Leadership that goes on behind the scenes

The many hidden leaders within schools can sometimes be hard to spot. Here’s how to look out for them . . .

What leadership do you do behind the scenes that is important yet unrecognised? Have you ever had to deal with a situation for which you felt unequipped? For example, dealing with the media, conducting an interview, leading staff speeches at the end of term, or a bog-standard staff briefing on a Tuesday morning?

When signing up to become a school leader many features of the role go unexamined, often because the most challenging facets are unknown quantities.

Managing a difficult conversation, conducting disciplinaries and keeping energy levels up for more than 12 hours for the fourth day in a row as there is nobody else around.

These are the aspects of school leadership that I call hidden leadership; the sort of leadership and management that takes place behind the scenes and requires long hours with no obvious or immediate impact.

There is not much said about good leadership that is unseen; about the difficult conversations behind closed doors; the pat on the back after a colleague has gone above and beyond; the kinds of things that happen all the time but are not celebrated.

The most challenging facets of school leadership are unknown quantities

There are many hidden leaders within school. They can sometimes be hard to see, but here’s how you can potentially identify them.

Hidden leaders notice everything. They notice things about the people they are working with, about what’s going on in their lives. They see increased workload, pending deadlines or something as simple as the needs of a staff member hobbling around on crutches. They ask if anyone has arranged easier site access? Or considered flexible working arrangements so the injured staff member can commute during less congested times?

Hidden leaders say hello and goodbye. Leadership requires leaders to know everybody’s name; the person who cleans your classroom or office, the part-time peripatetic teacher or the new student that has just arrived on a managed move.

Hidden leaders are driven by the needs of students. They do not accept excuses. They are driven by the needs of the students and all discussions are open, albeit in private if necessary.

Hidden leaders love what they do. They have high levels of energy. This doesn’t mean they are first to arrive and last to leave, but they are relentless in their pursuit of high standards. They enjoy supporting colleagues. And they know when to stop and have a laugh, building relationships that then command respect when out on the playground or in classrooms.

Hidden leadership enables colleagues to find solutions and make informed decisions. These leaders hold no-nonsense conversations, cutting right through any waffle. They seek out colleagues who demonstrate reliability and real integrity. They are well aligned; calm and inspiring with colleagues at all levels. They never underestimate the power of honesty, or how a colleague can make decisions and handle challenges, particularly those who are not in a leadership role.

Hidden leaders hold themselves to account. They may do this privately, yet are inclusive of their appraisers and their views. Hidden leaders are highly reflective and embrace change, not for change’s sake, but to encourage future leaders to take up the mantle.

Hidden leaders and their influence on students are far-reaching. They may not work on the front line in classrooms as much as they want to, but their effect on students is widespread. They help students make informed choices in every conversation they have across the school. They share a clear vision for all. And yet, despite less contact time, they are comfortable working with the stubborn squad!

You can never be fully prepared for hidden leadership. The murky and dogged work can be discussed in theory, but nothing can ever match the practicality, until it is your turn to step up. The only question is: Are you brave enough?

Ross McGill is the most followed teacher on Twitter in the UK.

He has been nominated for The Sunday Times/Debretts500 Most Influential People in the UK 2015.

You can follow him on Twitter @TeacherToolkit