Leadership — The Process of Becoming

Photo via Pexel — Burak Kebapci

No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely — all your skills, gifts and energies — in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You, must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.

— Warren Bennis, On Becoming A Leader.

Last year, for the first time in my teaching career, I applied for a job (spoiler alert: I didn’t get it). It was a leadership position for which, on paper at least, I was woefully underqualified. But, failing forward as ever, this disappointment presents an opportunity; the chance to continue becoming. As a new school year quickly approaches, this blog post is a collection of ideas, resources and people that inspire and challenge my thinking around leadership.

Follow The Leader?

A colleague told me recently that job-seeking educators should never apply for a position at a particular school just because they like the leadership. I found this a curious statement because I absolutely believe in following leaders. I can work at any school; I just don’t want to. I don’t want teaching just to become work. I want to be inspired, not just survive. Punching out the absolute minimum required to satisfy the specifications of the job is not what drives me. I can’t imagine winning a permanent position at a school where I didn’t share the values and vision of the school or where staff are micro-managed continuously by leadership. I don’t need the job security that badly.

So what does a great leader look like? Let’s first acknowledge that this is very subjective. For instance, Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela school in the UK has become infamous for its “no excuses” policy, and I’m sure that staff who believe in the values of this institution would likely think Birbalsingh, a fantastic leader. Personally, I wouldn’t last an hour at that school. My pedagogical beliefs would be the antithesis of good practice in that environment. So fit plays a big part. But regardless of the values or vision that a school or leader might hold, some fundamentals of good leadership exist.

Dr Deborah Netolicky is an academic writer and former leader who contributes to shaping the narratives of education and leadership through her blog, Twitter account, and contributions to various books and articles. She writes that strong leaders:

- Develop shared vision;
- Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
- Develop an environment of trust;
- Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
- Solve complex problems;
- Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
- Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

My approach to school and cultural change is ‘go slow to go fast’. Deliberate, collaborative change coaxes buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. It involves creating a shared need, designing a shared vision, and then energising, mobilising, and building the capacities and motivations of others to propel change. — Dr Deborah Netolicky via What Does It Mean to be a Leader.

An Education Revolution

Peter Hutton, a former principal of Templestowe College, is highly regarded for his contribution in moving TC from the brink of closure to international recognition for its innovative, student centred approach to learning. As a public school in the state of Victoria, TC offers full access to the Australian Curriculum for its 1000 students. The interesting part is that none of the attending students chose to follow this curriculum. Instead, every single child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that allows them full control over their learning once they have met baseline literacy and numeracy benchmarks. In the accompanying podcast and TEDx Talk, Peter discusses challenging the status quo, farewelling his office to work alongside students and teachers, establishing a default culture of ‘yes’ to student and parent requests where time and money permits, home learning vs homework, student employees and more.

TEDx Melbourne, 2014, featuring Peter Hutton

There Are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders

This quote has its origins in the military and is regularly used by leadership gurus in the business world. I find it interesting because I have seen, and been on, some bad teams over the years. Whether involving sport, business or school, I believe a bad team is one that lacks trust, looks to assign blame, and is fragmented as individuals mostly look to serve their own best interests. So, is being a bad team a symptom of unhealthy culture? I asked Mark Sonnemann, principal at Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Ontario, about the bad teams quote and if he had any thoughts on who is responsible for building and maintaining school culture?

I want teachers to focus on students, so I try to hold the big picture in my head. I want to connect practice wherever possible. In doing this, I build relationships and strengthen connections between classes so that I don’t have to see the connections for them. Starts out being lead by me, becomes less about me, and more about how I can support their relationships. A team implies a shared goal and clear connections between roles and team members. This is not always evident in a school. I see my role as being making those connections and roles clear and showing how they align with the shared vision and goal. When you do that, things start to move in the right direction. At first, you might have to drive this as a school leader. But the goal is to make this work sustainable without your presence, meaning you need to build capacity. That is, my role, as I see it. Long story short, I agree with the quote. Culture is a reflection of leadership.

I also asked Mark about the importance of developing a strong and clear identity for schools:

Values + Practice + Time (consistency) = Identity. What we do on a consistent basis coalesces into a personality. Culture, for lack of a better word, is performance. What we repeatedly do. We can get into trouble when what we do does not consistently support a vision of the student. That’s what I am talking about when I say that culture is reflective of leadership. The leader needs to translate this vision to not just staff, but the entire community. Everyone should be able to articulate it.

The ‘vision of the student’ that Mark advocates speaks strongly to me and will become the basis of my decisions in the classroom. But I also believe it should be a central piece of conversations had by staff about school identity and culture. I hope to carry our shared vision in the forefront of my mind over the course of our school year and use it as a lens through which to critically examine our practice and inform policy decisions. Starting with the student is powerful because it isn’t about teacher practice or pedagogy — it’s about the child. This approach provides a non-threatening way to frame discussions and identifies shared ground which staff can build upon. It is informed by three main questions:

What is our vision for the learner?

What would the perfect graduate look like in terms of skills and attitudes and values?

How do we position ourselves between the student and the curriculum?

People Don’t Buy What You Do…

I recently read Start With Why by Simon Sinek on the recommendation Aaron Blackwelder, an influential educator and founding member of Teachers Going Gradeless. Sinek’s TED talk is the third most viewed ever, and while the book has a business focus, the transfer to education is relevant and compelling. It is not a title I would normally have chosen to read, but I can highly recommend it to any educator, as Aaron, says “it’s a game changer”. The book is based on the notion that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Sinek suggests that organisations get into trouble when they forget why they exist, and instead begin to focus on what they do. Aaron Blackwelder bravely offers an example of his why via his Twitter account. Catlin Tucker recently published an article that explores Start With Why from an educational perspective and invites teachers to explore their own why by asking:

  • What is it about your job that excites you?
  • What drives you to work with students?
  • Ultimately, what are you trying to achieve?

PD = Patchwork Development?

Many educators see PD as an event, but it should be a continuous mindset. I love this Frankenstein analogy from who else, Mark Sommemann, about schools that use a patchwork approach professional development. This is a thought provoking article that I would encourage everyone to read and reflect on.

If we, as educators, took on and mastered the bits and pieces of practice that we are shown as ‘best’, would we transform into some sort of uber-teacher? Or, would we become the pedagogical equivalent of Frankenstein? — Leadership, Pedagogy, and Change in Education

Professional development should link to outcomes that allign with a school site improvement plan and vision for the learner, and there are times when blanket training is warranted. But surely PD should be flexible enough to differentiate for individual staff, the same way skilled teachers differentiate learning for students? Why aren’t teachers given greater agency over their professional development? External pressures? Because it’s hard? I believe this ties into the relationships and trust that leaders build with their staff. The top-down approach that assumes any two teachers, let alone an entire staff, are at the same place in their professional learning journey is, at best, misguided. The idea of voluntary piloting interests me and may offer teachers a hint of autonomy for teachers whose leaders are stuck in fixed PD mindsets.

I’ll round this blog post up with one last quote from the Uber principal followed by a mixture of thought provoking resources that I failed to weave into this piece of writing.

One of the things I have discovered in my time in leadership is that shared languages are powerful. When you can get people talking the same ways, you align practice and action in ways that make change ripple and amplify and transform spaces and cultures.

— Mark Sonnemann, comment from It’s Time We Hold Accountability Accountable

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