Time to drive on, but check your mirrors

16th June 2006 at 01:00
It was once said of Mikhail Gorbachev that he mastered the art of walking backwards into the future. He would say "After me" and some people went ahead, some went behind and he would go backwards.

It sounds to me as if he could have done with some leadership CPD.

There is plenty of it around where forward-thinking authorities have responded timeously to the push for improving leadership in our schools.

Figures in Improving Scottish Education relating to weakness in the quality of leadership do not give us cause to be proud or complacent. However, we need to be clear about what will sustain us best in terms of leadership development as we take our journey to excellence.

A phrase which leapt out at me from the HM Inspectorate of Education's report, published in February, was that very good leaders have "a capacity to see over the horizon". At this time that would be quite a feat, given the rather cloudy view of the end-point of developments arising from A Curriculum for Excellence.

It is not so much bionic vision as a crystal ball that is required to predict the way ahead for learning and teaching in schools while we are still in the engagement stage. I am confident that when the marriage of thousands of teachers' minds is consummated, the offspring will be braw and I will be happy to have led in some small way. In the meantime, some pointers would be welcome.

It seems to me that high heid yins are either strategic or operational, but not both. Headteachers, however, live with the constant tension of potentially being criticised at both ends of a management spectrum, either for not being highly visible around the school or for being too preoccupied with day-to-day minutiae and missing the broader picture.

Even in tomorrow's atmosphere of collegiate learning and collective responsibility, when leadership will be shared at all levels, we will be expected simultaneously to focus on providing vision and direction and to get our hands dirty at the chalk face. Some offer of CPD on how to achieve this and still avoid overload and innovation fatigue would get my attention.

One approach to analysing and developing your leadership style is to ask for the views of those who work with you. I attempted this some years ago.

I asked four colleagues to help with a 3,600 word analysis of my leadership style. Two characteristics - efficient and observant - were agreed by all of them, but I was too obsessed with one tick for "easily bored" to be interested in any of the positive comments.

I should repeat the exercise to see if I am now perceived as a challenging, enterprising, consultative or innovative leader, as a pre-cursor to undertaking some professional development to carry me into the next era of educational reform and, clearly, before I tire of the whole idea.

It might be difficult to find a one-size-fits-all leadership programme, but opportunities are welcomed by those of us who are still open to ideas and prepared to review and adapt our style. Time spent in analysis of whether you are a transformational or transactional leader and how you would react in various scenarios can be the first step in accepting that you need to think "leader" rather than "manager".

Knowing, too, that there are tested strategies you can adopt is reassuring when it becomes hard to decide in which direction to go.

Perhaps the Gorbachev approach has more going for it than I first thought.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in Aberdeen

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