Leadership is beset with barriers. Sadly, the biggest barrier is often the leaders. Schools can provide the perfect environment for ineffective leaders to develop, and, for my money, there are three main causes: fear, hope and time.
I call these the Holy Trinity of poor leadership choices. Wherever there is poor leadership, at least one of these factors will be part of the problem. The fear that you will be judged to be ineffective by your colleagues, your governors, or Ofsted can derail even the most experienced leader. Who can blame them? We are trying to run schools in a world where the bar is being raised in such extreme and unknown ways that it seems, at times, impossible to rely on your experience and professionalism to guide the way. We’re living in the brave new world where previous knowns are now no longer existent. It seems so improbable that you do in fact have the answers, so, you better start doing things differently and, more importantly, you better be seen as the one instigating it all.
A little bit of fear is fine; it can keep you sharp. However, too much fear blunts your ability to lead effectively. You can become fixated on the minutiae of what’s going on in your school rather than what impact it’s all having. You begin to be motivated by the hope that whatever you’ve implemented is going to be the answer. The fear that it might not be the answer debilitates your ability to evaluate it effectively. The fear that you may be held accountable to the failure of the initiative distorts your perception of success.
Consider the possible answers to this question:
What impact have you had on raising children’s achievement through effective feedback?
- A) I introduced a set of symbols that are used consistently across the school.
- B) I regularly monitor the books to check that the school systems are in place.
- C) Children are now expected to respond to feedback.
None of these answers address the actual point in the question and they reek of desperation. The desperation of a leader who wants to prove that they changed something. They have convinced themselves that this is important and, I’ll wager, they wrote a development plan that stated a success criterion would be that the system was different at the end of the year, rather than being able to report that the children are achieving better and that the teachers can implement the changes without having to work until midnight.
There is often a key character trait that these ineffective leaders display: arrogance. They tend to swan around convincing people that they’re Teflon coated super-educators. The only reason their plans could fail, they’ll say to themselves in the mirror, is because their school is full of deadbeat teachers who are unable to carry out their demands. Arrogant leaders have these neat and tidy action plans – that provides them with a much needed false sense of security that they are brilliant – but they are normally unrealistic due to being ‘actions’ driven as opposed to developmental. These leaders desperately want to be seen as the key drivers of change. But scratch away their fragile ego and you’ll see that they are being driven by fear which is skewing their perception of how they can be effective. Fear and false hope fuel their arrogance and prevent them from investigating the impact of implementation and learning lessons from failures, of which, if you are in a school inhabited by humans, there are likely to be many of during the year. What you are left with, is surface level leadership which exists only on the pages of their poorly designed plans.
Then there is the issue of time. I blame ‘smart targets’. This smug ideology that everything has to be broken down into neat little boxes which should all be ticked off by the end of the year. Whoever came up with that phrase either didn’t work in a school or was, quite frankly, a rubbish leader themselves. I’m not saying that having massive unwieldly goals is a responsible thing to do. What I am saying though, is that leaders who shy away from long term (and I mean two-three year) objectives are often those leaders who work in schools where common phrases heard in the staff room are ‘Are we still doing that thing from that inset last year?’ or ‘Oh, we used to do that five years ago.’ Every plan needs a set of checkpoints, and there may be some initiatives that have a definitive entry/exit criteria or indeed a limited shelf-life, but most things keep on going and going and going and going.
Effective leaders need to constantly re-engage with teachers to check how things are going. A teacher’s capacity to teach well can change year on year depending on a variety of contexts. Leaders shouldn’t judge teachers on this, they should expect it! They shouldn’t be surprised when a teacher, or child, is struggling; they should simply find out why and help. This is hard to do if you’re crippled by the fear that by end of the year you will be judged a terrible leader because you didn’t make sure everyone was marking in green.
It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re in the moment. It’s so tempting to write a beautiful action plan ready for September. It’s so easy to monitor semantics rather than impact. It’s safer to attribute blame rather than face the barriers and help even when it means deviating from your plan. It’s forgivable to be scared and hopeful and worry about the time it’s taking to improve things. But it’s poor leadership to let that govern your instincts and take over your professional judgement.
In short, don’t let the biggest barrier be you.