SONAR leadership and a pedagogy of connection

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leaders should ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ if they are to build relationships – and that requires active listening. John Dabell explains the principles of SONAR leadership


So many staff complain that their senior leaders don't have time to listen.

Leadership and listening are as old as the hills – Homer’s Iliad warns leaders what is at stake if they refuse to listen (Simard, 2022).

A core value of successful headteachers is problem-solving. When they see an issue that will impact on their school, they are “programmed” to move into assessment, collaboration, and innovation to manage the problem. This starts with listening.

Senior leaders hone their ability to actively listen. This involves being 100% present and being relational and being able to empathise (Holt, 2021). It helps them keep their finger on the pulse of complex change.

Active listening allows them to build consensus, to find solutions, to implement those solutions, and to ensure positive results.

Active listening requires the listener to pause and to resist the impulse to immediately problem-solve or react to what is being said.

Listening is a critical skill and hard work too because it involves being able to thoroughly absorb, understand, respond, and retain what is being said. This is ambidextrous leadership that helps mend and build relationships, discuss current realities, and explore possible next steps.

While engaging in active listening, we need to pay close attention to the speaker’s behaviour and body language to gain a better understanding of their message.

We also need to avoid interrupting, to withhold judgement and not to react emotionally even when we disagree with someone. As Stephen Covey says in his 1989 best-seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “If I were to summarise in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

To do that you have to listen. The thing is, most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.

We also need to avoid interrupting, to withhold judgement and not to react emotionally even when we disagree with someone.

There are other barriers to effective listening that get in the way of being a good communicator including indifference, assumptions, distractions, hurrying, and information overload. Keeping these in check is crucial and we can do that by keeping the focus on the speaker, being open to what they say and having a willingness to change or take action.

Increasingly, schools realise the importance of creating cultures of wellbeing that both mitigate burnout and create conditions that support wellbeing and human flourishing. That starts with listening, too.

Adrian Webster in his book Polar Bear Pirates (2011) says: "The world's most effective leaders, what I call SONAR leaders, spend their time listening and looking for opportunities to praise and thank people."

He points out that a leader's ability to engage, inspire and show they really care boils down to their ability to listen.

He says that SONAR stands for “Sounding Out Needs And Responding”. SONAR leadership is all about putting your head into other people's worlds, gaining a better understanding of where they are coming from and what makes them tick. It is about looking for the best in people and bringing it out.

This is the pedagogy of connection, the gateway to understanding and the hallmark of effective, agile leadership.

SONAR leaders are finely tuned into their school culture and community, they are listening out for and honing-in on opportunities to develop their staff and students. Their antennae are always switched on. Webster says that SONAR leaders are constantly listening out for:

  • The needs of their people.
  • Ideas and opportunities.
  • Which “hot buttons” to push to motivate each individual.
  • How they can mould teams and inspire everyone to pull together.
  • Potential skills and talents of those around them.
  • Better ways to encourage people.
  • If staff are in the right roles and positions of responsibility.
  • How they can better empower their staff and students.
  • Ways to improve the working environment.
  • Opportunities to deploy Tiny Noticeable Things (TNTs) and how they can nudge success.
  • If their people are happy and growing in the right direction.
  • Exciting challenges to keep people progressing.
  • Changes needed to improve performance.
  • Anticipating what's coming around the corner.
  • How they themselves are performing.
  • What they could do differently.

When people are listened to effectively, this brings about a greater sense of self-worth and motivates them. This increases their resilience, and this means more is achieved.

Active listening helps us get the best out of our staff and co-leaders, it helps us slow down, understand deeper currents, and clarify core values.

It is a way of collecting data and school intelligence because it helps bring student and staff voice into the equation – and that is all staff that work in the school, not just teachers.

Listening leaders recognise that the most important data they can collect is from the micro-conversations and informal moments that happen throughout the day.

One way of being more of an active listener is making time for "emptying the cup". This is a weekly ritual where each senior leader/colleague enjoys several uninterrupted minutes to share whatever is on their mind and unload and download while the other leaders practise listening with care, focused attention, and a lack of judgement.

SONAR leaders are listening leaders who tune into dominant narratives in a school and if they need to shift them they have brave conversations and ask hard questions in order to help their colleagues let go of unhelpful mindsets and embrace new ones.

This in turn improves the quality of planning and decision-making and helps manage conflict situations more effectively.

Above all, active listening and being a SONAR leader sets an example to the school and rubs off and staff and students alike because it models humanity and compassion. Leadership is “being”, not doing.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.com and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/seced-dabell


Further information & resources

  • Holt: Nurturing Empathy. In Innovative Leadership in Times of Compelling Changes, Marques (ed), Springer, 2021.
  • Simard: Speaking up to leadership: How Homer’s Iliad articulates the benefits of listening to followers and the dangers of hero-leadership, January 2022: SAGE Business Case Originals.
  • Webster: Polar Bear Pirates and Their Quest to Engage the Sleepwalkers: Motivate everyday people to deliver extraordinary results, 2011.


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