Leadership reflections: Leading the wagons west...

Written by: Jonathan Cordiner | Published:
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We can achieve positive outcomes for the pupils in our care if we ask ourselves the right questions as school leaders, and that begins with interrogating our own leadership styles and approaches. Jonathan Cordiner offers us some food for thought

My fundamental belief is that a relentless commitment to the cycle of improvement is absolutely essential if we are to achieve the very best for our children in this ever-changing world. Key to the success of our improvement work is the ability to ask ourselves the right questions.

So, what kind of leader are you? If we struggle to articulate what kind of leadership styles we adopt, then how can we be sure that our leadership styles are conducive to getting the very best for our young people?

What analogy sums you up as a leader? Are you superman/superwoman? The one who can fix everything and save the day? Are you the authoritarian – whatever you say goes? Are you the train driver, where everyone gets on board and you are driving the train into the sunset (i.e. you know the direction of travel so off we go?).

Or are you investing in your school community and building a team for excellence? Are you leading the wagons west, whereby all the wagons have their own leaders and their own self-sufficient teams who continue to grow in professional capital and work together as a community?

We expect our teachers to adopt a wide range of approaches to learning and teaching, so surely their leaders must reciprocate with a wide range of leadership styles. So how varied and sharp is your toolkit? What leadership styles are in there? When is the right time for each tool and which tool is your trusty and most important one – the tool you would never give up?

Theories of leadership styles are a well-trodden path and we will never find one approach that is right over all others. The success of a leader relies heavily on the ability to select the right leadership tool for the right occasion. Sometimes it is right to lead from the front, to plough the furrow, to model and even to direct. Other times the most effective approach is to invest in others, to upskill, to lead from the back and be facilitative with appropriate support, guidance and coaching.

Selecting the correct leadership tool requires us to be flexible and accept and endorse the fact that others might (and often probably will) be able to do a better job than we will – that is assuming they have the right conditions and support. We must know our school communities well and there has to be a shared understanding of the direction of travel. That shared understanding must point directly to better outcomes for learners.

How often do we ask our staff to undertake development work and then before long we are spending hours creating tables and documents and unwieldy processes all the while forgetting the purpose of the task? Staff will (rightly) only truly buy in to the development work they undertake on behalf of a school community if they can see the benefits for our young people.

Therefore, key to the selection of whichever leadership tool we choose, is the notion that we can only move forward if we take everyone with us. A couple of key ingredients for taking people with us include (but of course are not limited to):

Building relationships

No matter the question, the answer is “relationships”. The greatest skill we can give our young people in order to equip them for the future is that of “getting on with people”. No matter how technically competent we are, it is all for nothing if we cannot be human. Being human is how we create an ethos of trust and respect which is absolutely essential for progress, improvement and change.

We build an ethos of respect by building relationships, by listening to each other, by supporting one another, by spotting when someone needs help before they are in crises, by taking an interest in each other’s endeavours and achievements and, most of all, by being respectful and kind.

Being warm and kind should not be assumed to go hand-in-hand with being weak. Nor should being cold and direct go hand-in-hand with being strong.

When are our staff likely to perform best? When are they likely to go that extra mile and excel in such a way that makes a real difference to the school community and our youngsters?

Will it be when they are scared, fearful or feel like they are being squeezed by pressure? Or will it be when they are part of a positive working relationship, where we endorse mistakes, have a go, experiment and ask for help without feeling inferior.

As leaders, at times we are too busy to see what is actually going on around us, and that knock at the door of someone needing your time must be met with positivity, for it is when people feel they cannot knock on the Heedy’s door that the leadership ethos is in question. So how good are the relationships in and across your school community?

Inspiring confidence

Inspiring others, and indeed inspiring confidence, is a key attribute of any leader. School leaders need to develop the trust of the school community over a period of time. Only when that trust is established can a leader really begin to move things in such a way that everyone is on board.

We inspire confidence by employing values-based leadership approaches. Are we clear on our values? What do we stand for? Do we use these values to make good, moral decisions that move us towards getting the very best for our school and young people? Are the decisions we make based on what is right for the child? Or are we making decisions and asking staff to undertake tasks for the wrong reasons?

If you think of a leader who has inspired confidence for you, he or she will likely be quite a calm character. Often you need your leader most when the chips are down. So how do you behave in the face of adversity? Can we still inspire confidence in others when times are hard or even when things go wrong? Can you ignore that racing heartbeat which makes you question yourself, and calmly use your values to help, support, resolve, empower, coach and lead?

So which leadership tools do we employ? The answer is many, every single day. The challenge for us is using the right tool at the right time.

So which tool would I not give up? Above all, leadership will always be about people. So let’s be human and let’s be kind. Let’s lead a team where everyone is with us, where nobody is left behind, where no problems are faced alone, and where the relationships in the school community allow us to work together to self-improve and get the very best for our young people.

  • Jonathan Cordiner is headteacher of Meiklemill School in Aberdeenshire.

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