Skip to main content

Yin and Yang, golf and leadership

Being a leader, whether it be of a school, or any other type of organisation, can be both challenging and rewarding. We could see these as the Yin and Yang of formal leadership roles, no matter what the level of experience you bring to that role. Whether you are in your first year of leadership, or your twenty first,  challenges and rewards still remain. However, if you are a leader who is finding their role neither challenging or rewarding, then surely it is time to move on, or move out, which can be a challenge in itself.

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.


Know, and be true to your values and principles. It may well be your personal and professional values and principles that led to you being appointed into a leadership position. Don't compromise on these,  use them to direct, and reflect on, your actions. If your belief in your values is strong, your actions will match these. I have always believed that values are reflected in your actions, not your words. Use them to measure your actions and to assess proposed future actions. Make sure, everyone can see what your values are and why you feel so strong about them. This is not to say they will never change, or require adjustment. This may well happen in the light of more experience and knowledge, but, when this happens, be clear on what they are and why you hold them. Closely associated with your values will be the principles under which you wish to operate as a school leader. Again, these may change with experience, but once established you should always aim to avoid compromising these. People you work with, and for, will respect someone with strong values and principles, and who acts ethically, even though they might not always agree with your decisions and actions. Be that person.

Engage with research and read. Leaders need to be informed. There are some aspects of leadership that are intuitive, based on experience, but in general there should be a sound evidence and research base for how you operate and how you act as a leader. It is your responsibility to be aware of this, and to have considered and discussed what you read, with colleagues and others, in order to help shape your own thinking and practice as a leader. Most school leaders desire their teachers to be informed by research and evidence in their practice, and they should be prepared to model this in their own. Anyone who has achieved a leadership position, and is successful, knows that they had to keep on learning and developing when they reached that position. It is right that leaders should be able to articulate their philosophy and vison of leadership, and explain their practice, then be able to link this to theoretical work and research about leadership. Leaders who fly by the seat of their pants, and make decisions on a wing and a prayer, don't survive very long, but can cause a lot of turmoil before they go.

Linked to engaging with research and reading is, actively seeking out professional dialogue and conversations. Just as you wish your establishment to work collaboratively, so should you. Build a network of leaders and researchers that you can talk to and discuss your thinking and the research and reading you have engaged with. Be open to exploring and engaging critically with colleagues, because by doing this you will deepen your understandings and be able to relate what you have read, or what you think, to your own particular context. Collaboration is the only way forward, for individuals, schools and systems. Policy makers understand this, and can see how such collaboration is a cost-effective way for the system to develop. Collaborations are best when they are not forced and not driven by financial motivators. Leaders need to not only create cultures within their own establishments to support collaborative practices, they need to create them for themselves. Speak to colleagues, face to face wherever possible, but also by using social media and writing, to engage with as many people as possible who can help you explore the complexities of school leadership. At the same time as your network is helping and supporting you, you are also doing the same for others in your network.

Much of the above is linked to professional development. It is important that school leaders not only support professional development in their schools, they need to be active participants in this too. Get actively involved in a continuous process of professional development, which is research informed and focused on learning and teaching, and support your staff in their personal development and growth. Such activity is crucial to school and staff well-being, ensuring individuals are being supported to maintain their own development as they grow their practice and understanding. The same applies to yourself. Don't neglect your own professional development, some of the steps to this are described above, but may also involve more formal courses and further qualifications. Career-long professional development should not be a platitude or a soundbite, but a disposition for all, including leaders.

These then are some key actions that I believe school leaders can take, which have high reward and low risk associated with them. You may have discovered them already yourself, or you may have discovered some of your own. Why not talk to someone about it?

PS Another effective action you can take is to smile and say thank you. Amazing the difference this can make.

😊 Thank you!



Popular posts from this blog

The Power Within

I sent a tweet the other day which seemed to generate a deal of resonance with some on my PLN. What I said was that meaningful school development can only come from within and cannot be imposed from outside. Now 140 characters on Twitter does have benefits but, as anyone who tweets regularly knows, it also has huge limitations in what you can say. So what I would like to do here is offer some further explanation of what I was trying to convey in my tweet.

For many years well meaning and informed people have increased our understanding and have made constructive suggestions  on how schools can develop and move forward. We also know that there have been lots of other suggestions made by less informed but vocal contributors to this debate! As all in education and schools know, everyone has an opinion or view on what should be going on in our schools. The media loves to feed on all of this and much of it stokes the fires of debate and gives oxygen to some of the wilder suggestions.

As som…

Testing Times for Scotland

'These are not high stakes tests; there will be no 'pass or fail' and no additional workload for children or teachers.' John Swinney 25/11/16 news.gov.scot

I start this look at the introduction of the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) with  statement above from John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, made when he announced the contract for our new standardised testing had been awarded to ACER International UK, Ltd. This organisation is a subsidiary of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), whom have been responsible for the development of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) regime of high-stakes testing in the Australian system since 2008. I also believe they were one of a very short list of providers who tendered a bid for this contract.

I was drawn to this statement as I reflected on many of the responses I have received after I put out a request on Twitter …

Play not tests

Last night I attended the launch the 'PlayNotTests' campaign being led by Sue Palmer and the Upstart organisation in Scotland. This campaign is aimed at getting the Scottish government to think again about their decision to introduce standardised testing into Scottish schools, particularly in Primary 1. Upstart is a group whose main aim is the establishment of a play-based 'kindergarten stage' in Scottish schools, and they want to delay children's introduction into the formal education system until they have reached seven years of age. Before that, Upstart and their supporters, of which I am one, believe that young children learn best, and begin to develop the attributes they will need for life and learning, through play based learning, most of which should be located outside of classrooms and school buildings. This is a model that has been successfully developed by a number of Nordic systems, with positive impacts on the well-being as well as the learning of young…