Review by Conor Heaven

28 Dec 2016, 5:00

Understanding Leadership: Challenges and reflections

John West-Burnham and Libby Nicholas are what I would describe as big players in the Education scene with a career spanning age groups, leadership positions and big roles in the Academy scene.

This ensures that whether you particularly take a side in the Academies debate, you’re interested in this book.When I first flicked open to the chapter on Leadership as a moral activity, it was clear that big ideas are tackled using greatly appraised research. This is not just a(nother) book on leadership, it’s one that stands out from the others in style and substance. Indeed, part of their opening gambit is to make no apology for ‘confrontational language and questioning.’

When I was first sent this book, it dawned on me that it wasn’t one I had seen being bandied around on Twitter. To be fair, Twitter has brought my attention to some wonderful leadership books recently, including Mary Myatt’s ‘High Challenge, Low Threat.’ Mary cleverly intertwines excellent, moral purpose-guiding leadership advice with her clear, presentational voice coming through. Perhaps a better choice if you want a book with substance but flows easier.

This book contains countless snippets and ideas that would have helped guide my understanding of the what, how and why of leadership

That’s not to say that this book is poorly written. The book’s structure is chosen to force you to reflect on personal challenges and offers examples and research to guide your thoughts. Each chapter starts with questions allowing the reader to dip in and out of useful sections. In fact, the whole book works like this. Evidence, research, anecdotes and experiences are used to flesh out deep and meaningful questions to allow the reader to gain a greater understanding of each area. Best of all, reflective questions are put in to allow the reader, or leader if you will, to consider their own skills and abilities.

An area I particularly wanted to read up on was on leading change. I consider myself to have my moral compass firmly rooted in the right place, and my job is to be life-changing. The best leaders I have ever met have been relentless on this quest – overcoming seemingly impossible barriers to ensure more for the pupils in their schools. When beginning to teach Maths through the new curriculum, there was at first a dip for many reasons. I assumed at the time it was down to my leadership. This chapter excellently discusses the barriers to change and almost certainly could have allowed me to feel less pressure and create a clearer path for moving forward. Change and leadership is hard – but a clear message in this book – it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well.

If you are brand new to leadership or taking up a new role, refreshing yourself with this book would be nothing short of essential

I actually quite like exploring new books and finding a gem. While this wasn’t the diamond in the rough I might have hoped, this could be perhaps due to the stage of my career. I am, I believe, a competent Middle Leader. Early in my career I scoured internet blogs, books and Twitter looking for answers to my immature, misguided questions.

This book contains countless snippets and ideas that would have helped guide my understanding of the what, how and why of leadership. If I had owned this book to dip in and out of, those questions about my own ability and whether I was doing the right thing, wouldn’t have been able to keep me up at night. I can picture my newly promoted self now, sitting up at 2am with head torch*, relaxing as I found answers to questions or just alleviating my self-doubt. *Head torch not included with book.

I would suggest that if you are brand new to leadership or taking up a new role, refreshing yourself with this book would be nothing short of essential. Those concerned with regular reflection on the finer details, it is easy to dip in and out of chapters.

If you know an experienced leader who isn’t putting learning as the core purpose of leadership or who views leadership as a bulldozing tool as opposed to building capacity, then allow me to suggest this book as an excellent belated Christmas or birthday gift.

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