Lead by example! Show the way! Be the figurehead!
All very plausible and worthwhile I’m sure but is it always the best way forward? There are times when, as a leader, you need to be front and centre and be making the critical decisions but equally, and maybe more often, front and centre is precisely the place you don’t need to be.
What is the purpose of a leader? It’s not telling people what to do and when, it’s not endlessly scrutinising and making people feel inadequate and untrusted, it’s about enabling. A good leader doesn’t drag people along on their mission; they set the direction and then use the best tools they have available to make their way to where they want to go.
But how do you make that happen? I rarely tell the staff we are going to do something and enforce it. We talk, discuss, engage and consult with each other. Why wouldn’t we? Who is going to be driving it forward? To an extent, it’s me, but to a far greater extent, it’s them. I’m not necessarily the one who is having to walk into a classroom and make it happen. I’m not the one who may have to spend the extra time working on it. I could be that figurehead, set the way with clear, precise protocols and action plans but if people aren’t going to go along with it, then it’ll fall flat on its face, every single time. Instead, if as an SLT we want to start something new we talk about it. For example, I’ll start by explaining what I think it needs to change; then I’ll explain why I think it needs to change, then I’ll present a few models I’ve looked at and give a direction I think might be worth exploring further. After that, the floor is open. We are transparent and honest. If someone says it isn’t going to work, we explore why and find an alternative that will. Now, we have a team of people who have been involved in making the decision and it shaping the way it’s going to look for them. Instantly invested in it and prepared to give it a go because we have planned it together. It’s be done with them rather than to them.
Trusting people with responsibility brings out the best in them, most of the time. I don’t need to be the one running the show every time. At one of my previous schools, the headteacher would run every information evening. The new starters evening? A one hour talk from the HT and 5 seconds from the EYFS staff. Writing evening? English lead sat down for the vast majority. Why? Who has the expertise in his situation? Sure, the head may know, but why appoint people to these roles if you aren’t going to trust them to do the job properly? Instead, I say very little on these evenings apart from ‘hello’ and ‘thanks for coming’. Why would I need to say more? I trust my staff, we’ve been through the content they will be amazing.
I don’t need to be the one at the front of everything. When things go well, and people write in with praise, my first response is that it had very little to do with me. I wasn’t the one that delivered it. I helped us work out the process and put it down in writing, but it wasn’t me in the classroom, working with the children and making it happen. Every leader should recognise this. I hate the term superhead; they would be nowhere without their staff team. It makes it seem like one person can go in and turn everything around by enforcing their will. Rubbish, absolute rubbish.
Change and moving forward isn’t built on one person telling everyone what to do; change is built on working together with everyone involved and invested in what is happening. When this happens, improvement is so much more sustainable. The head that I took over from kept everything in her head and micromanaged every aspect. This meant people just depended on her to do everything for them and took no responsibility for what they were doing – they just waited to be told what to do. We’ve changed that culture – we work together and everyone takes responsibility for what is going on. Now, if I leave my school, it is in a much better place for sustaining the work we have done as a team as people have been enabled to be part of that change. They know and have developed the steps that have been taken to get there and understand how and why we took them.
The best way to lead from the front? Lead from the back. Empower, enable, trust and work with people. Encourage people to step forward and take responsibility and let them take the lead. The job of every leader is to help people be the best they can be and do their job as well as they can. Much more effective to do that from behind people than blindly walking in front of them.