Category Archives: The Next Level

The Pillars of Great Leadership, Part One: Self Esteem

Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.
Marylin Monroe (attrib.)

This post is part of a series on my reflections on senior leadership. To read the rest click here, otherwise, read on! 

As I reflected recently on how I wanted to develop this series on The Next Level, I felt that rather than going into the actions of senior leadership, instead I should look to further explore the qualities of great leaders, and how this can improve my practice at this level. My reasoning is akin to Stephen Covey’s approach of ‘Sharpening the Saw’; I know I have the capacity and qualities to succeed at this level, but am I making the most of them and in what areas can I make the greatest gains?

I talk of pillars because I wanted to focus on what great leadership rests on; what foundations are needed for a leader to be truly effective in their work. Again this is an opportunity for self reflection, but also to give others a framework to go through the same process. Let’s begin with what my research has shown me to be the core quality: self esteem.

Premise

I thought long and hard about how to go about this. See, from a very young age, self esteem has been somewhat of an slippery issue. I was brought up to be modest, not flashy and never to over play one’s achievements. There is obviously some merit in this: no one likes a show off, and it’s a way of keeping your feet on the ground. That said, one has to be careful not to cross over from modesty into meekness and lack of surety; no leader ever succeeded by being submissive.

That said, being submissive and modest are understandable traps to fall into when being eager to please, wanting to avoid over confidence. So how can one carry self esteem without it slipping into over assurity and arrogance?

Principles

Self esteem comes from two main values: self-acceptance and self-responsibility. Let’s explore.

Self-acceptance

To accept oneself, to value yourself for who you are, without judging yourself is self-acceptance. It’s about not comparing yourself to others and appreciating the merits of what you’ve achieved. Now, if you’re anything like me this is something that hasn’t come readily. For example, I used to balk when people called me a geek – but I am a geek! There’s no actual shame in being a geek; it’s about taking an more than superficial interest in a wide range of things (I’ve recently learned of the term philomath which literally means lover of knowledge: I think I’ll start using that). Yet for years it was something I was ashamed of.

Part of the reason for this was down to comparing myself with my friends, for whom studying was akin to pulling teeth; but in reality those friends were temporary and now I move in circles where knowledge is truly valued. The lesson, then, with self acceptance is to not compare who you are with who others are, and instead realise what you have to offer to the world and make the most of those attributes.

Importantly a lack of self acceptance is incredibly easy for others to pick up on. People can smell it, particularly if it results in a submissive nature. Lack of acceptance in oneself means one can become overly willing to please, unassertive or worse, both. Having a sidekick attitude is unlikely to be becoming in a leadership role. People look to leaders to stand for their vision, not to question their goals relative to others’ opinions.

Self-responsibility

One thing I learned from an early age: you create your own luck. When you accept yourself, you accept your situation and you take responsibility for it too. Once this happens you take control. A person with self esteem understands that the outcomes in their lives are their responsibility. This means that when they want things to happen they make decisions and live by them, whether they made the right decision or otherwise.

Recently I’ve learned that the trick to this is to become 100% solution orientated. Don’t complain about a situation, and blame others; instead immediately ask what can I do about it? This may not mean having answers to problems right away, but what it might mean is knowing where to look and/or finding the time to put solutions together. This is an easy lesson to forget. I can’t be the only one who has done so. But when you’ve got an attitude of leadership like mine – helping people to be the best they can – then solutions are your bread and butter. Self-responsibility allows you to thrive in any circumstance.

Integrity

I went into detail about integrity in an earlier post, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it’s obvious to me that if your actions aren’t congruent with your value system or your words then you’ll never hold confidence in who you are: you’ll have too many questions in yourself to ever carry oneself with assurity and self belief.

Takeaway Questions

  1. What makes you, you?
  2. What qualities do you possess that set you apart from others?
  3. What benefit do those qualities provide?
  4. Think about two or three problems you currently face: what can you do to make a difference right away?
  5. Why is blaming others destructive to your self esteem?
  6. How can you act in the future to ensure your leadership fits with your value system?

Conclusion

Self-esteem centres on three principles:

  • Self-acceptance: valuing who you are without comparison to the qualities and achievements of others;
  • Self-responsibility: understanding that life’s outcomes are a result of one’s actions;
  • Integrity: being true to your core values in each aspect of your role.

Senior leaders need self-esteem because it communicates assurity and solidity: if the one steering the ship has confidence in the course, then the rest of the crew can enjoy the journey…

Thanks for reading. I always welcome feedback, so hit me with a reply or retweet!

The Next Level: Leadership Levers

Leadership is influence.

John C. Maxwell

This is the next in a series of posts about the transition to Senior Leadership. You can read the rest here.

This post is the last I want to write about in terms of looking at one’s situation prior to taking up a SLT role. In this post, I aim to look at how when an individual progresses through the hierarchy, what priorities one is concerned with, what influence one has, but also what leverage one has to effect change.

The hierarchy

In very simple terms, the progress a teacher makes through a school hierarchy is as follows;

  • Classroom teacher
  • Assistant departmental/pastoral leadership
  • Departmental/pastoral leadership
  • Assistant headship
  • Deputy headship
  • Headship

I’m going to discuss three elements of the leadership aspect of the roles, they being:

  • Exposure – how much time you are in the classroom.
  • Leverage – how much impact the decisions you make have on the students’ learning
  • Accountability – how much responsibility you have in making those decisions.

I’m also going to reflect on the priorities that individual has, and how the influence of the three elements should affect the activities of the individual in that role.

