Saturday, 9 March 2013

Leadership - A different perspective

I remember a while back posting something (undoubtedly trivial - I can't remember what it was at any rate!) on Twitter which caused my first ever Twitter argument. It came as a bit of a shock because, while I know there must be good and bad on Twitter as anywhere else, my experience for the first few months had been entirely positive and incredibly helpful! PLN, best CPD in the world, all the clich├ęs people use about Twitter had been true. And yet here was a full-blown argument, conducted in less than 140 characters. Its brevity made it no less ferocious. It was the ninja one-inch punch of rhetoric.

What was more stunning was the topic of the argument. My transgression had been to quote "The Art Of War", an ancient Chinese text by Sun Tzu, in an educational discussion. This was deemed "wholly inappropriate" amongst other things. I was told firmly that this had "no place in a discussion on pedagogy or education at all for that matter". Oh well. That's me told.

Two things I should make clear in response to this:

1) I think you can learn from anyone or any event. What a bad one looks like is as instructive as what a good one looks like. The amount you learn is dictated by your attitude as a learner.
2) I don't think this blog is being written to justify my position or opinion, in response to someone having a go at me. I'm not that insecure.

On the contrary, I'm writing this out of a genuine sense of wanting to explore what the ancient taoists can teach us now, about life, about teaching, and about leadership (my new hobby, apparently, as one of my team informed me today!). I've been interested in Oriental philosophies for a long time, so this will be the first of many posts (I'll get back to normal education-based posts soon enough, don't worry, and you'll still get cartoons at the end: Fret not.  But if @KevBartle can digress into poetry, then I can bloomin' well go East. So to speak. Anyway, here are my first findings...

What Taoist Philosophy can teach us about leadership

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter Three - Strategy

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune to his army:
If he orders the army to retreat or advance when it cannot effectively do so, this is called “hobbling the army”;
If he attempts to administer the army when he does not know how, its warriors will become frustrated;
If he commands the officers without proper insight into how they function, this will undermine their confidence.

Okay, so let's forget the military metaphors for a start, and focus on the essence of what's being said here, and how we can apply it to our work as leaders of schools. "If he orders the army to retreat or advance when it cannot effectively do so, this is called “hobbling the army”." Leaders have to have a strong sense of vision. Without it, it's difficult to know where you're going. And someone who doesn't know where they're going is either static or going round in circles ineffectually or, worse still, following every prevailing wind. But a leader with vision is only half the story. A leader with a vision has a plan. But he must also have the means to execute the plan, the tools for the job. A leader cannot do anything without the right tools, the tools to do the job effectively. That means getting the right team around you, the right mix of skills, the right structures and systems for effective action, the right staff, the right attitudes, the right environment and resources, the right attitudes from students, and a level of support from parents. Don't get me wrong: I'm certainly not saying that you replace people who disagree with you, but you certainly need to explain your plan, your rationale and your methods openly if you want to take them with you on the journey. You can't skip that step. Attempting to move a school wholesale in a given direction without laying the groundwork first just doesn't work.

"If he attempts to administer the army when he does not know how, its warriors will become frustrated."
There are a couple of things which strike me about this line. The first is the word "administers". As school leaders we might object to it, because it implies that we are more or less pen-pushers. Me, I like it. It's not saying that school leaders do nothing, but it's a useful reminder that impact in schools comes from the contact with the students, and that's down to the huge number of teachers and other staff we have at the coal-face. If we as leaders made most impact, surely we'd have more leaders than teachers. But that's not the case. The war is fought on the front-line by the soldiers, not the generals, and while it is entirely wrong to think of educating young people as a war, the metaphor still speaks to us about the relative importance of teachers and leaders.

The second thing the passage raises is the issue of competence: An incompetent leader will often put obstacles in the way of effective teaching and learning across a school. Sometimes teachers with integrity will try to point this out, but leaders can be less than receptive about criticism, and so sometimes these same teachers will simply circumvent these inadequate systems. As a result they'll be labelled as undermining the system. Fine line, isn't it? The onus is on us as leaders to be really reflective about how much more effective each of our systems is actually making the school.

In addition, that line raises a further issue, which is whether or not you as the leader need to be competent in all areas. I would argue not (if you've ever met me and are aware of my numerous flaws, you'll understand why I come down on this side!), but I do think you need to have people in your team who are good at the things you're not good at if that's the case. If you're a big picture person, make sure you have a details person in your team. And ultimately, all of this comes down to whether or not the leader is humble enough to recognise their own short-comings and either deal with them (good) or turn them to his advantage by helping others to advance themselves through their skills (excellent).

"If he commands the officers without proper insight into how they function, this will undermine their confidence."

You need to know your team, and their strengths and weaknesses, and you need to know their roles, the complexity of their roles, and what they do every day. One senior manager I used to know had a habit of responding to problems by saying that staff "just had to... (Insert small extra task here)". All very well, but you sometimes got the impression she'd forgotten everything else the staff were doing already, or how much had been added gradually through time to their roles and responsibilities without taking anything out of the mix. A good leader still appreciates where their staff are coming from, what they do daily, and thinks about how their own actions impact on the effectiveness of their staff. If they don't, the staff will often grow resentful, lose confidence, and lose their confidence in their leader. "Are my ideas making us more effective?" should be a mantra pinned to our desks, if not tattooed on our foreheads (though I can understand the argument that the kids find tattoos like that uncool and your kudos with them might go down the toilet!).

By the way, as I write this, it strikes me that I may be entering an egg-sucking granny style scenario, and I appreciate it's not rocket science. I think I'm just saying that we need to systematically step back from time to time to look at how what we do impacts on the students, their progress, their character development, and the staff and their work-life balance too.

OK, time to stop rambling. If this is useful, I've only really scratched the surface of one taoist tome so far: There is plenty more where that came from, but if it's not useful, please let me know and I'll stop cluttering your bandwidth with this rubbish.
(If it is useful, please let me know too: I'm not insecure, but a little approval is always a nice thing. Ahem...)