Mastering Middle Leadership
By Danielle Walley
What should middle leaders focus on as they develop their craft? Danielle Walley explores the who, what, why, when and how of middle leadership.
10 years ago as I approached my first middle leadership role I had no idea how much I didn’t know. I was full of fresh ideas and enthusiasm, excited for change and had a clear idea about what I was going to do. What I didn’t have a clear idea on was how to lead people or manage change. I experienced a distinct lack of training or guidance available for middle leaders at the time and my line manager was happy as long as I was ‘doing’ something. I look back now and can see all the things that were wrong, including my approach, but the nickname of ‘bull in a China shop’ still haunts me today as I think I made every mistake in the book.
Yet, through a determination to improve, I turned to books and literature to teach me what I needed to learn to become a successful middle leader. I adopted a mind set of improvement and evaluated my mistakes and used them to learn what not to do next time.
However, as I watch the landscape of middle leadership change, and more and more TLR roles being created to drive initiatives like literacy, oracy and transition within schools, I don’t want the next generation of middle leaders to have to learn the hard way, like I did.
I am a big believer in owning and learning from your mistakes, but this doesn’t mean we should allow the cycle of unprepared and untrained middle leaders to keep making the same mistakes I did in the hope of producing better leaders at the end! There must be another way!
So what’s my solution? Well, senior leaders need to craft and implement middle leader development programmes in schools, but as I don’t have the power or influence to demand that, in the short term I will just share some of the key lessons that I have learnt the hard way; and that I wish someone had told me in the first place!
Start with ‘why’
Why did you want to be a middle leader? What does a flourishing department look like under your leadership? What are you trying to create here? It is imperative to have a clear vision for what you’re doing and why you are doing it, and then ensure that your vision permeates through your actions and decisions. Your team also need to buy in and feed in to your vision, they need to share your ‘why’.
This in turn will build collaboration and commitment to your vision, along with a culture of clarity and input within your team. If staff understand why you are making the decisions that you are, why you are making changes, they are less likely to resist. Simon Sinek’s book is an invaluable tool to support and guide you on deciding your ‘why’.
Decide on ‘how’
Once you have your ‘why’, then you need to decide on your ‘how’. How are you going to achieve your vision? Your ‘how’ needs to be informed. Whether you were an internal or external candidate for the job you need to make sure your ‘how’ is focusing on the right areas that need your attention, and although you can learn a lot from the data; data doesn’t talk. People do.
Create individual meetings with each member of your team and ask them 3 key questions to inform your ‘how’. 1. What do you need to change? 2. What do you need to keep the same? (What is working?) 3. What are their career aspirations? By ascertaining this information you are allowing your team to help you craft the ‘how’ and ensuring that they feel listened to. From here you can decide where to start your journey and also ensure that you are developing your team on their own professional journeys.
It is imperative that you take pauses and evaluate your ‘how’ as you go along. Be aware of ‘escalation of commitment’ bias – the desire to continue something that you have implemented, even when it isn’t working, because you are afraid to admit a mistake. Pre-plan meetings where you and your team are going to stop and evaluate your ‘how’. If it isn’t working change it. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit a mistake; you don’t know everything and actually a culture of growth and leadership is built from this attitude of trial and error.
If you are not afraid to try something, if you show it is ok to make mistakes, you will encourage innovation and learning from your team while avoiding toxic cultures, like cultures of fear, where staff become resistant to change as they fear what may happen if something goes wrong.
Consider your ‘when’
A top tip here is that- not everything needs changing at the same time! Decide 3 clear priorities that you are going to focus on for year one. Consider what will make the biggest difference and allow you to improve other areas, for example, there is no point in prioritising curriculum if the behaviour is so poor that teachers can’t get through the content. In this situation focus on behaviour in year one, and then review the curriculum in year two.
It may be good to work with your teams (especially if you have other middle leaders in your team) to create a timeline: What needs to happen first? What’s the short term plan? Then you can derive your medium and long term plans. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day! Don’t be afraid to run your own clock. In schools it feels like everything runs to a deadline, and senior teams want changes made yesterday – but don’t allow the clock to force you into decisions or initiatives you aren’t comfortable with. If the way your team are approaching teaching year 11 isn’t working, don’t carry on because you’re worried exam season is coming up, stop the clock, evaluate, and make changes.
Build your ‘who’
A leader is only as good as their team. As Henry Ford once said “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Building a team culture can be challenging, but consider the leader you need to be to foster psychological safety within group discussions to ensure candour and honesty from your team. Listen. Seek to understand before trying to be understood. Speak last in a meeting. Sit in a circle. Start questions with ‘how’ and ‘what’ while avoiding binary questions when having team discussions. This ensures that you are encouraging openness and input from your colleagues as valued members.
You need to get to know your team; lead them professionally but care about them personally. Lead with dignity, respect and honesty. Highlight and praise the behaviours you wish to be repeated – not in a patronising way, people see straight through that and often get embarrassed and resentful, but in a way that clearly highlights the behaviour you want repeated and the positive outcome: consider ‘I see you arrived at your duty on time today, it really helps support the flow of students on the corridor, thank you’.
Have an honest and transparent approach to your leadership. Staff will feel safer working with you if they know where they stand with you; have difficult conversations often. Don’t them build up into resentment, or allow negative behaviours to pollute your positive culture. Calmly challenge the behaviour as and when it arises in an non-confrontational manner such as ‘Sarah, I noticed your year 10 books need marking. The students would really benefit from some feedback on their most recent essays.’ Staff will respect your high expectations and honest approach to their work
Consider your ‘what’
‘What’ you do will have a huge impact on those around you. The most effective and lasting transformations often stem from small changes – houses are built brick by brick. If you don’t want staff to do a certain behaviour then model that example and don’t do it yourself. If you want your staff to be punctual and prepared for meetings then lead by example and ensure you are on time to every meeting. To quote Mark Green “To lead by example, you must hold yourself to an even higher standard than your team”. Keep your word, do what you say you’re going to do, be punctual sending out communication such as meeting agenda’s or minutes and keep asking for feedback!
Finally, middle leadership can be really tough, but be kind to yourself. The best leaders in the world make mistakes and face challenges, but see each day as an opportunity to learn and grow. Reach out to me on Twitter/X – @Danihus.
Marquet, D. (2020) Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t. Penguin Books Ltd
Sinek, S (2011) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action. Penguin.