational energies in colleagues that will alleviate pressures on the middle manager.
And this is necessary because the middle manager has a further important part to play: contributing to the overall management processes of the school. For this he or she must become a member of another team - heads of department, heads of year, managers group or whatever they're called - often led by a deputy head and staffed by colleagues with a long tradition of duplicity and negative behaviour towards each other.
Schools can no longer afford the "robber baron" mentality in middle managers so they must add co-operation and collaboration to their portfolio of skills and this can be difficult unless they remember the adage: "You can't expect to lead unless you know how to follow."
Creating, developing and maintaining effective teams is a prerequisite of successful organisations in a dynamic environment. The best middle managers know that and act accordingly; the others need to learn it fast if they are to help make their schools better and be able to cope with the tensions that come from being, almost literally, "piggy in the middle".