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A couple of thoughts on the science and art of leadership

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

Wouldn’t it be great if we discovered there were laws of leadership just like the laws of physics? 

If there were, we wouldn’t lose time pondering a myriad specific, irrelevant details. We’d perceive the fundamental structure of the issue at once and know right away what to do.

Maybe this isn’t as fanciful as it first seems. After 18 years as a college principal I was confident I’d hit on one fundamental symmetry at least – something that remained unchanged and always present in every quality improvement plan we implemented. It was this: getting teachers to do what we’d agreed they’d do.

If you’re really clear as a leader about what the organisation mission, if you explain how your plan fits with it and if you consult openly and genuinely with staff then there shouldn’t be any difficulty about implementing what emerges from that process, right?

Er, yes. In theory. But not in practice, not in my experience. Inevitably there will be one or two teachers who dissent from the consensus. Others will feel their business is focused in the classroom and are inclined just to keep their heads down in the belief the storm will blow over. Some really independent spirits will be quite well aware of what’s been agreed and yet continue to behave as if none of it actually applies to them. One or two just believe they know best.

There were times when I heartily wished we routinely spoke in this country as they do in the US of compensation rather than remuneration. It might have helped teachers understand that they were losing something in return for their salary – and not just their time; a portion of their freedom too.

Because uniform implementation of a quality improvement plan requires every teacher in the college in some circumstances forgo one very specific freedom: to do as they think best. A culture likely to produce high quality is one in which teachers make decisions not according to what they personally think best but according to what college policy says is best. That’s a curtailment of personal initiative, personal freedom.

So on the model with physics, my leadership law would certainly help me with any new quality initiative. It tells me that eventually success is going to depend on teachers doing what we’ve agreed and that helps me prioritise what to really listen for in the consultation. Alongside the constructive criticism I receive, I’m listening out for resistance: who’s it coming from and what’s motivating it?

Unfortunately that’s also where the use of my scientific law runs out. And it’s at this point that a really unwise leader makes a very serious error. Believing that a law is a law, they’ll be inclined to insist and even bully teachers into doing as they’re told. That will quickly produce a climate across the college in which no-one and nothing can flourish – certainly not a cherished new quality initiative.

Physics isn’t jurisprudence. A law of physics isn’t a rule which the universe has to obey; it’s a description of how the universe is. If you notice the physical law is broken, it’s the law, not nature, that has to change. As someone once said: a single rabbit skeleton in pre-Cambrian rock and evolution is a dead duck. Or maybe rabbit.

A wise leader behaves very differently. They know that while educational quality depends on teachers surrendering some of their independence and conforming to what’s been agreed it also requires their creativity and motivation. That’s what’s called an antinomy: a contradiction in laws.

The solution to this paradox lies in good people skills. When the wise leader listens out for resistance it’s not so as to know whom to threaten. It’s so they understand what the nature of the concerns and obstacles are that stand in the way of this or that teacher doing what’s agreed. They’ll be prepared to talk this through, see it through the teacher’s eyes, use their own imagination and creativity to enable individuals to find their individual accommodation. In essence, no concessions on compliance but considerable ingenuity on how we find a way to it together.

Listening to a teacher for the word that conceals something, the comment that shows there’s a whole lot more at the back of what they’re saying, a tell-tale metaphor…..Though it’s certain there exist some fundamental symmetries and principles in the business of leadership getting it to work may in the end be much closer to poetry than physics.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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