What is leadership?

When I started this blog, I called it “Teaching: Leading Learning” because I believe the role of classroom teacher and school leader are closely connected. In both cases, you have a group of people and you want to take them from one situation to another. You have to enact change. There are several ways you can accomplish this:

  • Authoritarian: 
    • Classroom situation: I am the teacher. I am in charge. This is what we’re doing now, whether you like it or not.
    • Leadership situation: I am the boss. I am in charge. This is what we’re doing now, whether you like it or not.
  • Apologist: 
    • Classroom situation: I know this is boring. I don’t really like it either. But it’s on the exam specification so we have to do it; let’s just make the best of it.
    • Leadership situation: I know this is ridiculous. I don’t really like it either. But the DfE have said we have to have PRP so let’s try to make the best of it.
  • Values driven: 
    • Classroom situation: this is brilliant. This is why I got into teaching in the first place. Let’s have a look at it together…
    • Leadership situation: this is brilliant. This will improve all of us, make us more effective and help the kids. Let’s have a look at it together…

Last week I ran a twilight session for aspiring leaders in school, exploring the question “what is leadership?” I used the connection of teaching and leadership to help try to understand different models of leadership, and how they might apply in school contexts.

Model #1: The Bus, or “who before where” (Jim Collins)

Jim Collins advises leaders to start with

Jim Collins advises leaders to start with “who” not “where” (source)

Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision.

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.

(Jim Collins: Good to Great)

My NPQH was full of this stuff (see my blog here) – it seemed like every other resource I read was about how to initiate competency proceedings to get “the wrong people off the bus”. Fortunately, the metaphor has been comprehensively annihilated by Kev Bartle in BUS-ted: The Great Leadership Myth and more recently by Dawn Cox in Are you on the bus? The destructive education metaphor. To summarise my main objections:

  • A bus only has one driver; everyone else is a passenger, no matter which seat they’re in. This is not how teams work.
  • It assumes people are fixed commodities – either “right” or “wrong” – with no capacity to change, develop or grow. Dweck would have a field day.

There are many other ways in which this is an insecure approach – one of which is that the “where” matters too.

Model #2: The Jungle Road, or “where before what” (Stephen Covey)

Can you see the wood for the trees? (source)

Can you see the wood for the trees? (source)

A group of workers and their leaders are set a task of clearing a road through a dense jungle on a remote island. Their task is to get to the coast where an estuary provides a perfect site for a port. The leaders organise the labour into efficient units and monitor the distribution and use of capital assets – progress is excellent. The leaders continue to monitor and evaluate progress, making adjustments along the way to ensure the progress is maintained and efficiency increased wherever possible. Then, one day amidst all the hustle and bustle and activity, one worker climbs up a nearby tree. The worker surveys the scene from the top of the tree and shouts down to the assembled group below….“Wrong Way!”

From Stephen Covey (2004): The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

This is a great story to remind us of the difference between leadership and management. As Bennis and Drucker summarise: “the manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” Skilful management is very important to ensure schools run efficiently and effectively, but leadership is about setting the direction. If the leader in Collins’ bus metaphor is wrong about the direction, the whole vehicle could be heading for a low bridge or a wall – and then all the people, right or wrong, in whichever seat, are in for a shock.

Model #3: Geese

Leadership lessons from geese (source)

Leadership lessons from geese (source)

I’ve always loved this idea, which I initially came across on Tom Sherrington’s blog Leadership Lessons from GeeseTom summarises the lessons we can learn from the super-efficient V-formation used by migrating geese:

  1. Geese: the V-formation gives geese 71% extra power; they fly 71% further compared to flying alone. People: we are more effective when working together towards common goals
  2. Geese: a bird leaving the formation quickly returns. People: it’s tougher to go it alone. Playing part in a group is safer/more secure.
  3. Geese: the lead goose rotates. Each goose takes a turn. People: we need to share leadership. We all need to shoulder responsibility and do our turn on the front.
  4. Geese: the geese in the V honk from behind to encourage the leader to keep up their speed. People: we should encourage those that lead us by challenging them to do their best and cheering them on.
  5. Geese: a wounded or sick goose will be followed down by two other geese to protect it until it’s ready to rejoin the flock. People: we need to stand by each other in difficult times.

This is great, humane way to think about leadership as a team exercise. It reminds me of team pursuit…

Model #4: Team Pursuit

Laura Trott, Dani King and Joanna Rowsell in full flow

Laura Trott, Dani King and Joanna Rowsell in full flow (source)

I remember the Team GB women smashing their own record three times in one day at London 2012, including in the gold medal ride. They recently caught and overtook the Russian team at the European track championships to take gold by a lap. It’s a testament to the marginal gains approach, where every member of Team GB’s cycling programme trains every aspect of their performance to perfection. Zoe Elder has made the most of this metaphor on her excellent Marginal Learning Gains blog – more of which later! – and I think Doug Lemov‘s Teach Like A Champion comes from a similar angle. Team pursuit is the closest humans come to geese flying in a V – and it has valuable lessons for us too. As with the geese, the lead rotates to that all members of the team share the workload. The lead rider shields the others who sit in the slipstream behind; all members of the team are working in complete harmony towards the same goal, with and for each other.

