No more heroes. Time to change the record on school leadership

22 Sep 2019, 5:00

Let’s celebrate “expert leaders”, say Jen Barker and Tom Rees, and stop always talking about charismatic, dynamic, inspirational leaders

Both of us have learnt the hard way that school leadership can be complex and challenging. Of course we remember the moments when the proverbial was hitting the fan and problems had to be dealt with, fast.

We also recall the less urgent, ongoing challenges: they might not have felt as immediately impactful, but their cumulative effect mounted up to something more significant.

School leadership is incredibly complex, hard to prepare for and rarely suited to a “best way” to solve problems. It doesn’t help that over the past decade or so the “hero paradigm” of headship has prevailed, where effective leadership is defined by personal traits: the charismatic, dynamic, inspirational leader.

These are not the words most leaders would use to describe themselves – and, when put under scrutiny, this description is lacking in substance, as Tom has said before.

Over the past six months, we’ve been arguing that we need to move away from the concept of the “hero head”. Of course, the next question is: if not that, then what? With our team at Ambition Institute, we’ve been mining the research, picking through evidence and having fascinating conversations with school leaders to answer this question.

We think expertise is a better bet.

We can think of expertise as the ability to consistently and effectively tackle the persistent problems of a role. For headteachers, this means we are less concerned with generic approaches to leadership and management, leadership styles or personal traits, and more interested in building proficiency, in context, around the education-specific and highest-leverage work they do.

We need more educators to step up to leadership

It’s not enough to devise a new, fashionable list of competencies leaders should have or ideas they should know about; we have to understand why they need to know and to be able to do these things. We need to learn more about the purpose of the work of school leaders.

So, if expertise is about the ability to tackle the persistent problems, we must ask ourselves – what are they?

The list could be endless. But, after many interviews with school leaders, a review of existing literature and in-depth original research, we’ve identified seven persistent problems we think all leaders face.

We have codified these as the persistent problems because they are universal and unavoidable. All leaders will face them. They’re implicit. No matter how good a leader is, they’ll experience these problems. And they’re useful. They shape and reshape the way we describe, conceptualise and develop leaders.

We share this list with a caveat: this is a work in progress, and we welcome interrogation on it.

The seven persistent problems are:

1. Setting direction and building alignment;

2. Enlisting staff contribution and ensuring staff development;

3. Organising and staffing the curriculum;

4. Attending to pupil behaviour and wider circumstances;

5. Diagnosing, prioritising and managing resources effectively to build and implement strategy;

6. Managing an efficient and effective organisation/administration;

7. Developing personal expertise, self-regulation and resilience.

Does this mean aspiring leaders need training in generic problem-solving skills? No.

What leaders need are large bodies of knowledge relating to the problems they face.

We believe this is a far more useful approach for aspiring leaders. It gives us a clearer framework through which we can support and develop them to keep getting better.

If we know what the problems are, we can begin to develop a training curriculum that will enable leaders to tackle them.

This is crucial at a time when we need to encourage more educators to step up to leadership, and support them to thrive when they get there. We cannot afford to let the hero paradigm persist.

We began testing this approach over the summer with our new cohorts of future leaders and teaching leaders, and we’re pleased with the results.

But this is the start of our journey to keep improving our leadership development programmes. We’re excited to push the boundaries of leadership theory and work with school leaders to make sure we get it right for the children they serve.

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  1. Sue Bailey

    Excellent summary. I am a retired Head and recognise these issues. The popular hero Heads’ work was often not sustainable or effective over time. Hard working, thoughtful Heads build capacity but can pass unnoticed. Constantly tackling and managing these issues effectively builds effective schools.
    Just one query: where do you place parents & the community as an issue that needs to be sensitively & consistently handled?