Leadership - Give staff a lift by asking for more

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Good leaders are both supportive and demanding. Here's how to balance it right

School leaders at all levels work with and through other people. As a result, the most successful ones are skilful at getting the best from others.

You might think this means being as supportive as possible and you would be partly right. Headteachers use a range of strategies - showing faith, building confidence, establishing trust, lifting, encouraging and inspiring - to support staff.

But there is another side to it. Leaders also need to hold those they lead to account. This may be a more demanding and less comfortable aspect of our role, but being unafraid to challenge staff is vital if individuals, teams and schools are to fulfil their potential.

Getting the right balance between these twin requirements is crucial. Create a good mix and you will not only win the hearts and minds of those you lead but also help them to achieve. Get the balance wrong and the consequences are at best unhelpful and at worst severely damaging for the school.

If we offer too much support to those we lead and don't expect enough of them, it can result in underachievement, complacency or apathy. Those who are led can begin to feel bored, unfulfilled and patronised ("Do they not think I'm capable of more?"). They may not continue to grow, strengthen their skills or fulfil their potential. As in a "coasting" school, performance may be competent but it is unlikely to be impressive.

Can-do attitude

Middle and senior leaders who focus on "protecting" their staff rather than challenging them may feel that this is what a caring and compassionate leader does. But if, as a leader, you find yourself saying to your team something along the lines of "You'll never believe what we have to do now.", you need to stop and think. You and your team will go much further if you adopt a "How can we.?" rather than a "Why we can't." approach as your default position (although I'd always recommend you make your own reservations clear to your leaders and managers - professionally, positively and constructively).

On the other hand, too much challenge can make those we lead feel overwhelmed, unhealthily stressed, frustrated, angry and defensive. If staff feel overloaded, either by the volume of work they are expected to do or because they fear they aren't capable of doing what is required, then their chances of success will be small. All their energies are likely to be absorbed by anxiety rather than purposeful and productive activity. The dynamic between you and your team and the relationships within it will suffer.

Know your team's strengths

So how do we get it right? There are no easy answers. Different members of the group will need a different balance of support and challenge depending on their experience, confidence, energy and enthusiasm.

If a teacher has problems outside school or is feeling less than usually robust physically or mentally, they may need a greater degree of support than usual. At other times, perhaps if they are fired up and ambitious, energised by a particular idea or project, they may well be ready to take on and make a success of greater challenges and will be able to show initiative and take a lead themselves.

The key as a leader is knowing your team. Know the group dynamic and the individuals within it. Be aware, sensitive and empathetic. Recognise what they may be capable of in the future - perhaps even before they recognise and believe it themselves. Show that you have faith in their capacity to step up and reassure them that you will be there to encourage, advise and support as they face new challenges.

Always see the best in those you lead and make sure they know it. At the same time, make them aware that you know where they lack confidence and expertise and can be helped to improve. Ask team members in one-to-one professional review conversations how they feel about the balance of support and challenge you are offering. Make sure any issues are addressed in coaching conversations. Be open and transparent about this.

And if you feel that you aren't getting the right balance of support and challenge yourself (including from your governing body if you are a headteacher), then have that frank - but positive, professional and constructive - conversation and try to get things on the right track. After all, we need to support and challenge up the chain as well as down it.

Jill Berry is a former headteacher who is now working as a consultant and studying for a professional doctorate in education. Find her on Twitter at @jillberry102


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