Review by Ben Ward

8 May 2016, 19:00

The Art of Being a Brilliant Middle Leader

This book begins well, stating what any leader in education knows: that there is never enough time, that you will always be busy, and that the to-do list is relentless. Given the increasing volatility and constant change in education, one of the best quotes of the book comes on page eight as it discusses this struggle with busy-ness – “change is not something to be got through, but to get accustomed to”. The authors say that the key to becoming change-proof is about being “positive about yourself and investing in your skills, knowledge and attitude”.

So far you’ll get no argument from me. I’m an optimist, and a bit of an education and leadership geek with a particular penchant for the work of academics such as Michael Fullan. So I’m all for a book that wants to upskill middle leaders to deal well with change and that unashamedly promotes the power of positivity.

But after a few hours, even I felt that I’d been hit over the head with the positivity stick. A shame, because the clear explanation of why positivity can be so influential and some good advice on a variety of areas of leadership feels clouded by the “positivity cures everything” message.

The book addresses the difference between overt leadership activities (leadership with a “big L”) and the impact of you as a person in your world (leadership with a ‘little l’). The authors talk about the importance of character and integrity, of being authentic as a leader and about the idea of having your own leadership “to-be” list. They identify the importance of who you are on your ability to influence others, list what others want or need to see from you and talk about you as someone who sets the climate and direction of travel.

Then more discussion of the ripple effect of your positivity, and some advice about making sure your meetings are as positive as possible, including some interesting ideas about the ratio of positive to negative comments and its link to effective meetings. Each chapter finishes with some practical (and good) top tips.

Another change of direction and we’re back to considering change management, and a couple of simple but useful models. These are unlikely to be new to anyone who has been around in leadership for any time, but there is some useful discussion around the sigmoid curve, setting goals, understanding your “why”, motivating staff and so on.

Next up, dealing with less positive staff, having tough conversations and giving feedback; motivating staff by caring, more positive thinking and the power of praise. All have the same combination of good, sound advice and unrelenting positivity.

If you’re an aspiring middle leader, about to start your first middle leadership post, or new to leadership, then you could do far worse than spend a couple of hours reading this book. After all, teaching and leadership are (in my view and the authors) brilliant, exciting and rewarding, and this book captures that beautifully.

It also gives some good advice, and is a perfect antidote to the natural inclination of teachers to be a little cynical. On the other hand if you’ve been in leadership a while, it will not offer much that’s new.

As a first leadership book, a little pick-me-up or an introduction to leadership theory, it does what it sets out to do.

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