To experience both challenge and reward requires action. Actions you take as a leader will bring both risk and reward. If you have chosen them carefully, the rewards will be experienced by all. Chosen poorly and you, and others, might only experience challenge, and struggle to identify many rewards. They may be there, but sometime it takes time for them to emerge. Not every action you take as a leader will bring about positive results. There will be times when you fail. That is okay, as long as you learned something from your failure, the reward. Other actions will be very successful and the rewards will be obvious to, and hopefully appreciated by, all involved.
To use a golf analogy, leadership actions can be a real 'risk and reward' activity. Just, as a golfer has to weigh up whether to take on the long shot over a hazard, you have to take risks, but risks which are considered and informed, so that you can achieve the best outcomes for you school and learners. When they come off, the results justify the levels of challenge presented by the actions. When they don't, you still learn. The golfer who clears the hazard may gain a stroke on the field. If he fails to make it, he still learns better for next time.
Having been a school leader for almost twenty years, I believe there are some actions all leaders can take that are actually low risk and high reward. Perhaps the only risk they present is to your own perceptions of yourself as a leader, and to practices that you formerly adopted. However, if school leaders are not prepared to expose themselves and their practices to scrutiny, reflection and change, how can they expect those they lead to adopt such dispositions?
These are my eight recommendations for actions that all leaders can take throughout their careers, and which will have the greatest impact on what they are trying to achieve, whilst containing the least risk to them and those they lead. They also offer the greatest rewards in terms of all that you may achieve as a school leader.
Firstly, school leaders should be seeking to build, create and sustain collaborative learning cultures in their establishments. Schools should be focused on the learning of everyone. We need to create cultures where all teachers and staff recognise themselves as learners, and are modelling those life-long learning dispositions to the young learners they work with. This needs to be situated in practices that are collaborative and collegiate in their nature. By creating deep learning cultures, they become part of the school's identity, as well as the individual identity of those who make up the community. Learning dispositions need to sit at the heart of everyone's' practice and identity. We will see when this is being successful through the attitudes and actions of all learners, and focused dialogue, conversations and collaborations happening around learning at all levels. Indeed, you as the school leader must model these dispositions and actions yourself, more on that later.
This cannot be achieved without the development of relationships. Leaders need to be working constantly to develop and nurture the myriad of relationships necessary for any school to achieve the very best for all learners. True partnership working and commitment needs to be established as a priority for all, with a common aim of improving outcomes and experiences for all learners. Education and learning is mainly a social activity therefore, relationships and their strength are crucial. The focus on relationships should be central to all school activity, in classrooms, across school and departments, and beyond the school into the community and other schools. We need school leaders to be emotionally and socially aware, committed to establishing and sustaining relationships with all partners who can help them deliver, and who they can support to achieve some of their own objectives. Relationships work both ways, if you are just taking then that is not a relationship that is going to survive for too long. Relationships sustain us during the challenging times and make the good times better.
Supporting all relationships is trust. School leaders have to build trust, because without it you are left with shallow compliance and no risk taking. Trust takes time to build, but is a foundation stone for healthy cultures that are going to help schools develop in a deep, embedded and sustainable way. As a leader you will have the opportunity to lead, and work alongside, many very able, intelligent and professional people, who will be getting salaries that reflect this. Many of these you may well have appointed yourself, and some you won't. If this is the case, why not get out of their way, support them and trust them to employ their talents, in a way that creates a better whole, utilising the power of individuals to support you and each other? As a leader, you cannot do it all on your own and you cannot micromanage all the complex interactions that take place across a school community, so you had better learn to trust people and give them the space to fly, for everyone's benefit, including your own. Be strategic and leaderly, but trust the people you lead to deliver. Some may let you down at times, but that doesn't mean they should lose your trust. No-one comes into work wanting to deliver poor performance, leaders need to recognise and support where necessary. If you trust them, they are more likely to trust you, then together you can make a real difference.
Keep your focus, and that of your team, on the main thing. The main thing is the young people in your school, and beyond, and the learning and teaching taking place in your establishment. Anything else is a distraction. If there are things you are doing, or are being asked to do, that do not contribute positively to learners and their experiences, then you need to stop doing them. It is so easy to get distracted by activities and busyness that have no impact on your core purpose, because everyone wants a piece of your time. This is why you have to prioritise and make it clear to everyone what your priorities are, Support any actions that will help your learners, their learning and your staff to deliver ever improving experiences, cut everything else. There is still too much practice that goes on in schools, because it has always gone on, not because it has obvious benefits to learners. Get rid of this, and support staff to get rid of and change this too.