Great School Leadership 4: People

Schools are made of people.
Schools are made of people.

In any school leadership role, there is a good case for saying that success is ultimately all about the people.  The  ethos, vision and strategy don’t exist in isolation; they exist in reference to the dynamics of the people who make up the organisation.

There are lots of dimensions to this all-important people factor:

 Individual competence and capacity for professional development

The dream scenario is to be surrounded by highly competent professionals, who drive themselves to excel in all that they do, make a significant contribution, accept accountability, support the school’s vision and ethos and continually seek to improve their practice.  When recruiting, this is the kind of person you want to appoint. (See this post on recruitment...)

The reality is usually different; all of us have our strengths and aspects of competences and skills we need to work on. Some teachers are better or more confident and expert than others; some leaders are more effective than others. Sometimes people are in positions that they are not skilled enough to be effective in and some people don’t ever seem to improve however hard they try.

Possibly the biggest challenge of leadership is to create the culture that allows you to tackle underperformance whilst giving effective people the courage and confidence to take risks; encouraging them to be highly self-critical and reflective when they need to be.  Investing in CPD is an essential element in doing this; making continual self-improvement a core feature of the school’s policy and practice. At the same time, you need to be prepared to deal with the areas of performance that aren’t good enough for what you’re trying to achieve.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the many deep flaws with the Performance Pay concept is that it creates a no-man’s land of mediocrity.  In my view, you are either good enough to pay properly, or you are not good enough. Our PRP discussions led to a procedure described here that makes it very explicit that concerns about performance are dealt with through forming a plan of action for an individual, long before any pay progression decision is taken.

The hardest thing I find to deal with is where a person is basically competent but their attitudes or behaviours are problematic.  They annoy you, frustrate you or disappoint you.. but they’re not really doing a terrible job.  It can be hard sometimes to define objectively the issues you have with someone; and that means you need to find ways to work with them and turn them around.  You also need to develop a rounded view of someone’s capabilities;  something we’re trying to do with our Departmental Review system.

A big issue for many people is when they’re being led by someone who isn’t as capable as they should be but who doesn’t appear to have an awareness of that.  It can be worse if that person is then defensive and puts energy into projecting a facade of effectiveness. These are tricky situations to resolve and need careful thought and planning to address. How do you know if you’re good enough? As leaders, we need to model the self-awareness that we expect to see in others… but that is easier said than done.

Do you have people around you who will tell you honestly when you’re under-performing? I’m awaiting the results of my 360 review…it will be interesting.

Personal and professional motivation

So, what is the motivation?
So, what is the motivation?

Motivating people is a massive role for a leader.  People want to be paid fairly, yes, but more often they want rewards that are intangible.  As I describe in this post, Creating the Conditions for Great Teachers to Thrive, there are many factors to consider: Purpose, Challenge, Autonomy, Growth, Recognition, Care.

Personally, I find the issue of recognition challenging.  You can never do enough of this.. showing an interest in what people are doing and making people feel that their work is worthwhile.  I never feel like I’ve done enough..and that’s probably because I haven’t.

This slide is on Vic Goddard’s wall. I borrowed it and now it is on my wall too, Originating from Tim Brighouse, it is a model for thinking about  successful change management.

Managing Change from Tim Brighouse via Vic Goddard
Managing Change from Tim Brighouse via Vic Goddard

It works on many levels – I could have included it in any of the five posts in this series – but I’ve put it here because a lack of Incentives is often a barrier related to People.  If leaders don’t work enough on securing buy-in, providing incentives to engage, there is opposition.   Often the incentive is simply to be involved in the decision-making process.   Similarly, if leaders don’t invest enough in providing opportunities for people to enhance their skills, there is anxiety about change.  CPD, CPD, CPD.  This is where a lot of people get their professional and personal motivation from.. being allowed to develop.

Team dynamics and effective collective action

One of my favourite Dylan Wiliam quotes is that he suggests teachers should work as a team; not just in a team. He is talking about the process of planning and assessing learning, making every child’s success a collective problem, not the responsibility of one teacher.  Each department in a school will have its own team ethos and dynamics and the capacity of the people to work as a team will vary.  I’ve known some highly dysfunctional teams… and been in a few.   Tackling this issue and talking explicitly about team function is important.

