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School leadership skills: the trained and the tacit

Having been a senior leader in schools for over twenty years now, I have attended many leadership and management courses, numerous conferences and read many books and articles on leadership generally, and of schools specifically. Indeed, I even had a go at putting my own thoughts down, in the form of a book, School Leadership- A Scottish Perspective which was a first attempt to gather my own thoughts, and through this ongoing blog. I have learnt and discovered a lot of things about leadership. Some of these were taught, but many of them are tacit and experiental and have developed over time in the light of experiences, good and bad. I have also learned from leaders I have experienced in my career in education, and during my time outside it in the world of commerce. Last year as part of the SCEL Fellowship programme I had the pleasure of working with Clive Dimmock. Clive has worked in school and system leadership programmes all over the world and is currently working out of The Robert Owen Centre at Glasgow University. I have had many interesting conversations with Clive, and continue to do so. He has spoken about the fact that there really isn't a lot of research out there around high level school leadership, although a lot is written. The aspect that he is finding particularly fascinating at the present time is that of the tacit skills highly effective school leaders have and have gathered over time in the light of experience, and this is the area I would like to focus on in this post.

All school leaders, and their practice, are the sum of the training they have received at the outset, and during, their career, as well as their personal values and traits. They are also the product of the experiences they garnered throughout their career, both as a leader and before that as a teacher. This particular aspect held some fascination for Clive and for myself. The question would seem to be can you train people to be high performing school leaders, or does this lie as a product of the tacit understandings and insights they develop over time in their careers? Probably the simple answer is that you need both of these aspects to become a high performing leader, and perhaps you can't be truly 'high performing' if you are deficient in one. Without training, we would only learn through experiencing leadership, we might call this the Montersori school of leadership. Some would flourish and grow intuitively because of the personal qualities and traits at their disposal, as well as the people around them. Others would undoubtedly sink, or perhaps reach only basic levels of leadership development, and I have worked for one or two of those in my time. (Outside of education, I would add.) However, I also think that if you were well trained and well read in the art of leadership but lacked self-awareness or that adaptive expertise high performing leaders have, you too could end up a rather one dimensional leader, though undoubtedly lead to you being a higher performing leader than one without training. I have worked for many people like this, both in and outside of education.

So what I think we should look for is high quality training and preparation for school leaders, that is essential. But, we should also look to develop the self awareness and adaptive expertise they are going to need to be able to synthesise all the training with their own personal experiences and insights to become the most high performing leaders they can. This is important for them personally but also for the system as a whole. So what might some of these qualities to promote tacit learning be?

The following might be worth considering.

The first is curiosity. That desire to really understand their role as well as they can and to be constantly seeking ways of developing and improving this. They should be restless when they see things not working as well as they perhaps could be for their staff and learners. They should be personally and professionally curious. This should lead to a relentless desire to keep developing and growing their practice and their understandings. They recognise themselves as life-long learners and see all situations, good and bad, as opportunities to grow and to learn more about themselves and their role. Once you lose curiosity you become complacent and accepting of the status quo. Let's face it, that can be the easier route to take at times! But, I feel, our high performers are not looking for easy options. They are looking for the best options, not only for themselves but for the schools they lead and the learners in them.

Linked to their constant curiosity, should be an enquiring approach to what they do. When their curiosity gets them to ask questions about what they do and how they may improve, an enquiring disposition allows them to look closely at issues and to take steps to understand them better, and then further steps to improve. When something happens they may ask questions like: Why? What's happening? Could we have handled that better? What is the impact for learners? They look to gather data to better understand situations and issues they have identified, then know how to research around the subject, if they do not have enough knowledge that is current and up to date.  They understand how to manage change and try out new strategies to improve issues, before gathering more data to measure the impact of changes. This is a constant way of thinking and working for leaders with enquiring dispositions and leads to innovation, new insights and better sustainable outcomes as a result. Each year they will have grown in experience and insights, so they expect their practice to develop and change constantly over time.

They understand the power and the importance of collaboration. They are not isolationists, but are always seeking ways to collaborate to produce further insights not only for themselves but for other leaders and colleagues in the system too. They promote and expect collaboration within the schools they lead, across other schools and across systems to tap in to the power of collective thinking and experiences. They use formal and informal collaborative strategies and practices to develop their thinking and understanding.They also see opportunities in working and developing collaborations outside the world of education and across other public and private organisations. To quote Ken Blanchard they recognise 'that none of us is a bright (or powerful) as all of us.' They collaborate for mutually beneficial purposes.

They seek to become adaptive experts within adaptive systems. They want to self-improve and they want to lead this themselves, not wait for others to come in and tell them what they need to do. They see career-long professional learning as a disposition and something completely within their own control and jurisdiction. Something done by them as part of being a high performing school leader not done to them by someone else. They recognise themselves as system leaders and that, especially in the new financial climates, they need to seek not only questions but also answers within themselves and their schools, rather than looking to others. They recognise the developing expertise that resides within themselves, within their teams and within their own personal and professional networks. They use technology and social media to extend their professional reach and to gain new insights.

They are very self-aware. They know their strengths as well as their development needs. They are emotionally intelligent and understand themselves as well as those on their teams. They understand the importance of relationships and spend time developing these within their own schools  and across other levels of the system. Understanding the ebb and flow within the schools they lead and the school year helps them to identify optimum times to press ahead with new development and change, and also when to pull back on expectations for the betterment of all. They reflect on events and try to learn from them all. They are able to have difficult conversations when necessary, but are able to see all sides of any discussions and disagreements in order to find the best way forward. They are not afraid to acknowledge when they don't know or don't understand something and see this as a natural prelude to new learning. They admit they will never know it all, and don't pretend to. They admit their mistakes, but learn from them and adapt practice when necessary. They are not afraid to say 'sorry'. They are honest with themselves and others. 

They are very good listeners. They harvest and glean information from people and situations so that they can better understand themselves, others and those situations when they occur again. They ask good questions to develop and clarify their understanding, and are positive contributors in formal and informal professional conversations and situations. All of this helps them to hone and develop intuition that is informed and not pure guesswork. They understand the need to listen and engage with people at all levels, and in different situations to better fulfil their roles. As a consequence, they think a lot about what they are doing, or planning to do. As with everything, they do this in a purposeful way that leads to action rather than in a way that produces inertia. They are the informed doers.

They are of course reflective in all that they do. But more than this, they understand that the real power of reflection lies in what happens next. They reflect purposefully to better understand themselves and the schools they lead. The utilisation of time is important to them, but they are realistic in their expectations of themselves and others. They most certainly model behaviours they are trying to develop in others and are open to questions about their own practice and decisions, which they see as helping themselves and others. They most certainly continue to read and engage with research and cutting edge development, but they do this in an informed and critical way, and in a way which allows them to consider their own context and its impact on what they read, see and hear. They are not swayed by fads and trends as they use all of their faculties and experience to help sort the wheat from the chaff of school development.

All of this sounds an almost impossible ask of our school leaders. But, remember we are talking about the most high performing leaders, who will also recognise their development as a continuous journey with probably no final destination. But, they have this relentless determination to get better at what they do, and they understand the many ways to do this, and to consider,  which will impact positively on their ability to be as successful as they can be. They will see all this as one of the great attractions of the job and will not be deterred because of the demands. 

Training and development are crucial to all leaders, but so too is the development and enhancement of those tacit skills and aptitudes that are difficult to put down on paper or into a development course, but which are crucial in the DNA of high performing leaders. The first point in starting to develop these is to recognise them and the fact that they are important to all leaders. We shouldn't underestimate the impact of such skills amongst our strongest leaders.


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