Stephen Tierney introduces Liminal Leadership as standing on the threshold of a different kind of education system and describes his role as one of helping to bridge the past and future: this is his view from the bridge.
As such, he offers reflections on the different phases of his own life and leadership.
With great honesty about what has worked well – and where he has learned from things that have not worked out so well – he provides templates and frameworks for developing leadership teams and self-evaluation systems in schools. This generosity will be unsurprising for those who are familiar with his @LeadingLearner blog and online sharing of resources.
There is a strong sense here of a personal faith that is a guiding light for leadership behaviours and actions. He issues regular reminders to value staff for who they are, with all the baggage they bring, and describes his own attempts to be ethical and humane as a leader, as well as outlining the policy framework needed to make that happen. In a letter to his 23-year-old self, he provides some golden nuggets of advice that apply at all stages: “Forgiveness is often easier to gain than permission.” “People are your greatest asset; this will make more sense as time goes by.” How true!
There is a depth and underlying theme, which seems to be one of wanting to create the best possible conditions for success
Liminal Leadership describes Tierney’s 30-year teaching journey, with reflections on the stages of leadership along the way. It covers the full range, from newly-qualified chemistry teacher to chief executive and executive headteacher, alongside chairing the Headteachers’ Roundtable.
There is a depth and underlying theme, which seems to be one of wanting to create the best possible conditions for success for staff and students. This involves providing clarity of expectation for new leaders; a relentless focus on doing less but doing it better for greater impact; and the need to avoid short-term gains, looking instead for long-term success by embedding sustainable improvement. He also offers his reflections on the current move towards a school-led system, and the challenges and opportunities this creates.
The book resonated strongly with me as I discovered that I am the same age as Tierney and, although we have never met and have worked in very different contexts, there are remarkable parallels in our leadership pathways. I found myself drawn in by the personal reflections, enthused by the leadership “think” pieces along the way and moved to the verge of tears as I read each of the letters he wrote retrospectively at various stages to his younger self – I related to the harsh realities of juggling professional and personal priorities. There were also moments that made me chuckle.
I initially wondered whether Liminal Leadership might be for well-established leaders such as me who share the benefit of experience and the luxury of having 30 years of hindsight. However, the book’s personal dimension and the practical nature of some of the tools and stories contained within it, make me think that education professionals at any stage in their careers would get a great deal from it. At just over 150 pages it is neither daunting nor written in an academic tone.
I will leave you with some sound advice Tierney was given as he started headship: “Don’t worry that your desk’s not empty, it never will be; and go home early on a Friday”. This is mirrored by a more recent piece of advice to himself at the end of the book: “You were not called to perfection in leadership… it is sometimes in your errors that you and others will learn the most.”
I have been inspired by reading Liminal Leadership and have resolved to seek out one of the recommended books to impact my leadership behaviour: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.