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Why Senior Leadership Teams need to lead by example

Eddie Hannifan reflects on how a recent Conceptualisation morning with a Senior Leadership Team from across one MAT hit home the absolute value of working hard to make the ‘right thing’ happen. 

It seems that now, more than ever, everybody simply has too many other things to do; ‘time’ is the word we hear, and likely say, more than any other. It seems that ‘value for time’ has become more of a concern for people than ‘value for money’; very telling during a time of austerity. It’s no wonder then that well-being is at the fore of so much of the current discourse. 

And so there was every reason and excuse for the SLT from across the MAT not to have spent the morning together. 

It takes courage, therefore, from the CEOs and the top levels of leadership, to make the braver decision and say, “Yes… yes, we will all meet… If we’re going to do something, it should be done properly… If we’re going to spend money on something, let’s make sure it’s a worthwhile investment… If it’s truly important, then it needs to take priority.”  

This also makes me highly accountable for the quality of what’s being delivered and for making sure the time spent is truly worthwhile!

Too often I see senior leaders taking ill-judged shortcuts, making decisions under the impression that either ‘they know best’ or “That’ll do; how complex can it be?”. Unsurprisingly, these decisions often yield a much lower return, less value for money and, perhaps more importantly, less value for time. 

It often ends up with a confused group of professionals, with great potential, sitting in a room worrying about ‘what the plan is’, instead of focussing on their learning and development. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves spending more time dealing with avoidable organisational concerns, which move nothing forward, than we do on what will better equip us and the organisation to better fulfil the moral obligation.

The decision by SLTs not to engage properly with what they are investing in also models an unhelpful precedent for the hundreds of teachers across their organisations: “If our senior leaders didn’t invest the time in truly understanding this  – which often leads to so many avoidable and costly organisational blockers – then why should we?” Throwing money at something isn’t enough. 

Put simply, if it feels like they don’t care, then why should anyone else? 

It’s the same argument we hear from many of our students: “Why are young adults expected to display certain learning behaviours and stick to various procedural conditions if the adults charged with leading them don’t set the best examples before them?” 

“What do they know?!” is a classic defensive response to hard-bearing truths. 

One of my all-time favourite maxims is: ‘The fish rots from the head down.’ For me, this is all about behaviour and what we implicitly (and often unintentionally) communicate via the decisions we make and the ways in which we make them. 

A stark and quite sad example recently was when a group of staff who had turned up to a session were told that some of their colleagues (more senior than them) weren’t coming because: “They are too busy”. Even when we give them the benefit of doubt, the choice of phraseology and the subsequent looks on the faces of the colleagues who had made the necessary sacrifices to be there were telling.

I should be in the hammers, nails & coffins industry, I thought to myself. 

Call it irony or hypocrisy, either way (albeit implicitly) it sends a powerful and unhelpful message to everyone else. As such, we can find ourselves working with the absolute goodwill of our profession’s best practitioners, those who will always do what is right in spite of the shortcomings of those who are supposed to model best practice. 

But there is a limit to this. 

And here’s a twist on the previous maxim; another favourite but a hard pill to swallow: ‘You get the behaviour you deserve.’ 

If I accept the previous situation where I’m finding myself working with teachers who aren’t really sure what’s going on, then I get the behaviour I deserve. So I will push harder for what’s right. But if SLTs still feel it’s OK to cut corners, because they’ve decided that’s acceptable, then they have to recognise that they deserve the behaviours they get.

Side note: I do recognise that decent people also have to handle behaviours they absolutely don’t deserve!

And so it was with absolute pride that I had the opportunity to work with the SLT of this MAT, a group which had made sacrifices to be there. This wouldn’t have been an easy decision, but it was one that will reward so many more people than just themselves, with so many more benefits; the investment will bring them a just return. 

They modelled integrity, commitment, care, diligence, inclusion and equality, and will rightly have this shown back to them by those they lead. Their engagement, reflection and learning from that morning will see more of the same positive behaviours from their own staff. 

And their deeper understanding of what they are investing in, and the greater clarity it brought regarding what they want to achieve with it, will set a trajectory for all their staff who go on to attend the learning programmes; they know why they’re there and what it’s all for! 

The alternative, of course, as some choose to do, is to skip this step and make consultative judgements on processes they don’t understand. As already mentioned, money is simply thrown at the problem, hoping it’ll get solved. Long term, this doesn’t work, and so we end up having gone full circle and arrive back where we started. Taking shortcuts, thinking they’ll save time and money, or backing away from the courageous decisions on matters which are both important and complicated, winds up wasting both money and time. 

It’s both a frustrating and a sad irony, as no one has either to waste! 

This MAT made it all look easy, which I know it isn’t. None of this is easy, or simple for that matter; if it was we wouldn’t be here. 

Education is complicated (newsflash!); there are very few quick fixes that result in sustained meaningful change, and yet there are too many people out there looking for them. It’s like the teacher who asked me in desperation, “Just tell me what I need to do to be outstanding.” Let’s start by thinking through that statement again, shall we? 

This takes a level of practice that the very best in education work tirelessly to maintain. Yes, they might overdo it sometimes and upset people, or take their foot off the pedal and cause more upset. No one’s perfect, and the best people have the humility to say so. They are forthcoming with their mistakes and in the areas they know they need to develop. They don’t hide them! 

The best teams work hard to maintain an effective balance of ‘what is right’ and ‘what is important’, and it was a privilege to meet and spend time with one who is doing precisely that. 

So, I ask you, with all seriousness: 

“If the most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing…

… What are you implicitly or unintentionally communicating to your colleagues?”

 

CONCEPTUALISATION DAYS

Conceptualisation Days are designed to better inform SLTs around what OLEVI offers and they give participants an opportunity to experience the way in which we work. They are designed to build a stronger base on which the leaders of organisations can strategically plan for what they’re trying to achieve through the suite of professional learning programmes OLEVI has to offer.

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