The illusion of leadership

//The illusion of leadership

Everyone knows what’s needed to turn around a struggling school: strong leadership. In order for it to be deemed necessary for school to be consigned to ‘special measures,’ something has to have gone badly wrong. It’s more than likely true that poor leadership will be at the heart of the problem. So, the school is taken over and a new ‘strong leader’ is parachuted in to turn it around. This tends to be fairly straightforward.

Very bad (and very good) schools conform to the Anna Karenina principle: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This can be understood as All extremely bad (or extremely good) schools are alike, merely ‘good’ schools are good in their own way. For a school to be in special measures, whatever else it’s problems, behaviour will be terrible. Sorting out the very worst excesses of students’ behaviour take effort and commitment but are not hard to work out: you simply stop tolerating bad behaviour and apply easily understood, fair and consistent consequences. I don’t underestimate how exhausting this is to implement, the principle is clear. Once the strong leader has drained the swamp, teachers can teach and students can learn. Moving from special measures to requires improvement is – and I don’t mean this to sound patronising – easy. From that point on, the actions and decisions of strong leaders have diminishing marginal returns.

I’ve argued before that the Anna Karenina principle applies to successful schools too. To be extremely successful you have to get everything right. The list of everything you have to get right includes (but is not limited to) the following items:

  • Good behaviour
  • Great exam results
  • A broad, rich curriculum
  • A wide range of extra curricular provision
  • A culture where it’s ‘cool to be clever’
  • Well run pastoral systems
  • A sense of its position in the community
  • A focus on developing and supporting staff
  • Intelligent accountability systems
  • A belief in the potential of all students

One person, no matter how heroic a leader they are, cannot make all these things happen by the force of their will. The illusion of leadership is perpetuated because transforming a school from a disaster zone into a place of learning is easily achievable by means of strong leadership – indeed, it might be the only way. But then what?

Look at the list above and, once you’ve crossed off behaviour, how do you achieve the other items?  Do you know how to ensure results go up in every subject? Do you know what a broad a balanced curriculum looks like in every aspect? Could you personally ensure a wide range of extra curricular activities? Can one person ensure the welfare of all students? Do you know how to make all teachers perform at their optimal efficiency and effectiveness?

Most of these things cannot be imposed from the top down. You can’t force exam results up by force of will (although you can try hard to game the system) and it doesn’t work to make a curriculum broad and balanced. These are emergent properties of a well run school. They will occur spontaneously if the conditions are right. In this way, good schools evolve.

The illusion of leadership is a paradox: what looks like leadership is often ineffective and what looks less like leadership is often more effective.

Schools are complex systems. Good leadership in a complex system is nurturing and conservative, bad leadership imposes rigid systems for improvement. The one exception to this applies to most easily improved aspect of a school: student behaviour. Despite the individual complexities of students’ lives, getting large groups of children to behave well is not hard.

Good leadership works by holding people to account for the good things they’ve said they want to do. If they do what they’ve said and prove themselves trustworthy, give them more trust. If they don’t do what they say they will, tighten the accountability cycle. This is not to suggest that a good leader won’t have a vision – they will – but that they understand that more flies are caught with sugar than with vinegar. A good leader knows that leading by consensus is impossible: nothing gets done and everyone gets frustrated. As Matt Ridley says in The Evolution of Everything, “people are not allowed to be different. It’s like driving a car in which the brake and the accelerator have to do similar jobs.” What works is when teachers feel free to do what they’re best at and coordinate their actions. Of course there are limits. The imposition of a timetable, for instance, is a given. But within a supportive framework, good people can be their best.

A strong leader can decide that a school will create a new curriculum and direct individuals to make it broad and balanced, but this is unlikely to work. Good work is not produced like this; people have to want to do it. They have to feel that their expertise is valued and encouraged. They have to feel that their suggestions and concerns will be listened to, if not acted on. And, most importantly, they have to feel that whoever is holding them to account is humble enough to recognise good ideas and wise enough to recognise bad ones. A good leader creates the circumstances for teachers and students to flourish through intelligent accountability. This is no easy trick and it is possibly why truly excellent schools are the exception.

A bad leader tries to make things happen. They impose their vision. They say what will happen and when it will happen by. They ignore advice and root out dissent. They, unwittingly or otherwise, create conditions that choke trust and engender fear. Layers of management increase, systems of control multiply, policy documents proliferate. Strong leader increasingly spend their time managing managers.  The best use for this kind of doctrinaire style of leadership is in turning around failing schools. But once the strong leader has plug the holes and steadied the ship it’s time to move them on to make way for a more nurturing, harmonious style. Prescriptive management means a far greater risk of foolish decisions and also of slower decisions as problems get bounced around with no one willing to take responsibility in case they get it wrong.

If we were to approach school leadership in this way we could make the best use of everyone’s talents. This a definite need for trouble shooting, my-way-or-the-highway leaders; they do an excellent job. Sadly, no one want to think of themselves as this sort of leader and so they end up preventing schools from being as good as they could be.

The problem isn’t that this style of leadership doesn’t have an impact, it’s that it does. Strong leadership always has an impact, but it’s often negative. Consider the overwhelming and enormous harm Mao Zedong did to the Chinese people over several decades. Consider Stalin’s brutal impact on the lives of millions of Russians. Strong leaders get change, but they don’t bring prosperity.

If you’re interested, here’s my list of the qualities a leader ought to possess.

2018-10-12T17:36:26+00:00

12 Comments

  1. Robert Jones (@jonesieboy) June 8, 2018 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    “One person, no matter how strong a leader they are, can make all these things happen by the force of their will: this is the leadership illusion”

    Do you mean it is an illusion that any one person can…? I found the sentence a bit unclear. Maybe it’s just me.

    • David Didau June 8, 2018 at 11:48 pm - Reply

      Typo: It now reads One person, no matter how heroic a leader they are, canNOT make all these things happen by the force of their will: this is the leadership illusion.

  2. Michael Pye June 9, 2018 at 1:13 am - Reply

    I half-remember some research about head teachers and the correlation of their academic background to the school outcomes, namely the speed of improvement and how long that change lasted after they went. There were a surprising number of sports teachers and very few physicists and mathematicians as well as stark differences in the normal management style of each. Might have even been one of your old blog posts.

  3. Ian Birch June 12, 2018 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Maybe nitpicking a bit here but when you say “people have to want to do it” isn’t that the same as aiming for consensus?
    Perhaps sometimes people choosing to do something is good enough. And all that is possible!

    • David Didau June 12, 2018 at 1:01 pm - Reply

      What I said was this:

      “What works is when teachers feel free to do what they’re best at and coordinate their actions. Of course there are limits. The imposition of a timetable, for instance, is a given. But within a supportive framework, good people can be their best.”

      I also said, “If they don’t do what they say they will, tighten the accountability cycle.”

      Does that answer your question?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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