By Dr Jill Berry
Leadership is the toughest gig, but worth every second. Here, Dr Jill Berry explores her own concept of leadership and what it is that makes good leaders
I often assert that every teacher is a leader. From the day we first step into a classroom, working with pupils of any age, we are using, developing and strengthening leadership strategies and behaviours. Teachers encourage, motivate, inspire. They support, challenge, scaffold and model. They monitor progress, evaluate their professional practice and adapt their planning accordingly. They guide and lift their learners.
Leadership is, in my view, about getting the very best from others. It involves building capacity and confidence, through the judicious balance of support and constructive challenge. It requires us to invest in developing the most positive relationships, including establishing mutual trust and respect. Clear, effective communication is key, and taking well-considered action based on sound judgement which is grounded in our knowledge of people and of context. And all this is true whether we are leading young people, or leading our colleagues. It applies to those who are co-ordinating the efforts of a specific domain as a Middle Leader; to those taking on whole-school responsibility as a Senior Leader; and to those enacting the role of Head, Principal, Executive Principal or the CEO of a group of schools. It is equally true of governors, who have a crucial leadership role in our schools and colleges.
It seems to me that leadership is in some ways very simple – get the best from those you lead – and yet at the same time it is complex and nuanced, because how you get the best from different people can be a challenge. I would maintain that in order to encourage people to be their best, you have to be able to see the best in them, and they have to see that you see it, and value it. Rather than always fixating on what may be broken and how you can repair it, you need to be able to identify what is working, what you can learn from that and how you can do more of it for even wider benefit.
Leaders need to help others to step up, to achieve high standards and accomplish something they can be proud of. The best leaders don’t act as an umbrella, simply shielding and protecting those they lead from the difficult issues. Nor do they act as a funnel, channelling downwards the stress and anxiety – even the fear – they may themselves feel from time to time.
The best leaders act as filters, doing what they can to enable those they lead to do the best possible job. This involves confronting thorny issues rather than always defending and advocating for the members of their team. Leaders make judgement calls all the time. Ultimately, they should be committed to lifting people up rather than grinding them down, even when – especially when? – those they lead are struggling in some way and need to be held to account by those who lead them.
So what are the main challenges of leadership? I would suggest they include:
- Empowering not dominating: Resisting the temptation to hold the reins too tightly, which can be tricky when you know you are responsible. If you micro-manage, overly control and direct, you can create a culture of dependence. A leader has to know when and how to delegate successfully and to invest in the development of others. Recognise that acknowledging and building on the complementary skills and strengths of your team as you co-ordinate their efforts is a crucial part of your role. Being a leader is not about being the source of every initiative and knowing all the answers. When a leader moves on, the team they led should grow stronger, rather than weaker, because of all that you have encouraged and enabled them to achieve.
- Tackling not avoiding: Knowing when you have to have a potentially difficult conversation, and having the courage and the compassion to prepare for it and to conduct it in a way which is honest, open and clear, and which leads to a constructive outcome about which all those involved can feel more positive, and which moves everyone forward.
- Balance: Finding and maintaining sustainable and healthy management of your personal and professional lives, despite time pressures, modelling this for others and supporting those you lead to do the same.
Leadership also presents opportunities and they can be the source of great satisfaction and joy. The main rewards of leadership, I think, include:
- Developing others: Having the opportunity to see those you lead grow in their practice and flourish, perhaps in due course going on to additional responsibility and new challenges themselves. This does not necessarily mean that they will choose a specific leadership role, but that over time they will enjoy even greater success and a strong sense of achievement in their professional lives.
- Forging a path: Being able to direct an aspect of the school to which you are committed and to take it where you think it should go, in line with your own vision and values, and the vision and values of the team as a whole. As a leader you have greater autonomy and agency to achieve this.
- Stepping up: Knowing that you are stretching yourself as an educator and developing into the leader you aspire to be. You will have learnt from positive leader role-models throughout your career. You will also have learnt from negative examples, and in the process you will have refined your vision of which leadership behaviours to avoid and which to emulate. an you develop into the leader you would always want to have been led by?
Remember that you will have been honing your leadership skills from the point at which you embarked on your teaching career. If at some stage you feel ready to extend your sphere of professional influence from leading learning in the classroom to also facilitating, co-ordinating and developing the work of your colleagues, there will be challenges and rewards ahead. There are ways in which you can prepare to take on additional leadership responsibility, but I often quote Robert Quinn, who said, in 2004, that new leaders need to “build the bridge as they walk on it.” You will learn from the experience of leading, and if you are sufficiently reflective, receptive and committed to doing so, you will develop your skills and your confidence over time.
Enjoy the journey!