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How to protect your authentic leadership

In my last post I looked at some of the pitfalls that can beset school leaders as they settle into their role, or over time. In this one, I turn my attention to how school leaders can avoid the pitfalls and remain true to their original purpose and aims for their leadership. Having been a school leader for almost twenty years, I was proud that I was able to keep developing my leadership, but I still remained true to my values, beliefs and principles throughout my career. Such as stance is not without its difficulties or challenges, but I have met lots of leaders who have achieved exactly the same throughout their careers, despite the ever-changing demands of the systems and hierarchies in which they operated.

This begs the question, 'how do you ensure you stay true to your beliefs throughout your career?' By doing so, you can prevent your leadership mutating into practice and behaviours that you hardly recognise, and loses its authenticity.  The following are some suggestions garnered from my own experience as a school leader, as well as a continuous engagement with research on school leadership.

The first step is to keep reminding yourself of the reasons why you wanted to step into leadership in the first place. Hopefully, those reasons were around being able to make a difference in the lives of more learners, than you could as a class, or subject, teacher. They may have been connected with frustrations you felt as a class teacher around your ability to influence or shape school policy and practice. You may have worked for an inspirational school leader, or one who saw the potential in you and encouraged you to consider leadership. Alternatively, you may have worked for an awful school leader and determined that you could do so much better, because you didn't want other teachers and learners to have the experiences you had. You may have had a bigger picture in mind, and recognised that as a school leader, you could have an influence further afield and within the whole system. It may have been that, as someone who reflected a lot about their practice, and who read a lot about teaching and leadership, you saw that your thoughts and practices were very similar to what others had identified in high-performing school leaders. Whatever your original motivations, it is worth revisiting these from time to time, especially when times are tough as a school leader, and just reminding yourself why you wanted to do what you are now doing. Such as step, can help you get everything into perspective, as well as help you measure your current position. They will also flag up whether you have started to drift off-track from that original purpose.

The next step is to be absolutely sure about the values and principles that underpin your actions and attitudes, both as an individual and as a school leader. School leadership has a moral imperative and your values are key to your personal and professional identity. Hopefully, you have thought about these and had the chance to articulate them prior to your appointment, you now have to live them. Being clear about your values and principles, then articulating these within your school community is only a first step in bringing them alive. You then have to demonstrate them as your true values by the actions and decisions you make as a school leader. Some of these will be almost invisible actions and interactions that occur over time, but others will be more visible and may result in important strategic and structural changes for the school you lead. All are equally important. They are important to the school community, but they are also important to you as an individual. Do not fall into the trap of saying your values are one thing, but then fail to match these with your actions. Nothing destroys trust so quickly. There is a lot of talk about 'drivers' in education, Michael Fullan has even identified a number of 'right' and 'wrong' drivers for school leaders, and systems. I hear a lot of talk about being 'driven by data' or 'driven by evidence' at the moment. Actually, if we are going to be driven, rather than informed, by anything, then let it be values. Use these as the first port of call when self-evaluating. 'Are my actions reflecting my values?'

Connecting the reasons why you wanted to become a school leader to your personal values, then relating these to the school context and point of development, should then help you shape your vision for the school you lead. As a school leader, you need a clear vision for what you are trying to achieve, and where you are heading, in the school you lead. this is not about the school community vision for the school, though these are connected. As a school leader, you need a vision of where you would like to take the school to, during your tenure. Most schools were in existence long before you arrived, and will remain long after you have left. Your responsibility is to manage and lead them in a particular period of time, to continue to build their development and help them grow. To do this, you need vision combined with action. As a school leader you have to have that vision, then plan and take steps to bring this to life. You need to create headspace to keep reflecting on this vision as you journey together with the school community. Without that vision, you will be at the mercy of people and events that can send you spinning into unforeseen actions and destinations. Keep touching base with your vision as another check of where you are at any particular point on your journey.

Remembering to keep the main thing the main thing, is crucial in school leadership that is determined not to be deflected onto other agendas. At its most basic level, schools are populated by learners, who are there to learn, and teachers, who are there to teach. Of course, I understand that those roles can and will be reversed at times, and that there are many other factors and people at play in what is a complex social construct. But, our core business is learning and teaching. We need to make sure that this remains our focus, as we hold a relentless determination to improve both. We can develop the learning for all our learners, and we can all develop our teaching, especially given the new research and knowledge we have about both, and these aspects need to remain our main focus. I understand that there is so much more that is at play, and this happens on a daily basis in schools, that you might struggle to connect to learning and teaching, but anything worth spending your time on should impact on one, or both, of these. If you are spending time on anything that does not impact learning and teaching, then you need to stop it so as to focus on something else more productive. If you are asked to do anything that you feel will not impact positively on learning, you need to be questioning and challenging this.

