School leadership is being reviewed by the DfES. Former head Roger Smith looks at assumptions about what makes a good leader and ponders on where the review will lead.

Headteachers are at the cutting edge of leadership and by being so close to this controversial and elusive concept we can all enjoy the many witty and pithy descriptions telling us what it is that leaders actually do. ‘It’s a bit like running a cemetery, there are lots of people underneath you and no one is listening’ or ‘I must follow the people, after all, aren’t I their leader?’ and ‘leadership is getting someone else to do something you want done because they want to do it’ (Eisenhower, Clinton and Disraeli respectively).

We are all looking for the best ways to lead our schools through the minefields of the 21st century and help is on the way! Through the DfES, the government has commissioned an independent review of school leadership. The review is linked to the recent white paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, which sets out the government’s plans for the next steps in raising standards of pupil attainment and helping every child realise their potential.

Leadership in context

One of the main concerns of the study is to look at leadership in its widest context. Its terms of reference suggest that this context is evolving rapidly and includes:

  • collaborating with other schools and colleges in the wider community
  • liaising directly or in partnership with childcare and other extended services
  • effective work in multi-agency settings, building teams from a range of professional disciplines including health and social services
  • the development of groundbreaking forms of school organisation and governance, including trusts, federations and academies.

Leadership and raising standards

Leadership has long been recognised as the key factor in realising the government’s commitment to making every school a good school and most schools centres of excellence. This kind of transformation needs first class leaders to succeed and this independent review into the roles, responsibilities, structures and reward systems for school leaders should provide evidence for further work in these areas.

The core purpose of this new study is to provide a full account of the existing models of school leadership as well as potential models of what effective heads actually do. In other words, it is hoped that some promising options for the future will be identified. As part of their task, the study will examine a number of specific issues, for example:

  • the roles and responsibilities of the head, deputy/assistant head and other members of the leadership team
  • the way that different models of headship link up and interact with how schools are governed
  • the rewards, incentives, contractual arrangements and conditions of employment that support these models and reflect the expectations of school leadership
  • the framework of career paths that would support appropriate models
  • recruitment and succession planning for school leadership both within and potentially across schools
  • the ways in which administrative support will affect and be affected by these models of headship.

This is where I have a problem. I am not convinced that this study is looking at the charismatic styles and the positive and active driving forces of ‘leaders’ and ‘leadership’. I have a feeling that it is really reviewing how schools are managed, which is different.

Leadership, it seems to me, is about style, personality and how this impacts on the different roles and purposes of the school. It is about persuading colleagues where to go next and why it is important to get there.

Management is simpler to define. It is really about seeing what needs to be done and creating and putting together all the different bits of the organisation so that you get where you need to go as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Good leaders are usually very creative organisers and managers. Those who aren’t appoint senior colleagues who are. See? It is easy!

Links with the past

There are many books that address leadership and/or management and there are many more to be written. The ones that I have found most helpful include: Everard, KB and Morris, G (1985) Effective School Management, London: Harper and Row; Handy, C (1976) Understanding Organisations, London: Penguin;  Adair, J (1983) Effective Leadership, London: Pan Books, and for one particular argument, Dixon, N (1991) On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, London: Time Warner. However, as it is the DfES who has commissioned this review, it will be useful to try and find out where this department and other ‘government’ bodies are coming from in some of their assumptions about leadership. Ofsted has looked at how well schools are led and managed and has assumed that a ‘good’ leader:

  • manages the school effectively
  • promotes high standards of teaching and learning
  • makes sure the governing body fulfils its statutory responsibilities
  • monitors and evaluates the schools performance
  • diagnoses its strengths and weaknesses etc.

They are admirable statements but do they actually tell us how outstanding leaders do all these things or make sure that other people do them successfully? For instance, do they shout a lot, make charismatic speeches or, like a headteacher I knew, organise two days of team-building activities where one young teacher broke his arm and a more mature colleague was found naked in the hotel bar at three in the morning!

So what other views are there about what great leaders are or are not like? Chris Woodhead, in his 1997 annual report as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, was able to list the characteristics of ineffective leaders as follows:

  • rarely seen in classrooms
  • do not monitor teaching enough to know staff’s strengths and weaknesses
  • fail to bring about improvements in teaching
  • unable to delegate and spend far too much time on  routine paperwork
  • create a lack of a sense of purpose
  • fail to set clear objectives and targets.

Well, obviously none of us want to be like that but I still find this list relatively unhelpful in pointing the way to what I need to do and how I need to behave to be a good leader.