I’ve written about some of the team dynamics we create on our SLT here: Leadership Lessons from Geese.  Our rotating Chair and termly Associate SLT membership are going strong.  I’m blessed to be working with phenomenal people and that makes life so much easier.  I can delegate, share, drop back from the front or lead everyone out myself.. and we all know what our roles are.  That situation doesn’t always happen.   If the team dynamics around you are wrong, it’s got to be priority to get them in order.. or else things start to go off track pretty quickly.

Trust, confidence, autonomy and accountability

Another key challenge for a leader is to get this bit right.  You want to trust people; they want to be trusted. But for that to work, you need people to accept a high degree of professional accountability.  If you don’t trust people, and focus on scrutiny and imposed accountability measures, they don’t have confidence in you and feel stifled by the lack of autonomy.  At the same time, if they don’t perform, you tend to trust them less.

I firmly believe that to build a high trust, high challenge culture, you need to start with the premise that the highest performing people will thrive on autonomy and low scrutiny. This builds trust, builds confidence and is motivating.  You then see a stronger culture of self-driven professional accountability.   In a mixed staff with  high variation in quality, you may need to adopt a flexible approach.  That’s where the rainforest thinking kicks in.  Don’t treat everyone in the same way.. give people the freedom they need and see what happens. Then go in support or challenge those that don’t deliver in those conditions.

Employer-employee relationships and responsibilities

I don’t know any Head who especially enjoys this aspect of the role, mainly because it is very challenging and pretty much a thankless area of work.  However, it is supremely important.  As an employee you expect to have transparency over your pay, clarity as to how your career might develop over time, timely information about changes to your pay and conditions, a proper contract, a reasonable level of understanding if you have health issues or family related problems….. and so on.

With your head in the Vision cloud,  it can sometimes be difficult to focus on employer functions that are one-removed from classrooms, pedagogy and learning.  However, if you get this wrong, you lose people’s support, motivation levels fall and all kinds of barriers are erected.  This doesn’t just apply to Heads.   Any line manager has a responsibility to the people they lead to ensure that their employee rights are taken seriously.

Formal and informal structures

The organisational hierarchy diagram never tells the real story.
The organisational hierarchy diagram never tells the real story.

I’ll end with this.  I learned about this when studying for an MA in Education back in the 1990s and it has always resonated with me.  There is an official organisational diagram for most schools.  This suggests lines of authority and communication. However, the lines and boxes don’t really exist.  Schools are made up of lots of sub-cultures shared amongst pockets of staff; in addition each member of staff has their own set of values and priorities.  People talk to the people they want to; the people they share interests with; the people who seem to get things done.

What I’ve learned is that you can’t control this.  It is part of working in a dynamic organisation.  Leaders who get upset if they are by-passed should think about why that might have happened.  Teachers generally have a reasonably well-placed scepticism for using the ‘proper channels’.  They just want things to work and take the line of least resistance.  I say, allow it.  Work with it.  This is what the organisation is.

However, I do then feel that a key leadership role is to work on aligning the efforts and energies of this diverse group of individuals. I wrote about this in this blog about the Force Field analogy.  Every day I do this… nudge here and there to make sure people are lining up with the force field of our shared vision, as much as I can.

We're all individuals... but we do feel the force if it is strong enough.
We’re all individuals… but we do feel the force if it is strong enough.


  1. Loved this, Tom – thank you. Am conducting a head’s appraisal this week (and did another one last week) – will be sharing this series of blog posts with both heads. Hope they follow you in the future!


  2. Great piece, Tom. (Hopefully, praise from the NUT won’t hurt your reputation too badly.)

    Schools would be a lot more effective if school leaders thought more about leading, supporting and motivating people and, crucially, developing leadership skills in others. There is very little in most teachers’ careers to prepare them for school leadership and some of the ones who aim for headship seem to be doing it for the wrong reasons. The culture of the ‘superhead’ has been really damaging to a lot of careers.

    My day job as a union rep would be a lot easier if more work went in to growing leaders and holding existing ones more seriously to account. School leaders who are not doing the job properly often don’t get discovered until it’s too late and something disastrous happens. Once they’ve gone, it’s a roll of the dice and a panel of volunteers who pick the next one from a small field. Then there’s the latest phenomenon of good leaders, doing a good job, who have to hit the road after an outstanding OFSTED judgement because they can’t risk hanging on and presiding over a decline. There just aren’t enough good heads to staff the system.


    • Thanks Julie. It’s a sad state of affairs…It’s a double edge; poor leaders being slightly too secure; good leaders not feeling secure enough. Generally, we need to have better accountability processes and a stronger consensus on the kind of leadership we need in schools.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s