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In Praise of Non-Conformists

Leadership can provide us with a heady mix of emotional highs and depressive lows. Fortunately I think we all experience far more of the former than we have to endure the latter. In schools the highs are usually associated with progress from,and interaction with, pupils and staff. In this post I would like to focus on the staff.

What type of staff do you look for as a school leader? What qualities do you look for in your staff and colleagues?

Do you look for people who look like you? I don't mean they are some sort of doppelgänger, I mean that they share your views, attitudes and ways of working. It is important that staff can and do work together as part of a team, and that they share and endorse your establishment's collective values, ethos and culture. They should contribute to the collaborative culture of the school. However, I would like to argue that it is important that they remain individuals. Their credence in the school should not hinge on their endorsement and compliance with all your views and opinions.

Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. That means they have to read, think, reflect, enquire around their practice and should be encouraged and supported to do so. This may very well mean that they are going to have views and opinions that don't quite match your own. When this happens, how are you going to handle that? After all, you're in charge!

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of leadership. You can either encourage colleagues and staff to question and challenge current practice, or you can demand that they toe the party line that you have worked hard to establish. In such a reaction, Headteachers and managers can be overt and demand compliance outright with decisions they have made, and brook no dissent. Or, they can establish a culture where staff feel threatened and unable to express their opinions. It only takes a few occasions where members are slapped down or ridiculed in public for such a culture to become established. Then, everyone is focused on keeping their heads down and their profile low so as to not risk public humiliation.

Is this you? I hope not! I would say that such leadership and management styles are not as common as they used to be, but they are still out there. I myself have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of leadership and none of them were Clint Eastwood!

Many leaders can feel threatened and challenged when staff and colleagues question directions of travel they wish to pursue. My own view is that if you have really thought through proposed actions, and especially if they are going to directly impact on colleagues, you should be able to engage in a dialogue around them. However, it is crucial that during such discussions you are open to change and modifying your position if  required. Such dialogue needs to be open and built around mutual respect and trust. Such dialogue is crucial if you are going to develop your thinking and that of colleagues and staff.

One of my own school maxims is 'none of us is as smart as all of us!' If that is the case, we have to be prepared to listen when colleagues and staff express different opinions to ours. That is not to say every decision you make has to be approved by everyone, that is never going to be possible or desirable. Headteachers need to lead, but they shouldn't dictate.

So embrace those non-conformists because they are healthy to schools and organisations. Not many dissenting voice are raised just because they want to be awkward, more often they are just seeking to be heard, and to contribute. So let them!

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