The team work together to minimise drag (source)

The team work together to minimise drag (source)

What’s particularly great about the team pursuit is that the time for the team is taken from the last rider over the line: the team is only as good as its slowest member. This is why development and training is important. We must support and improve all members of our team to do their best, not rely on individual superstars. We need to ensure the way we teach in our classroom sends them off to the next lesson in the right frame of mind, with the right attitude – minimising drag for our colleagues. And the culture we set in our schools should be one of continual improvement, training each aspect of our performance to perfection, whether we are staff or students, in order to achieve excellence.

Model #5: The 3As (Alan McLean)

The 3 As as cycling metaphors depicted on Marginal Learning Gains

The 3 As as cycling metaphors depicted on Marginal Learning Gains

The wonderful Zoe Elder, of the aforementioned Marginal Learning Gains blog, introduced me to Alan McLean’s 3As of motivation:

The first one is Affiliation, which is basically a sense of belonging, a sense of being valued, connected, and the opposite of that is alienation.The second one is Agency, which is basically self-belief, a sense of competence, a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of control. I know how to do this job…The opposite of Agency is apathy. And the third one, which is the centrepiece of them all – the most complex one – is Autonomy. I keep mentioning Autonomy because it’s gold dust. Autonomy is self-determination. How much scope or trust do I have? How much scope do I have for self-determination in my job or in my classroom? And the more self-determination, the more autonomy you have the more motivated you will be. The opposite of Autonomy is anxiety, where you’re overwhelmed, you’re so pressurised or you’re discouraged.

Alan McLean: The three As of motivation

Both Zoe Elder and Alan McLean apply the three As to classroom situations, but as I indicated at the start, in my view they apply equally to leadership positions. The development of affiliation, agency and autonomy in teams is key to their success – and this has to stem from the leadership. All three are needed; without one, the others cannot flourish.

Model #6: Start With Why (Simon Sinek)

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle (source)

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle (source)

I really like Simon Sinek‘s take on humane leadership. He’s done a couple of great TED talks on the topic: why good leaders make you feel safe and how great leaders inspire actionIt’s in the latter talk that he describes the “golden circle” and explains how the norm for leadership is to communicate from the outside in, starting with what you do then how you do it before expecting a change in behaviour. In teaching this may be “I teach French (the what) by using target language techniques and interleaving reading, writing, speaking and listening practice in curriculum planning (the how).”

More influential, argues Sinek, is values-driven leadership which communicates and is driven from the inside out, starting with why: “I teach French because I fundamentally believe that learning languages is the key to inter-cultural understanding and will help produce more tolerant global citizens. To do this I ensure that I interleave reading, writing, speaking and listening practice in the target language so the students feel immersed in the language and the culture of French-speaking nations.” All teachers have their own “why” – it drives them to put up with the pressures and tribulations of the job and keeps them going. For me, it’s about social justice and creating a fairer society. You can read about that here.  If you can articulate your “why” then it gives you the core values that will allow you to lead effectively – lead a class of kids, a team, or a school.

Model #7: the Cathedral masons, or having a sense of purpose

Why do you do what you do? (source)

Why do you do what you do? (source)

HT to Bodil Isaksen for putting me on the trail of this story:

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

via Bill von Achen (source)

Bodil’s tweet perfectly sums up the application of this story to education:

It’s up to leaders and teachers to provide that sense of purpose in the endeavour of schooling, so that the knackered teacher last lesson on Thursday knows that chipping away at comprehension skills with Year 9 is worth it. It’s another block in the foundations of the cathedral. And it is worth it, as Sarah Findlater’s wonderful blogpost Building beautiful cathedrals shows:

As teachers, we work hard crafting the small part of our students’ life that we share, but more often than not we will never see the end result, who they will become. We have faith that the cause we are working for is a great one so we continue our crafting and our job is done. On with life.

Sarah Findlater (source)

Each of the models of leadership has something to offer. As with all things, we take a little from one model, a little from another. We adopt and adapt until we make them our own. And we go on teaching: leading learning.

6 thoughts on “What is leadership?

  1. Pingback: What is leadership? | Middle Level Leadership |...

  2. Great post, Chris, which brings together interesting and inspiring stuff from different sources: something I think you’re particularly adept at.

  3. Pingback: Leadership | Pearltrees

  4. Pingback: Teaching: Leading Learning at #TLT16 | Teaching: Leading Learning

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