Let’s keep leadership simple

It seems to me that leaders have to know what they want to happen, make it happen and promote effective structures that will help the school continually improve. In other words, they are good at:

  • forecasting what needs doing
  • planning how to do it
  • organising what needs to be done
  • delegating tasks to appropriate colleagues
  • coordinating and controlling what happens.

This kind of leadership profile applies to leaders at all levels and concentrates on their roles and responsibilities and how important it is to recruit the right people who are capable of forecasting future needs, planning, organising, delegating and coordinating.

Most of us will have made mistakes when recruiting colleagues and yet, despite all the advice and support on interviewing and appointment strategies, there are simpler yardsticks that can be applied.

Imagine being faced with a future leader in your school during whatever your recruitment process is and apply the ‘store cupboard rule’. In other words, can you imagine being trapped in a store cupboard with this person? You can? Then appoint them. You can’t – then think carefully whether they would fit into your team.

I always liked to keep candidates for leadership posts waiting in rooms close to the office. Immediately after each interview I would ‘ask the secretary’ what they thought. Those candidates who had been indifferent, rude, or who had used their mobiles, would be viewed in a different light from those who had been open, friendly and pleasant. You know how, when you switch the electricity off at home before doing a minor repair, you always sensibly ‘try the switch’ – just to check? Well this can be applied during interviews. Some candidates will switch their behaviour to meet what they think are appropriate circumstances. Beware those who are charmless or even hostile to those who they feel are inferior or who are sycophantic and full of pleasantries to those they feel are their superiors.

What kind of leaders do we want and need?

Including On the Psychology of Military Incompetence on a ‘leadership’ reading list might strike some as surprising. However, military leadership, while being very different to the kind of leadership that operates in schools, also has some similarities. One point the book makes is that nearly every military disaster that was caused by incompetent leadership was because the leader had an authoritarian personality with the following four characteristics:

  • an obsessive attention to neatness and detail and a need for an ordered tidy world with few complexities and complications
  • emotional coldness where they don’t really empathise or warm to colleagues
  • excessive deference to superior authority, which meant that they often reversed this and bullied those who they saw as their inferiors
  • an excessive fear of failure and of getting things wrong, which meant that they were less likely to innovate or do something different or make radical changes.

Of course I would hope that none of us have ever behaved like that, worked with anyone like that or known any fellow headteachers who have behaved like that. So, if we know what we don’t want – or recognise in ourselves what not to do – what should we be doing and, what is more important, what do we hope that the review will find out and confirm about effective leaders?

Leading change

It seems to me that motivating colleagues to change is the most radical challenge to face headteachers and school leaders. To do this well, there are several ‘styles’ of leadership that should be more successful, including:

  • sympathy towards the ideas of others
  • appreciation of others’ points of view
  • approachability
  • the ability to deal with problems quickly and effectively
  • the ability to inspire trust and confidence
  • tolerance of a whole range of ideas
  • tact
  • a willingness to praise and be seen to praise
  • humour
  • the quality of being a good listener
  • the ability to cope with opposition and unpopularity as well as with support and encouragement
  • knowing when to pressurise and when to stand back
  • the capacity to be fair and just
  • the ability to coach, guide, cajole and take decisions.

Good leaders are everywhere

There is no existing single definition of good leadership and the DfES review will have difficulties in creating one. But its findings should be able to influence the debate on what is and is not effective at a level that is both useful and enlightening.

Without strong leadership and a sense of direction, schools will be unable to continue to raise standards. Leithwood et al (1999) in Changing Leadership for Changing Times (University of Toronto, Canada) takes the concept of leadership a stage further: ‘We are coming to believe that leaders are those people who “walk ahead”, people who are genuinely committed to deep change in themselves and in their organisations. They lead through developing new skills, capabilities and understandings. And they come from many places within the organisations’ (my italics).

These pearls of wisdom imply that there are many potential leaders in schools and that we should be looking for them, building their leadership qualities and using them to help us raise standards. We should all be concerned about how to share leadership, rather than how to hold on to it as the sole source of power and change.

I want to end with Ofsted because, in common with us all, it has a commitment to raising standards. Leadership, it suggests, is about:

  • creating and securing a commitment to a clear vision
  • managing change so as to improve the school
  • building a high-performing team
  • inspiring, motivating and influencing staff
  • leading by example and taking responsibility.

Whatever leadership style is suggested, it must move away from top-down decision making, not stifle creativity and innovation and certainly not be afraid of change. School leaders now have to work with many different agencies. This increases the importance of sharing views and developing an ethos where a variety of colleagues can work together to solve problems and where decisions are taken and change managed by consensus and democracy rather than autocracy.