Maladies of Leadership


Leadership / Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

I really enjoyed reading an article from Gary Hamel, a writer for the Harvard Business Review, about a speech by Pope Francis to the Curia last December.  Pope Francis addressed the Curia, the leadership council for the Catholic Church, in the run up to Christmas and urged them to reflect on the “Curial diseases” which weaken their service to the Lord.

Gary Hamel pointed out that this focussing on maladies was an unusual approach when highlighting elements of successful leadership.  Instead of using positive metaphors the Pope’s approach was to portray these weaknesses in leadership in their most drastic form – maladies and diseases that affect the body and require corrective nourishment.

Hamel reworded elements of Pope Francis’s address in order to fit a corporate focus.  In reading Hamel’s and the Pope’s address I can see that all 15 diseases described by the pontiff easily relate to school leadership, so in this post I’ll tweak the 15 diseases of leadership with a school leadership application.  There are in no particular ranking of importance.

Leadership is expected from everyone…

I want to make a clarification before I start – leadership is not the domain of the senior leadership team, not of the governing body or the staff who have been at the school the longest – leadership should be expected from everyone who works within the school.  The 15 maladies set out below will affect everyone within school and, as a result, it is important that everyone, from the first NQT to be appointed, to TAs, support staff and to the headteacher, reflect on their particular afflictions and how they impact on the functioning of the school.

1.  A disease of superiority

The most importance place for any school leader to be is anywhere but their office.  I’ve worked with headteachers who moved their office to reception and banned students from entering there because of the noise and distraction they cause.   My current headteacher has an office on the main thoroughfare in the school and his door is nearly always open – not that it matters that much as he is always in the corridors and dropping in to classrooms.  Be visible, be approachable and be supportive of students, staff and parents.  Your job will be infinitely less challenging.

2. A disease of excessive busyness

This is a problem on so many different levels.  My first example is the excessive busyness expected from staff from leadership teams that has such a damaging impact on well-being within the school.  The suggestion that if you are the last member of staff into school in the morning or the first one out of the door at 3:30 then it is acceptable to question your dedication to your role.  This changes to the culture within school to a level of tension where staff are reluctant to have time off for illness,  to look after children who might be ill themselves.  Of course we would all prefer to the lowest levels of absence as possible within our schools – but illnesses do happen and the best leaders would do what they can to minimise the stress that often surrounds staff absence.

The second example of excessive busyness is the whirling dervish effect.  These are the staff members who make such a public exhibition of being busy that the serenity of others could imply lack of purpose.  The dervish needs to take a breath, reflect on their time management and consider the impression they give to others.  In truth, we all have the occasional dervish moments – the trick is to smile and appear calm whilst speed walking down corridors.

3.  A disease of ineffective communication

This is without doubt a weakness of mine and one I am working to improve.  It is not that I am intolerant to others views – I justified it with the thought that I had more time to think about pros and cons of projects and was expected to present a finished plan without wide consultation….I learnt to change that view pretty quickly.  Of course, it works both ways.  Communication needs to work from the bottom up as well as top down but this takes time.  As a DHT in a new school it will take time for staff to work out if they can trust me or not in order for them to have the confidence to share their thoughts or concerns in the way that I would like them to.  We’d all like staff to tell us when they are not happy about something but for many this is too difficult and we need to find ways to break through that barrier.  And break through we must because the only situation that thrives in a tangle of communication is gossip and back-biting and that permits a disease of gossiping.

4.  A disease of gossiping

There are very few things that frustrate me about the workplace but gossiping certainly is right up there. Why don’t people understand the pernicious impact of gossiping?  There is simply no reasonable benefit to come from it.  There is always at least one person who suffers directly and the organisation as a whole is weakened by the presence of people who gossip.  This is certainly a condition with a contagion that affects everyone and it is up to workplace as a body to stop it.

5. A disease of extremes of emotion

There is no doubt that extremes of emotion can severely undermine a leader at any level.  I’ve worked with headteachers who, on the surface, appear to be totally without the capacity of emotion, and those who are so emotional that event the slightest thing will put them into a maelstrom of anger, tears and panic.  You can see why school leaders try their best to control emotions – the ability to stay calm in the face of sheer range of pressures we can be subjected to can be seen as a strength.

