Outstanding School Leadership – The Secret Recipe?
Most leadership books wont tell you everything you need to learn about outstanding school leadership. We have always sought it out from a wide range of perspectives including coaches and mentors.
This list is just an opinion. However, I think it is a well informed one based on influences I have had from coaches and mentors through a long international career. (Greg Parry)
Outstanding School Leaders are Comfortable in Their Own Skin
I am not sure if there is a better way to put it. Leaders don’t need to be perfect but they must have far less vulnerabilities, insecurities and character flaws than their peers. They need to be confident enough to answer questions honestly and with authenticity. They must be balanced. Able to accept criticism. Ego must be under control. Not obsessed about power. No personality disorders. They have most likely read “How To Win friends and Influence People.” and they live it or their behaviour espouses these values. Time and time again we find that the essential set of skills, knowledge and expertise to be a senior educational leader is no where near as important as having a person who is just balanced, authentic, loyal, trustworthy, of good character. Leaders should not be personally broken or use their position of power to satisfy their own needs. So many leaders appear strong but they are insecure. They need to be good people. Most often my advice to aspiring leaders is to “work on yourself.”
Outstanding Leaders Have Superior Expertise in both Curriculum as well as Teaching and Learning
Can you imagine a restaurant manager telling an Italian head chef how to cook better pasta sauce? Sadly, we see it far too often. A Head of School or Principal must have a track record, earlier in their career, of being very good in the field of curriculum as well as teaching and learning. They must have demonstrated exceptional expertise in making a difference with student achievement. IGCSE, A Levels, IB is not just about exams, examination procedures, what subjects are on offer, structures, systems and procedures. Leaders need to understand the philosophy and background that sits behind these curriculum delivery models. How do you structure learning through scaffolding? Can you advise teachers on “beginning with the end in mind?” How do you teach in ways that develops critical thinking? Can you infuse literacy into all content areas? Education leaders need to be the curriculum and pedagogical leaders of the school. Can you talk the talk because you have walked the walk?
Leaders Make Informed Decisions from Measurable Data or Evidence
It is so easy to take short cuts and make assumptions based on only part of the information. As leaders we should know that sometimes information provided to us may not be balanced. It may even be from a very limited perspective. We need to seek out the complete picture. We should use data, and seek out broad and comprehensive evidence to make sure our actions and decisions are the right ones. “He said”, “She said”, is not good enough. We should have comprehensive systems that help us make data based decisions. We should use our networks and insight to gather insightful information from multiple and credible sources. Things are not always as they seem. We need to move forward with confidence and be able to back up our reasons for moving forward. Outstanding school leadership is driven by information and evidence.
They Lead Democracy, Consultation and Buy In
It is essential that we do not operate as autocratic leaders. We must discuss, seek input, consult and develop buy-in on important decisions. It is very possible you might be the most experienced, skilled, insightful and competent, in some areas, but not all. Great leaders surround themselves with good people. You don’t need to be right. You need to make the right decisions and achieve the right outcomes. People do not value autocrats who dish out commands. Share ownership and build a team that commits to a common and shared vision. Are your meetings truly collaborative or could that forum be just as easily conducted by an email? Are you listening? Are you working with a team of people you acknowledge may be better informed and more insightful than you about some key areas? Outstanding school leadership should be represented by outstanding collaboration, consultation and connectedness.
Delegation – Outstanding leaders Know what it really means
I prefer the term devolution because leaders too often misunderstand the definition of delegation. It is not about giving out tasks to other people when you could easily have done it yourself. Don’t be the “King” or “Queen” throwing out token tasks. Develop leaders through empowerment. If your potential leaders need a job list then either they are not truly leaders or you are not creating a leadership culture. Have you ever been in a meeting and somehow at the end, you realised all tasks were taken up by volunteers, the energy was electric and people feel even more motivated than when the meeting began? Or are people wishing the conversations will end? In a really good culture of devolved leadership, tasks get taken up through the energy created. Rarely do outstanding leaders assign an endless list of tasks.
