Why do poor managers get to top?

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Robin Precey Answers your leadership questions

I resigned as deputy head of a large junior school after a year in the post. Initially it went well but things started to change after Christmas.

Staff divisions began to surface and it became clear that the head had her favourites. She and the other deputy shared many views on education and I felt like the devil's advocate in meetings. They seemed to like to "do things by the book" and my strength is that I am more creative.

The head wanted all three of us to go the governors' meetings (three times a term), parent teacher association meetings and regular events. When I did not attend the head and deputy started to ostracise me, starting to take over my tasks without telling me.

Other members of staff told me they felt they were being pushed too hard by the head. Staff turnover in the school seems to be high for a school this size - 15 staff last year and two deputies (now three with my resignation).

I feel demoralised and insecure about my abilities. Why is it that such poor people managers make it to management positions?

This is a tough question and my views may not be comfortable for you. The school's method of selecting you seems to have been wanting. Most new deputies go into situations where there are existing relationships between senior staff. Clearly you were not able to find out the views and management styles of the colleagues that you were joining. The selection process should have covered this through both interview and (ideally) diagnostic tests. A team needs to be balanced and you should have been seen as adding diversity and strength to it. But these differences need to be overt and discussed.

The second issue is that of developing effective senior leadership teams.

It would seem that head and deputy were unable to work effectively with someone unlike them and went their own way. Ultimately this is a failing in the head, the team leader. However, you do not refer to your efforts to create a more open and transparent relationship between you. What did you contribute to build up a positive relationship? The process can - and in a sense should - be difficult and uncomfortable but it is important that leadership teams have common core values, agreed policies and the distribution of responsibilities and tasks. If this had happened a more reasonable use of your professional time outside the day and a better deployment of your creative skills could have been made.

The third key issue, it seems to me, is that of motives. Why do people wish to be in senior leadership positions in schools? Is it power? Status? Money? Probably a bit of these for most of us if we are honest. For some inertia or the expectations of others propel them into such posts and once there they wonder "why?" One would hope that the prime motive is because we want to use our talents to do the very best for each child in our care.

A senior leader's role is to work with others in the team to plan the path forward and to make the best use of the available resources - especially people - to achieve that. It also involves keeping people on the path.

Isn't that what was driving you to be in a school leadership team? If so then I feel that resigning after just five terms from such a potentially influential post seems somewhat premature. Many of us have challenging first years in senior leadership teams (and these continue throughout our careers) but over time commitment, determination, confidence and skills grow.

It may be, however, that your position was just not sustainable and was making you so miserable that you had to leave - in which case you did the right thing. Your comments about "escaping" also prompt me to wonder is it this school that you are really writing about or is it the general business of making the move into senior leadership in any school? Even if the motives are the same as a full-time classroom teacher, senior leadership is a different job. It is important to sort out in your mind what motivates you to take on senior leadership and decide whether that is what you really want or not. It is also essential to prepare for it. Your letter does not make it clear if you were able to do so. There are now, thankfully, very good programmes to do this under the auspices of the National College for School Leadership. You are right to argue for skilful people managers in these vital roles in our schools and it may well be true that this is not always the case. It is a challenging job and there is evidence (as described by Anne Welsh, Secondary Heads Association president, in The TES on September 12) that fewer are wishing to rise to the challenge. If, after giving it careful thought, you decide you want to try again you need to find a school that suits you, where you can make a difference and find job satisfaction. The selection process is about you selecting them as well as them choosing you. If you decide that senior leadership, with all that it entails, is not for you then rest assured that the contributions you make as a classroom teacher are of huge significance to the lives of the young people in your care.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question? Contact Susan Young at The TES, susan.young@tes.co.uk

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today