I have worked under several headteachers throughout my career, some good, some great, some not so great. Looking back, one thing I have realised is that they were all very comfortable with “who they were” as a leader.
Most of them understood their strengths and limitations and had a very clear philosophy on how they wanted to lead. During my first year of headship I have become increasingly self-aware and I have spent considerable amounts of time reflecting on the way in which I am leading my school.
One aspect of leadership that I am very passionate about is distributed leadership and I believe strongly in its merits. When successful, distributed leadership gives true empowerment to leaders in an organisation and can create self-improving systems and a sustainable culture of improvement among a team of staff.
One headteacher who I worked with a few years ago recognised that it would be good for my development to study some of the theoretical aspects of school leadership so that I could deepen my understanding of why certain leadership strategies work in schools and why some others do not.
In one particular coaching session he drew out a Venn diagram and explained how distributed leadership comprises of three key overlapping principles: authority, autonomy and accountability.
If you are to truly distribute leadership among your senior and middle leaders then they need to be given the authority to make the key decisions in their areas of responsibility. They also need the autonomy to be able lead their key priority improvement areas without having to check with the person above them every five minutes.
And the key component that brings this together is that they need to understand that they are responsible and accountable for the outcomes of their work.
This approach really resonated with me and it made me completely reconsider the way I wanted to lead when I became a head. So, surely I started with this approach from day one of my headship, right? Actually, I didn’t and I refrained from talking to my leadership teams about this premise until about half-way through the year. The reason? Trust.
I needed to be able to trust each individual member of the leadership team before I introduced it because the stakes are just too high. I made the decision, as part of my “first 100 days of headship” plan, to spend the first half-term working in a very “tight” way with those that I line-managed.
I wanted to establish who were the strongest and most effective leaders and understand the ways in which each individual worked.
This approach was very effective in establishing quick and early wins, particularly with the senior leadership team, as each member was regularly reporting to me with progress updates on their areas of responsibility, and I was very aware of pretty much everything that was going on in the school.
I needed this because starting a headship in a large and well-established school meant that I had a lot of people to line-manage.
I found that as I began to trust the individuals in my team, understand the way that each of them worked as leaders, and when I started to see the impact of their leadership work, I started to develop a distributed leadership approach with them.
The next step is for them to develop this approach with the leaders that they line-manage and beyond this I am keen to completely remove the term “line-manager” from our vocabulary at school. In the long-term, I want to work towards a model where leaders across the school coach the colleagues below them in the staffing structure, rather than line-managing them.
I think that establishing this approach is at least another year away, but I am looking forward to working with my team to achieve it.
SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.