Saturday, 12 January 2013

Leadership and wisdom: Why us and them?

I'm in serious mood today. None of the usual frivolities. OK, you might get a cartoon at the end, but until then, I'm talking business...

I don't know about you, but I often have decent ideas which I'm developing at some bizarrely insane time of the day, when suddenly I will read someone else's blog which just, mortifyingly, turns out to be the perfect expression of what I've been struggling to articulate for so long. Today was such a day, when I read Kev Bartle's blog on line management, and the need to build a relationship of trust between manager and line managee (he made that word up by the way, not me). This line caught my eye: "And I trust that they (the people he line manages) are in this job for all the right reasons, as I hope they trust that I am in the job of senior leadership for all the right reasons." An admirable attitude.

However, this line highlighted a problem I have perceived, which has puzzled me throughout my career as a teacher and middle leader: The divide between SLT and "staff". If we just flip his statement on its head a moment, we perhaps start to see what is at the root of many a disjointed relationship between SLT and staff. Everyone always assumes teachers are in the job for the right reasons, but very often line management relationships break down because those being managed don't quite trust that SLT are in their jobs for the right reasons. Sound harsh? Think about it: How often are people sniping behind the backs of SLT members in your school? Is it only when the senior leader in question is not up to the job? Or is there a natural tendency amongst teachers not to trust SLT?

This isn't a problem middle managers suffer from as much, I don't think. While staff within a department can resent being managed by particular subject leaders on a personal basis, in my experience this is rare, and often down to a clash of personalities or perhaps rival ambition. Essentially, becoming a subject leader is about having ideas of how to teach better within a subject, and wanting to create a system through which this can be organised more effectively day to day. The fact that Subject Leaders still teach a hefty timetable shows the people they are managing that they are still 100% committed to the day to day nitty-gritty of the chalkface. But move towards SLT and suddenly things might change. Teachers seem to have a natural suspicion of people who are promoted to leadership positions, and it might be because they can't fathom why anyone would want to leave the classroom, which was after all the reason they came into the profession. The only reasons people seem to come up with are reasons such as greed (more money) or wanting to get out of the classroom (less work). Neither is a particularly positive reason for wanting that promotion.

One thing you'll pick up from the last paragraph is that I'm already using "they" to refer to staff, which posits a "we" of senior management (and I'm not even senior management yet!). I don't like that at all. However, it does seem to reflect the way staff think SLT view them, and it's a very real obstacle that must be faced, acknowledged and overcome by SLT if they are to be successful. I work with some superb colleagues in my faculty whose trust I have fought hard to gain over several years, and whose interests I have very often put way before my own, even when my own were important to me. But I am aware, and I don't think it's paranoid imagination, that having been seconded to SLT recently, there is now that degree of suspicion towards me and my motives. 

As SLT members it's vital to communicate our mission clearly to teachers, to make them see that our role is as much about people as teaching is. We may be part of a "system", we may have a grand title such as being in charge of "Teaching and Learning","Community" or however your school chooses the nomenclature of SLT, but those roles are still fundamentally about people. They should be about getting the best experiences for every single student, and should be equally about getting the best professional experiences for every single teacher and associate member of the support staff. They deserve to be happy and fulfilled in their lives and roles, as much as the students deserve the best educational experience possible. Our role in this context is about serving the needs of these two communities, and everything we do, say and set up should be transparently and obviously about facilitating that, and releasing people to fly. As @KevBartle said in his fab blog"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free". Although I think he may have nicked the expression from someone else: Attribution is one of Twitter's main problems!

How you convince the people you manage of this is a matter of personality, I think. There are no hard and fast rules. Our ASLDP course, for instance, discussed whether Heads should go to the staff party a while back, with clearly this question on their minds. Some said they should, and they should be seen to be able to "get down with the staff" as I believe they say on da streets, innit. They should even be willing to get drunk in front of their staff, some said: Shows they don't take themselves too seriously. It's a bonding experience. Others said quite vehemently that they should remove themselves and allow staff to get on with the fun without feeling they were being watched. I could see both sides (typical Gemini, apparently, whatever that means!). I don't see any good reason for Heads not to be involved in staff do's, but not because they feel they have to play a role. That is the most phoney thing we can do, because people see straight through it. You have to do what comes naturally to you, and lead in a way which aligns itself with your character. For me, that would include attending staff quizzes, nights out etc, but the line would be drawn at drinking (not something I wear well), singing and dancing in public, which have always embarrassed me, way before I was even a teacher. I'm not going to be able to change those things just because I suddenly have to lead people or want them to see me bonding with them. But ultimately I do need to convince them that I ought to be treated as a person, rather than a manager, and the best way to do that is to do likewise back.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to another interesting argument I heard on TED a while back, and one which supports the assertion that we should foreground people over systems when leading schools: The idea is that whatever we do, we mustn't make systems or procedures the whole answer, because the unintended consequence is to take away our wisdom to decide human issues on a case by case basis, and the virtue and morality to treat people like humans. This might seem like a bit of a non sequitur in the context of what I've been talking about, but it says more or less what I've always thought about how we lead people: We deal with them as individuals, we highlight their strengths, we look to help them fly if they need help, and we get rid of any obstacles if they don't. And rather than trying to "catch them out" (credit to @SimonWarburton for this expression), we work on their weaknesses in the same context as they would, knowing that they will want to deal with those weaknesses as much for themselves as for anyone else. They don't need us on their backs in addition to dealing with them, they need us on their side. That level of trust and integrity is important to have between you and the people you work with. And it might just make them less inclined to think of you as "them": Credit to Pink Floyd for that line...