High Challenge, Low Threat: finding the balance

I was interested to read High Challenge, Low Threat as I have followed Mary Myatt for some time on social media and been impressed by her positive take on school leadership.

Having started my own leadership journey in an environment of high threat and fear, and subsequently discovering how counterproductive it was, I’m always eager to help to improve conditions for staff so they can do the best for students.

The central premise here is that leaders who create environments where staff feel safe and able to take risks – the low threat of the title – will tap into intrinsic motivators and ultimately get great returns from employees. A key theme is the importance of building relationships and seeing staff as real people before what their jobs are. This may sound touchy-feely, but Myatt doesn’t shy away from accountability. She just argues that it can be achieved in a humane way that, ultimately, staff will welcome if leaders make the conditions right. The following encapsulates Myatt’s style and approach:

“In high functioning settings people want to be held accountable for their work, but they don’t want to feel like a muppet. Nobody wants to be made to feel like a muppet.”

The book is dripping with humanity and common sense, and nicely summarises the good practice (actual good, not Ofsted good) that Myatt has seen in many schools in different settings as an adviser and inspector. It combines her personal views about how to create a high-performing environment with anecdotes and observations. I found myself underlining at least three or four key points in most chapters.

If you regularly read general business books, you’ll find some familiar concepts here. The theme of treating staff as humans first and professionals second references Stephen Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, while the chapters related to motivation are reminiscent of Daniel Pink’s Drive. I found myself nodding along to the chapters centred on doing fewer things better, where Myatt explores ideas from one of my favourite books, Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

Don’t misinterpret me, though; High Challenge, Low Threat is not derivative. Myatt takes these big ideas from the wider business world and applies them directly to an educational setting, giving them a relevant and specific take that school leaders of all levels can apply to their own situations.

As a senior leader, I found snippets in many chapters that made me think about current situations. For example, in “Doing the core business” Myatt speaks of the importance of school leaders walking in their employees’ shoes, specifically teaching. I scrawled a note asking myself: “Should school leaders make a point to shadow or try every single role in the school over time?”

The chapter “What would happen if we didn’t do this?” stood out for me. For somebody who loves to ask questions of myself and colleagues, it was good to have a chapter dedicated to exploring how leaders can give staff permission to think about what can be stripped away if it’s not influencing the core business of teaching and learning. As Myatt writes: “Considering what would happen if an activity was abolished completely can lead to some interesting results.” I immediately thought of a few things that could go in my own setting, and I’m sure I won’t be alone.

High Challenge, Low Threat has fewer than 150 pages and is very easy to read. The chapters are short, generally three or four pages – almost the length of a blog post – making them easy to digest if you are short of time. However, my only criticism is the book’s organisation. Such a short book doesn’t need 45 chapters. There are some key themes that could have been grouped together to make longer chapters with subheadings, allowing a more in-depth exploration and making it easier to navigate. That is, however, a small gripe. High Challenge, Low Threat is a welcome addition to my leadership book collection, and I know I shall return to the ideas in it repeatedly.