If they’re not being followed, leaders are just going for a walk

17th August 2018 at 00:00
When nearly all staff are listed on the ‘extended senior leadership team’, it’s time to question what it takes to truly influence others and get colleagues to share a vision, writes Christian Pountain

Do we have too many school leaders and not enough leadership? I pondered this question recently, as I watched students at my school receive their Young Leaders Awards. We now have more than 600 students – virtually every child in three year groups – who are officially young leaders. We are, of course, delighted with their achievements, and very happy with the content of the scheme, which aims to empower young people to make a difference in their local community while also developing leadership skills. But this does raise questions: how can we have so many leaders without any followers? Are leaders without followers not simply going for a walk by themselves? And what does it mean to be a leader anyway?

These questions do not just apply to students. We have all seen those school websites that list virtually every staff member as part of the “extended senior leadership team”. We can all imagine how this plays out at faculty and departmental level, with tensions and misunderstandings and fallouts. So is there a crisis of leadership in our schools? And if so, what can we do about it?

Let’s start by defining leadership. Leadership is influence. When a real leader speaks, everyone listens. Think of those staff meetings in which the badged leader – perhaps a deputy head – is listened to politely by everybody around the table but then the real leader speaks. The real leader is not given the title, yet everybody pays attention to what they have to say.

The foundation of leadership is trust; people buy into a leader first and then into their vision. Over the years, I have attended countless school events during which someone in power, perhaps the chair of governors, has made an appeal, say, for cash for the school’s latest initiative. When their words have fallen on deaf ears, with few people moved to put their hands in their pockets, it’s rarely the cause itself that’s the problem. Instead, the fault usually lies with the way the leader has presented the appeal. Few people respond well to being patronised or lectured.

Be accountable to yourself

The way you act determines what you attract: if I want people to be generous with their finances, I need to model a generous spirit towards my listeners, or the mismatch between who I am and what I say will make my words feel empty. Never expect from others what you would not be prepared to do yourself.

But the hardest person to lead – and the person to whom you are ultimately accountable – is yourself. I discovered years ago that wherever I go, I am there; I wake up with myself, I go to bed with myself and I am with myself every moment in between. If I’m not comfortable with my decisions, I am in trouble. So even though my leadership decisions have not always been popular with those around me, if I can put my head on the pillow and sleep at night, that’s OK.

The development of character, therefore, is an integral part of leadership. What goes on when nobody is looking is every bit as important as the multitude of decisions that leaders make in the spotlight of the busy school day.

Humility is another essential character trait of leadership, and a strong leader will always find a way for the team to win. As writer Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said: “There is no limit to what a man can achieve, as long as he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

Secure leaders give power to others.

Make a success of succession

People naturally follow leaders who are stronger than them. If I am an eight out of 10 on the leadership scale, it is a problem to have a nine on my team. She will either stay capped at an eight and feel frustrated, or she will leave and soar with her strengths, serving someone else’s vision. As leader, the decision is mine as to whether to release people with dignity and good grace, or to keep my highest performers and grow myself to a nine.

A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. Some years ago, I worked for a headteacher who had been in post for more than 20 years when he went off on long-term sick leave to fight a serious illness. He was gone for most of the academic year – and nobody batted an eyelid. Was this because he was an ineffective leader? Quite the opposite. It was precisely because he was so effective that the school could carry on without missing a beat. He had cultivated a resilient staff who could lead in their own right and were not reliant on him for success. But this takes a large amount of that most precious commodity: time. There is no shortcut. Leadership develops daily, not in a day.

So where does this leave my school’s young leaders? Perhaps if they can understand leadership in these terms, they can wear their badges with pride. And for the rest of us staff? If we can truly learn to see leadership as who we are, not what we do, or which title we hold, or how big our office or parking space or salary is, then it really doesn’t matter how many people we have on our extended senior leadership teams.

Christian Pountain is head of RE and director of spirituality at a secondary school in Lancashire

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