Anyone who’s been led by an ineffective leadership team will be all too aware of the frustration, dissatisfaction and low morale that can manifest as a result of poor management. During my time at UWCSEA, I was privileged to work with an incredible leadership team whose people-centered approach sought to bring out the best in every community member.
In this post, I outline 10 impactful lessons in leadership I learnt whilst working at UWCSEA. The observations are a summary of what particularly resonated with me from the Leadership of the then Head of Campus, James Dalziel and the East Campus High School Leadership Team: Nick Alchin, Cathy Jones, Ted Cowan and Stuart MacAlpine. The article also draws on practice I saw modelled by my Head of Department, Ken Stirrat.
Why do you do, what you do? The most important factor in the collective progress of a community, is the extent to which its members agree on their purpose – the reason for their existence. Having a clearly defined mission that community members are proud to serve, helps individuals to feel connected to something much bigger than themselves. In unifying a community through a shared purpose, a leader is able to make meaning for people; enabling them to see that the work they are doing has an impact significantly greater than might be immediately apparent. Employees who see meaning and purpose in their work are likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, and contribute more to community activities than those who do not. A leader can make meaning for people.
A unifying statement can also help leaders identify key leverage points in their community: “What elements of our offerings should we amplify or dampen to further advance us towards our mission?” Many schools have mission statements, but few hold themselves accountable to them in their daily decision making. When you are unapologetic about what you are aiming for, you can also stand proud in the decisions you make in line with this.
Everyone is a learner
When we talk about ‘learners’ in schools, the assumption is that we’re referring to students. A transformational leader sees all stakeholders as learners – including the teaching staff. By asking, “How can I support this person in developing their capacity as a contributing member of this community?” the leader frames their role as a supporter of learning in a non-hierarchical manner. As teachers, we know that our students learn best in a safe, secure and supportive environment – the same is true for staff. There are many ways to support learning in a non-judgemental way; peer-to-peer mentoring schemes, continual professional development, invitational classroom coaching. The key here is transparency between all involved regarding the positive intent behind the activities: to support one another in reaching our true potential as individuals, and hence, our shared mission as a community.
Take a Balcony View
Our understanding of a situation and where it might be heading, varies greatly depending on our vantage point. A leader’s job is both to be aware of the day to day activities within an organisation and to steer the overall advancement of the community. James Dalziel discusses the interplay between dance floor and balcony, as an analogy to illustrate a leader’s role in traversing multiple perspectives within a school. A leader that spends too much time in amongst the daily grind (on the dance floor) could lose sight of the overall vision; and a leader that spends too much time on the big picture thinking (on the balcony) might become out of touch with the day to day realities of what it’s like to be a member of the community. A good leader seeks out, and intentionally crosses, the space between.
Just because a leader intentionally seeks out an alternative viewpoint, it doesn’t mean that they have to stand on the balcony alone. A good leader will be invitational in encouraging others to take an alternative view too. This is because they recognise that even when viewed from the same perspective, situations will look different through another’s eyes.
We build our people bigger than our problems
“Decision makers in school should always be held accountable to the question “What benefit will this decision have on student learning?” Many studies have highlighted quality teachers and teaching as a key determinant in bettering students’ cognitive, affective, and behavioural outcomes. Whilst students should always be a school’s primary stakeholders, good leadership will invest in their teaching staff as the most salient influence on student success. A good leader builds capacity and agency in others, equipping them with the skills and confidence to respond appropriately to multiple situations. This investment not only benefits students, it also has a key role in the retention and satisfaction of staff, helping them to feel valued and challenged in equal measure.
Coaching as a default means of communication
How we talk matters. Our means of communication is a key indicator of the type of support we offer to those around us. Leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about what they can do to support others.Through using coaching as a default means of communication, a transformational leader seeks to build capacity in others with the belief that they are best positioned to solve their own problems. Through a cycle of active listening, pausing, paraphrasing and asking mediative questions, transformational leaders seek to heighten an individual’s awareness of the capacity they have to affect positive change in their communities, as well as bringing the individual’s attention to the support networks around them which they can draw upon for help. This approach requires humility from the leader in acknowledging that even if they think they know a better solution for an individual’s problem, it’s probably only a better solution for themselves. It also requires a large degree of trust to then give people the agency required to act on their self identified solutions.
