The response that school leaders should be looking for, when they suggest a new idea, is not, “Great!” It is: “Are you out of your mind?”
This is the theory of leadership as expressed by Andy Hargreaves, chair in education at Boston College in the US.
Addressing headteachers in London, Professor Hargreaves spoke about what he referred to as “depressing leadership”.
“It’s when you simply follow the path taken by others,” he said. “That will only take you as far as they’ve gone – it won’t take you any further.
“It’s about being driven by the data, rather than you being the driver of the data. It’s about racing to the top at an unsustainable pace. If you recognise any of those, it’s depressing.”
The opposite, he said, was “uplifting leadership”. “It’s about having a dream – taking a path that’s the opposite of what people might expect,” he said. “A path that’s counterintuitive and even a little bit perverse.
“I get really motivated when people think ‘That won’t work’ or ‘No one has done that before’. That’s when I get interested.”
But Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, questions whether this is a wholly valid approach.
“I don’t think you should choose ideas to implement, just because they’re outrageous,” he said. “You should choose your ideas because they work. If they outrage people, that shouldn’t stop you, but shock value should be second to actual impact.”
Professor Hargreaves was outlining his ideas at a conference organised by professionaldevelopment providers Osiris Educational.
Uplifting leadership, he said, was in part about refusing to succumb to soul-destroying management speak. “Martin Luther King did not say, ‘I have a plan’,” he said. “He definitely did not say, ‘I have a strategic plan’.
“Please delete the words ‘strategic plan’ from your leadership meetings. Call it ‘forward thinking’. Call it ‘wibbly-wobbly rigmarole’. But don’t call it a strategic plan.”
Instead, he said, school leaders need to be ambitious about their plans. When leaders describe a plan to their colleagues, those colleagues’ first response “should not be ‘Great!’ Because then it’s probably too conservative. Their first response should be: ‘Are you nuts? What are you thinking?’”
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that this was easier said than done.
“You can’t just sit down in the corner and think, ‘I’m going to do some innovative thinking today’,” he said. “Some people are obviously more creative than others. But a lot of ideas in education come from picking up on other people’s thoughts.”
Creativity, he believes, comes through being open-minded: heads should have a clear vision for their schools, but should also be willing to listen to others’ views. “The worst thing anybody can do in a leadership role is surround yourself with nodding dogs,” he said. “It’s through the challenge and the discussion that you get better solutions to issues.”
For Professor Hargreaves, too, vision and momentum are key. “Leadership is about progress, impact, improvement,” he said. “It’s also about direction – the way you want to go.”
Out-of-your-mind leadership: a beginners’ guide
Surround yourself with people who are not like you, and who do not necessarily think the same way that you do.
Seek out other headteachers, or education organisations, who see the world differently from you.
Listen to other people’s ideas.
Be prepared to discuss your own ideas with others.
Encourage the exchange of views within your own staffroom.
Give yourself plenty of thinking time: do not rush into any plans.
Have a vision about what you want to achieve for the pupils in your school, and make sure that all plans for the future remain true to that.
Try to ensure that you do not become institutionalised: do not conform to a certain way of doing things, just because that is how they have always been done.
As explained by Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders