What is Leadership?

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This year I have been placed on a Team Leader Level 3 Apprenticeship course, or as the Federation I work for are calling it a Diploma in Team Leadership. I jumped at the chance to do this course, as even though I have been a leader and manager in my previous lives in politics and public affairs, I have never had any formal training or education on what it means to be a leader.

The course runs over the whole of the academic year, and during this recent half term, we have been looking at different leadership styles, leadership vs management and what it means to be a leader. That last topic has really stuck with me. The egotist in me at first thought “I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt … I know what leadership is and is meant to be.” Since doing our sessions on what leadership means, I wouldn’t say that my opinion has changed greatly, but I have a deeper appreciation, knowledge and awareness of what is needed to be a leader.

What does leadership look like?

In the sessions, we have looked at what the different leadership styles are – autocratic, transactional, transformational, democratic, charismatic. Sitting in the session where we had to look at these different styles did baffle the brain – some seemed so similar but when reflecting on when I have had to lead or been in charge of different situations (both within an education setting and in politics) it helped me to see the different styles that you have to apply to being a leader.

As a reflection task, we were given the question: “Which leadership style do you find most natural?” Now, I sat and considered the question, and thought: “I know, autocratic”. Back in my politics days, I would say I was a very autocratic leader – do it, get it done, no hesitation. However, when really reflecting on my natural leadership style, I would have to say I am more situational.

The ratioanale behind that thought … I can’t pin point one exact leadership style that I would use. I employ many of them at different times with different people and with different pressures upon me. For example, during one of our discussions about bureaucratic leadership, I raised how when I worked in politics, there were certain ways we had to do things (such as getting letters out to constituents who had written in about policy) and there was no scope for change, and it was very bureaucratic – you had to follow the procedural steps, otherwise the system would fall to pieces. It was a fragile beast.

However, when thinking about policy, or if I think of an educational setting situation – thinking about how best to support the Most Able in our school, it’s not going to be a bureaucratic style I would employ but say a democratic or transformational style, as they lead to more creativity and thought processes. The intellectual thought processes needed and facilitated in these leadership styles help achieve outcomes that you are looking for, which is a variety of strategies and tactics to overcome the problem and buy-in from staff who feel like they have contributed to addressing said problem.

That’s why as leaders, may that be a Head of Department or a classroom practitioner (as even at ‘the bottom of the rung’ there is still leadership to take), we have varying different situations that we find ourselves in daily and have to adapt to the situation in front of us to varying degrees. Another example to help explain this would be how a Head of Department with a team made up of majority trainees and NQTs would not operate in the same way that they may do with a more experienced team. It would be dangerous to employ a laissez-faire approach to leading a team with a less experienced team!

Is situational leadership consistent?

Yet, last week, I took some time to finally read Sam Strickland’s Education Exposed, and saw him debunk the idea of different leadership styles being deployed in different moments because “by changing your leadership style you will be changing your demeanour, manner and how you come across to others”. Ultimately, you’re just making people mega confused.

This struck a chord with me, and made me pause. It would be quite jarring to go from a very authoritative leader who is demanding to in the next minute being laid back and relaxed, becoming someone who is so laissez-faire it is painful to deal with. However, there are situations as set out above that still make you think about how you employ different strategies and styles to ensure an outcome for your team – would I really be laissez-faire with data entry deadlines? No, they just have to be done.

Consistent Communication

For me, it’s more about being consistent with your approach. This stems in part from what Strickland says in Education Exposed about knowing who you are fully before you start to lead a team – maybe utilising the models mentioned in the book to help you get there. But where I would caveat it with is that you need to be consistent and bring the team along with you. You can’t just wake up one morning and do a total 180° and move completely towards the opposite end of the leadership-management spectrum and confuse your team. That’s where communication comes in.

Communication is necessary to achieve that consistency. Explicit communication with no b/s is the gold standard. For me, that means being clear with your vision, goals and ideas – which in essence you cannot achieve without doing a bit of what Strickland says about knowing you before anything else happens. That way if I need to be a bit bureaucratic to get some administrative tasks done, then that’s how it is going to be, and if we’re on top of things and have a bit more breathing space, then let’s have those conversations about how we shrink the attainment gap between our PP and non-PP students. It’s about prioritise in the here and now.

These are situational based upon extraneous factors and circumstances that often are out of our control – your Line Manager needs you to do a report on XYZ for the end of the week, a parent is demanding to know why their child is always in detention because of you or a staff member is off sick so you have had to cover their lessons and had no time to sort out the bazillion other things languishing on your to-do list.

To bridge that gap of having to shift up styles for different situations and maintaining the consistency that Strickland mentioned is communication. Crystal clear communication so that you and your team know where you stand, otherwise if you aren’t up front and clear, then there is massive potential for team moral to disintegrate and be hard to bring back. And that’s where you’ve failed as being a leader.

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