Leaders are Systems Oriented
As the leader of a school you need to be more in charge of systems than people. You are responsible for making sure that agreed policies, systems and procedures achieve exceptional results. That includes a school culture that values input, out of the box thinking and sometimes less-traditional thinking. You have the right to require a certain standard, however you don’t always have the right to tell people “how” something is done. They are very likely, depending on the key area, more able to determine a best way forward than you, especially if they are the ones implementing the plan. Outstanding school leadership includes leaders who are very connected but they also have the ability to detach and look at things from a distance. They can take a “helicopter view” and analyse what is actually happening within the organisation at a systemic level.
Leaders Have Acute Self-Awareness
Great leaders sometimes make brave, courageous, tough decisions. Some decisions may even have dire consequences however outstanding leaders are intimately aware of the possible consequences. Sometimes there is no avoidance of a difficult situation. You might become unpopular, performance might drop, there may be negative consequences, but you understand the risk and consequences. Eyes are wide open! Great leaders know what the consequences might be and they are either ready for it or they have weighed everything up and know it is still the best way forward. They have contingencies, Plan B’s or they are ready to counter the implications of action. Leaders cannot control everything but they can be aware, prepared and conscious about the implications of all that they do. When you work with outstanding school leadership people might often be heard saying “how did she/he know that?”
An Inspiring Vision Represents Outstanding School Leadership
Vision is commonly included as one of the key characteristics of great leadership but an inspiring vision must be big and relentless. It must be just as big on a bad day as it is on a good day. It needs to steer the ship through dark storms not just fill lines of motivational speeches or marketing materials. Vision should be infectious. It must permeate all thinking. In the middle of a crisis leaders may struggle privately and pause to take stock but they are the ones whose shoulders carry both burden and the motivation that makes new action take flight. Outstanding school leadership and management should be directed by the guiding question “Will this decision, action, behaviour or change move us closer to achieving our goals?” Alignment needs to be constant. The energy must all be directed forward through a connection to shared vision.
Leaders Remove Obstacles
Knowing that teachers are the most important people in your building, what do you do to remove barriers? They don’t need to know about your budget problems, the stresses of your day or the unreasonable pressures from some parents. You need to solve problems, find solutions and free up space for them. They need to have an open path (within reason) and be able to move freely in the direction that maximises opportunities for students. The school needs to be super organised, it needs to run smoothly. Otherwise teachers are burdened. Teachers need the resources. Not a limitless budget or open list. But they need the resources that allow them to achieve their very best. They need smooth decisions. They need a happy workplace. They need to feel valued. They need to love being there. Make the workplace “perfection” and all being equal, there will be no reason they cannot deliver. Take stress and workload away.
Outstanding Leaders Stay Balanced
As leaders we will face many challenges throughout each day. Without warning, we will need to “put out fires” , avoid crises, resolve conflict and find solutions. It is ok to be unbalanced for a minute. We are only human. But as leaders we need to quickly find our feet, composure and be in a mental state to make well considered decisions and take measured action. Let’s think about the lessons learnt from Karate Kid. It is only from a balanced position that we can do our very best. Let’s stay balanced. Off kilter, we can use raised voices, say things in haste, make rash decisions. Be or do something we might regret. Return to balance quickly. Be the touchstone and the place where people feel safe. Calm the waters even though inside your head, for a minute, the world is turbulent. You set the tone. You are the example. You set the tolerance levels of good and bad behaviour. They will copy you. Both the good and the bad. Outstanding School Leadership sometimes means “Outstanding Balance.”
This list is not exhaustive and many leadership books (education and corporate) as well as advice from exceptional leaders themselves will help complete the picture. There is also not just one leadership style or personality type that is effective. Every context is different. In fact I believe we need to be whatever is required at the time. Let’s continue to learn and grow with an aim to making sure we are the best and most effective leaders we can be and consequently our schools help children to become the very best they can be also.
CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry
Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.
Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.
Global Services in Education set up and operate schools in all parts of the world. Governed by a philosophy of global citizenship, every member of the GSE team shares a passion to help shape international education and student achievement through inspiration and collaboration.
Our goal is to meet the highest objectives of every school, teacher, student and parent, with an unwavering dedication to quality education, shared ideals and intercultural perspectives.
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