Having said all that, people remain the key factor in your ability to achieve any of the above. You cannot do it all yourself, nor should you try or seek to clone everyone else as a 'mini-you'. People are what we are about, whether this is to help them learn, in the fullest holistic sense, or whether it is to support them to do this. Relationships are crucial to achieving your vision and aims, to develop learning and teaching, and in producing a collaborative and supportive culture in which this can happen. If you genuinely spend time building relationships, which develop trust, you are creating a culture and ethos that will support everyone to have the best opportunities to achieve all they can. I have always found that such relationship building is important in everything you do, but is crucial when you face your greatest challenges or most difficult decisions. With the right culture and relationships, people are more likely to make the right decisions, for the right reasons, not just yourself as the school leader. You should spend time with teachers, learners, support staff, parents and anyone else that can support the main purpose of the school in supporting those learners. Your values will come out as you genuinely and deeply engage with everyone. Always find time to talk to anyone who wants to talk to you from your immediate school community. If you feel yourself becoming isolated, then something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

The culture and ethos developed will support everything you are wanting to achieve. In particular though, you need to pay attention to the development of a deep learning culture within the school. In such a culture, everyone recognises themselves as a learner, understanding that this needs to be a life-long commitment and expectation. Teachers should model themselves as learners, as should you, admitting what they don't know, then taking steps to continually develop knowledge understandings and practice. The best learning and teaching practices are also the best professional development practices, so teachers need to feel active, supported participants in their professional development, just as we seek the active participation of our learners. Structures and systems should support the establishment of such a learning culture, but it is more the underlying, often hidden, cultural practices and norms that support and sustain this most of all. As a school leader, you need to appreciate this, then work to support and develop these further. We want learners, students and teachers, who know themselves well, are inquisitive and curious, understand the importance of making mistakes, are knowledgeable, who take risks and who collaborate to support each others learning. This can only be achieved, if we create the right culture and expectations within all. The creation of such a culture should be another factor that helps you keep on track with all that you are trying to achieve.

We should seek to develop teacher agency, teacher leadership and adaptive expertise, through the cultures we create and the flattening of hierarchies. In doing so, we reduce the focus on ourselves and produce cultures where everyone contributes to, and helps drive forward, school development. By the development of such qualities and practices, we contribute to the growing of collective cultures as described above, which become a positive obstacle to constant and meaningless change agendas from elsewhere. Such cultures recognise that the direction of travel is a collective undertaking, decided on by all, and grounded in the context of your school and its community. When such practices become more and more embedded there develops a whole collective that will question busyness for no, or little, impact for learners. It also helps keep you focused on what is really important in what you do.

Such cultures are informed by research and evidence. Note the difference between being 'informed by' and 'driven by'. It is important that you read and engage with research, and researchers who you trust and who have credibility. When you, and colleagues, do so, you are better able to identify change that is informed and which you can shape to your particular context. Such an engagement helps to ground your practice in research so that you are better able to defend and explain decisions you make. Better still, such an engagement, gives you the tools and knowledge to explain why you will not be swayed by the latest fad or 'silver bullet' being pushed by others from outside your school. Being informed helps you draw lines in the sand of what you will and will not do, without which you remain at the beck and call of other agendas, driven by people with different motives. Recognise that no-one knows your school as well as yourself and the teachers who work in it. You need confidence in the self-evaluations you use, and the research which underpins your decisions on the steps you are taking. If you have taken decisions, with regard to school development, based on research and your context, you are less likely to be deflected by the demands of others.

Both leadership and management are crucial aspects of school leadership. You need effective management procedures and practices to best organise and operate the school in efficient ways, so that everyone has the best opportunity to focus on the core business of learning and teaching. Management tasks will take up part of every working day, but danger lies in when they become the dominant focus of your activities. As a school leader you should try to focus more on your leadership role. With the right management structures and procedures this should always be possible. If you see yourself more as a manager, rather than a leader, again you will be more easily distracted from all that connects you to your vision, values and core leadership activities. Yes, management is important to allow you to do this, but it should never come to dominate your time and your thinking. To lead, you need headspace and you need protected time to get your head up to look ahead, and plan for how this will be fitted into your core vision and purposes, or whether it needs to be. Such activity is another protection from other agendas. If you do not identify what you need to do and why, you can be sure someone else will.

Finally, I would say, don't forget to laugh a lot, smile, and have fun. Enjoy the ride. School leadership is a fabulous role, and we should never lose sight of this. The times when school leaders feel stressed, and are most at risk of losing their focus, are when they are being pushed onto, or drift onto, agendas that clash with their values and vision of all they are trying to achieve. You have been appointed as school leader because you have been able to demonstrate values, vision and experience that the school will benefit from. Be confident in that, then determine to stay true to all these throughout your tenure. Be strong in the face of demands which you feel to be wrong, so that you keep total control of your own, and the school's, agenda. In that way, you will have the greatest chance to stay true to yourself and your beliefs, as well as your school community's, and truly enjoy one of the best jobs you will ever have. When you are fulfilled and enjoying your role it is so much harder to be deflected from all that gives you such feelings.

My advice is to focus relentlessly on all of these aspects of your role, because if you do so, you are much less likely to be deflected from your original purposes, your leadership will remain authentic, and your school and learners will reap the benefits. Good luck!


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