I have rarely seen a school leader with the right balance – the ability to be stony-faced and fixed with resolve when necessary and then be confident enough to let emotions show our human side is something that would certainly inspire me.  Leadership relies on many skills and strengths but we would all certainly benefit from showing our empathy occasionally.

6.  A disease of credibility

In Pope Francis’s address he describes the unfortunate journey from priesthood to bureaucrat – and that losing touch of our core purpose renders us a shell of our former selves.   The obvious similarity that jumps to mind in teaching is the school leader who rarely steps into the classroom – the headteacher, of often deputy heads, who satisfy themselves with being administrators instead of teachers.

Of course the flip side of this can also be problematic.  I have worked for heads who make a show of having a timetable and the importance of leading by example in the classroom, only to cancel lessons or arrange cover at the last-minute as a result of an urgent matter needing attending.  I have worked with heads who do not teach at all – at least the students do not suffer from an absent teacher, but it is harder for leaders to make a connection with students without a presence in the classroom.

The solution?  I think heads should be in the classroom but I don’t think they should have a timetable.  It is not possible to prevent lessons being covered as the demand on a heads time is too unpredictable but heads could make themselves available for cover so a set number of lessons per week – offer their time to deliver occasional catch up or booster sessions.  Heads could relieve tutors of the odd tutor session and lead some quality tutoring.  There are many ways for heads to show they are an asset in the classroom and they must make sure that they do on a regular basis.

7. A disease of the “lugubrious face”

I am aware that this might seem to be in conflict with disease 4 – lack of empathy or emotion – but the long face can be such a drain.  I am not knocking those people who are having a bad day – sod’s law (I’ve renamed this to Simon’s law as it seems to affect me more than should be reasonable :-)) dictates that we get kicked when we are already under pressure – the lugubrious face disease applies to the knockers and blockers.  The people who sit at the back of staff meetings with arms crossed and steely determination that it’s all garbage, (they don’t spend the time to differentiate what or why is garbage) or it’s all been done before and didn’t work then either.

The job is difficult without these dementors sapping our spirit.  I’m trying the smile cure – I can’t say that it is 100% effective but at least it does ward off the leaching of my spirit.

8.  A disease of self promotion

I remember interviewing a head of maths about the reasons for success in her department.  I had my own ideas – she was a superb practitioner, the students admired her, her peers thought she was wonderful, kind and considerate, approachable and very clear about her expectations of how the department should function.  In the interview all she talked about was how lucky she was to have such a great team, she would be nothing without the teachers in her department.

Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” describes leaders like this as level 5 leaders.  They have no interest in self promotion and would far rather that the team or others take the credit for successes.  I used to be interested in taking credit for things, there is no doubt it helped with my career early on, but now I am more bothered about things being done and it is very useful to let others take the credit for it and build their careers up.

Self promotion, seeking accolades and credit is not a healthy thing for a leader to do.  It stunts the growth of others and deprives them of the same opportunities that got us to where we are with our careers.  It is always far better to do the job to the best of our abilities and, if credit comes our way,  that’s great but who else can we help by sharing that success.   We should always be mindful that a large number of people have helped us get to where we are and it is very unlikely that we could achieve anything in schools without the support and good will of others.

9.  A disease of cliques

No man is an island… and neither should departments, tutor teams or other staff groups.  We are all tasked with the same mission in schools – provide a superb teaching and learning experience to encourage all learners to discover their passion and be successful in life.  This is so much harder when we don’t share our success and our trials, when we don’t invest in getting to know our colleagues better and when we don’t pool our collective talents to achieve this monumental task.  Just as importantly cliques make any workplace a crappier place to be so should be actively discouraged and broken up.

10.  A disease of shirking responsibility

Schools are of such gargantuan complexity that it is vital that everyone who works within one has to toe the party line with regard to expectations of conduct.  It is important that policies and decisions are well thought through and critiqued before release but once they go before the parents and students there must be unanimous implementation. For anyone to disagree, contradict either privately or publicly, or flatly refuse to police any policy is a weakness in the organisation and a fatal flaw in their professionalism.  Any workplace would experience a marked improvement in well-being and community spirit if everyone worked as hard as everyone else at challenging lateness to lessons, litter around the site, state of uniform, quality of home and classwork…etc  I could go on for a while.