Culture eats Strategy for breakfast
If you’re anything like me, when you first meet someone, you pick up on their energy pretty quickly. You get a feel for their vibe, whether they’re being authentic and whether your energies are likely to align. School culture is like that. From the moment you set foot on a campus you get a feel for the school’s values, whether their authentically being followed, and whether they align with your own. A good leader acknowledges the importance of school culture in creating an environment for all community members to flourish, and will very intentionally set about establishing this cultural space from which everything else will develop. They will also recognise and embrace the notion that the culture of a school is both explicitly and implicitly defined by its leadership. In the words of Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He’s not saying that strategic thinking in leadership isn’t important, more that creating a strong workplace culture is a surer route to organisational success. “The Culture web” by Johnson and Scholes outlines a process through which current culture can be analysed and the extent to which the “current approach helps to deliver your vision and mission or hinder it” considered.
Respect people’s time
Time is the most precious resource we have, yet so often in schools people’s time is taken for granted and undervalued. Good leaders respect people’s time. If a meeting is supposed to start at 9am and finish at 10am make sure it does. Good leaders are empathetic and make flexible plans. People’s time is not yours to take, but as a leader, often you have the privilege of being able to give people their time back. If you schedule a weekly staff meeting but recognise that due to circumstance one week, peoples time might be better off invested elsewhere – it’s OK, with ample notice, to postpone or rearrange to free up your staff to focus on what is needed most. That’s not to say you lose sight of the bigger picture and only focus on transactional matters (see “Taking a Balcony View”) – it’s about making wise investments. If you want to show someone you value them – prove that you value their time.
“Don’t just do something, stand there”
I think there’s a misconception in many people’s mind that leaders have to be seen to be doers. What I witnessed at UWCSEA was that, at times, there’s equal value in standing still as there is in pushing forward. Not just equal value, sometimes the benefits of stillness outway the merits of moving on. And by standing still, I don’t mean stagnating. To be still is to allow for contemplation, a considered view of the potential impact of launching a new initiative. What effect will this have on student learning? How could it impact multiple stakeholders? What might some success indicators of this initiative be? Standing in a decision builds trust. Constant reform in schools due to the hasty implementation of initiatives without due thought and consideration, does nothing for the community’s trust in the direction and assuredness of the leadership team. Don’t just do something, stand there (for a short while at least!)
Put the data on the table
A good leader is transparent and invitational in their decision making processes, yet is also aware of the implicit biases stakeholders carry that can influence the way they view a situation. A leader’s role, is as far as possible, to remove subjectivity from the decision making process by shifting stakeholder focus away from individual emotion and perception, and towards a more shared and objective view of the circumstances. One way of doing this is to literally “put the data” on the table – to provide an impartial, fact-based starting point from which collective dialogue can begin. A possible scaffold to guide a group’s consideration of data is to use the “Here’s what! So What? Now Wha?” framework as suggested in this Thinking Collaborative article. The model, which starts by the group non-judgmentally highlighting what they see in the data, is designed to consciously separate the observation of data from the assigning of meaning to it. By going through data-driven dialogue together, community members can at least understand the intention behind decisions being made (even if they don’t agree with them,) and at best, can feel involved in coming to a consensus on how best to move forward, in light of a fact-based understanding of where they’re currently at.
Authenticity and Trust
Trust in any kind of mutually beneficial relationship is of paramount importance. This is especially true between a visionary leader and their community – people need to trust you before they trust your ideas. Generally, we find it hard to trust people who come across as insincere or fake, therefore, the extent to which we perceive a leader to be authentic, is a key indicator of the potential effectiveness of their leadership. If we feel a leader is authentic, we are more likely to respect them and to trust them in making considered decisions that align with their own values, and that are in the best interest of the school.
Authentic leaders have high levels of self-awareness – they remain true to their own feelings whilst simultaneously being aware of the feelings of others. If leadership relies so much on leaders being their authentic selves, can it be taught? I would be really interested to hear your thoughts here. For what it’s worth, I think that like any other skill, the craft can continuously be refined. However, I also think that the foundations for effective leadership (e.g. self-awareness, social intelligence, empathy and a well-developed moral compass) are nurtured in their formative years, long before a leader gets into a position of influence.
What I saw as part of the UWCSEA East community, headed by James Dalziel, were genuine leaders, leading from the heart with a clarity and consistency of approach, and actions that aligned with their proclaimed values. Their people centered leadership has tangibly impacted how I interact with others now, and will unquestionably influence my leadership of others in the future.