Perhaps the trick is to see this pursuit of rigour as a chance to have a positive impact on our colleagues daily lives… as opposed to doing what the SLT dictate policy to be.

11.  A disease of isolation

I could not be more positive about the power of collaboration in schools.  I’ve worked with the SSAT, NCSL and taken part in many teachmeets and education forums – basically if there is an opportunity to meet other school leaders and educators then I am there.  Yet, there are many school leaders and teachers who do not see the benefit in finding out what others do, don’t see the need to spend time-sharing experiences or just believe that they can not learn anything relevant from another setting.  Isolation from others makes the job so much more difficult and places a terrible strain on our well-being.  With the current crunch on funding undermining many schools’ CPD plans it would be a fantastic solution to arrange to host a teachmeet or take part in local network hub events.  Great networking does not have to cost much at all but the benefit to us and our roles is fantastic.

12. A disease of immortality

This is a playful dig at leaders who pursue goals or projects with the intention of casting themselves in a positive light and giving the impression that the success of an organisation is dependant on themselves.  The goal of every leader should be to inspire others and support them to take leadership roles themselves and one of most damaging things we could do would be to believe that we are the sole reason for a schools success.  I like looking at the headteacher’s board in schools – the display that shows the previous heads charged with leading the school through a different time and different challenges.  I’m not a head yet but imagine that when I am I’ll look at the headteachers board and reflect that I am the latest of many and will be succeeded by many others.  I hope that I worry less about my legacy and more about helping others succeed in leading schools.

13.  A disease of lack of development

As leaders of learning it is vital that we all work tirelessly to improve our knowledge and skills in or around the classroom.  If our students displayed the same fixed mindset that adults in schools can occasionally display then our job would be almost impossible.  Far too often this resistance is a shield to any attempts to improve the use of ICT within schools.  Anyone with experience of leading staff training will understand the discomfort that anyone can feel when learning something new – this is a real challenge for us all and you would be mad not to be mindful of supporting and reassuring anyone who feels that level of pressure.  But to not engage with training or to exist in any level of an organisation with a flat reluctance to develop their knowledge or skill-set is unforgivable.  We should share this torment with students, model how we overcome the challenges and then look students in the eye with confidence and expectation that they should do as we do.

14. A disease of purposelessness

A lack of clear direction from a leadership team presents many frustrations and challenges for school staff.  It can create confusion about what the core purpose is that unites efforts, it can give the impression that strategies are poorly thought out and bear little significance to the leaders of the school.  It can send a message that sweating the details doesn’t really matter and that ultimately….the people in the school don’t matter either.

It is imperative that there is a clear focus on what the school is aiming to achieve as a collective – not everyone may agree or like the direction – but they will certainly be grateful for understanding what matters and where they should direct their energies.  Any leader could balance a number of these diseases so long as they had a clear vision and could share it successfully with everyone involved in the school.  If they can not then it really does become an insurmountable fatal flaw.

15. A disease of lack of conclusion

This condition is almost as poisonous as disease 14.  If you have a great idea, consult widely and gain wide approval, pour any number of resources into it then fail to ensure it is delivered then what chance would you have of delivering an idea that is not well liked?  This is more a failing of aspirant leaders – the ones who get a bit further up the chain understand what a cataclysmic problem this presents and can normally be depended to bring plans to a conclusion.  When it goes wrong it often does so spectacularly.  A warning to anyone planning a project or intervention in schools, spend as much time planning the delivery and dealing with the journey as the actual idea itself – our credibility as leaders depends on our success.

A panacea?

So is there a panacea to this vomit of diseases, (a new collective noun for sure but one that is grossly appropriate) we all have a few superb remedies for these conditions.  Honesty, empathy and a humility that whilst we all get things wrong occasionally our success is about the long haul – these are the pathogen defeating weapons all of us should employ regardless of our position or role in school  If we focus on the realisation that our success depends on all of us working to the same goal, supporting each other with a kind and considerate spirit and belief that we can always do better than not only does our school grow but so do we.  If we all set out to do better tomorrow than we did today and with a smile on our face – what a great place to work and learn that would be.

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