Classroom teacher

  • Exposure – significant majority of time in school is based in classroom. It is your priority.
  • Leverage – although you have little say in the running of the school, you have a significant degree of control over the learning of your students, even if schemes of work, lesson plans and lesson structures are determined for you.
  • Accountability – because you have the degree of control over your students, you are expected to take responsibility for the situation in front of you.

Assistant departmental/pastoral leadership

  • Exposure – large amount of time in school is based in the classroom. Although teaching is your priority, you have to balance this with the responsibilities given.
  • Leverage – you are now starting to have more say about the running of the department, and you have input around teaching and learning, assessment, etc. You are often the ‘engine room’ of a team.
  • Accountability – in terms of how the department is run, you have input, but the buck doesn’t stop at your door. That said however classroom teaching will still, and should, take a large amount of your focus.

Departmental/pastoral leadership

  • Exposure – you’re still spending a significant amount of time in the classroom, but obviously your priority is leading a team and a large chunk of time should be allocated to that.
  • Leverage – you make decisions that influence a lot of students, and in the case of core subjects, the whole of the school! Only top-end SLT have that sort of impact in a school.
  • Accountability – in terms of a subject/year group, the buck certainly stops at your door. You are the ‘face’ of the subject/year group and as the person with the most direct control the decisions you make carry the greater consequence.

Assistant headship

  • Exposure – classroom time is less than middle leaders, but you’ll certainly be more visible around school. How you conduct yourself in this regard is more indicative of your potential impact in this role.
  • Leverage – as you progress into senior leadership, you are now balancing interests of differing stakeholders, and this needs to be recognised. Often the work you do is translating the vision of SLT into operations that can be taken at departmental/pastoral levels, or on whole-school initiatives, e.g. careers guidance, pedagogical practice, etc.
  • Accountability – this role certainly correlates with that of an assistant at departmental level. The buck in terms of school leadership does not stop at your door, but your decisions have greater impact in terms of culture and ethos, and so one cannot be blase about one’s station. Instead it’s important to align one’s thoughts and energies with the higher echelons of SLT.

Deputy headship

  • Exposure – Little classroom time, but certainly more school time. Often front of house on core vision goals, e.g. pedagogy, classroom and behaviour management, safeguarding, SEND, data, etc.
  • Leverage – If the departmental deputy is the ‘engine room’ of running a subject or year then the deputy head level is the ‘engine room’ of SLT. A lot of autonomy is placed on these roles and their actions are often wide reaching.
  • Accountability – The wider reaching actions and the high level of autonomy is balanced by the significantly greater accountability. The coherence of school operations and their impact is of high importance, and it is the deputy headship level that makes this happen.

Headship

  • Exposure – Much higher than it used to be. Often the Headteacher/Principal was rarely seen! These days it is very different, and a good Head will have real oversight of operations from the ground upwards, they’ll be in and around key ‘hubs’ in the school as the day progresses, as both the figurehead and foundational support of staff in the school.
  • Leverage – The highest of them all, obviously. A headteacher obviously make take more time to make a decision, but this is with all possible evidence available; but their level of decisiveness and therefore their leverage on the activities within a school are so significant, rash decisions can cause long standing harm to a school.
  • Accountability – In many ways, the headteacher is the school – how a school performs is the manifestation of the vision, culture, structure and staff’s impact on the learning of the students. Whilst it is important to avoid micromanagement of every decision taken across a school, it is also crucial that the balance of autonomy is not so there’s no semblance of control.

Priorities

The number one priority of all staff is obviously students’ learning. However, there are different elements of this that are led at different stages. There is a balance between the leverage and the impact that a person in this role has.

  • As a class teacher, you’ve got to ensure that students understand what has been taught. Low leverage, direct impact.
  • As an assistant middle leader, you might have the responsibility of supporting the vision of the middle leader in charge, balancing this with the needs of the general teaching staff in your team, making teaching and learning in the classroom as effective as possible. Medium leverage, indirect impact.
  • As a middle leader, you might translate the school vision and ethos through the framework of a vision and need of your subject or pastoral responsibility, to ensure that all students can access the curriculum you’re expected to cover. High leverage, indirect impact.
  • As an assistant headteacher, you might replicate the assistant middle leader role but on a grander scale and in the reverse direction, using information about students across the school make judgements to inform policy and decisions taken at the SLT level. Medium leverage, indirect impact.
  • As a deputy headteacher, you might triangulate school data, vision and statutory and regulatory policies in order to determine choices that take the school forward and help every student thrive. High leverage, indirect impact.
  • As a headteacher, you decide on those choices to take the school forward. High leverage, direct impact.

Teaching is one of those strange vocations where everyone at every level still does the same job in some portion of their role: teach. You don’t get, for example, hospital chief executives performing surgery, council management tidying the parks or the president of a chain store running the tills on a Saturday afternoon. But you do get that in teaching, and it is to the benefit of all that all staff can appreciate the demands of teaching a class, and this should influence decision making as a result. However I do think that this causes a problem: there is a lot of time demand on teaching a class that isn’t actually spent in the classroom: planning, marking, data, intervention, etc probably add on as much time – if not more – than is spent with students running a lesson. The impact of the time burden then is more significant further down the chain.

A senior leader therefore has to think; how does this decision create the greatest leverage in terms of student progress in proportion to teacher input? The decisions and systems that a senior leader takes and puts into place are therefore design problems.

In the next post, we’ll look at the principles of design, and how they can be used for a senior leader to make the greatest leverage and positive impact on the learning of students in their care.

The Next Level: The Self, Part 2 – Integrity

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

This the next part of a series on the transition from middle to senior leadership. You can read all of the posts on the series here.

In the previous post, I looked at the notion of authenticity in terms of defining the self, and how it influences one’s ability and capacity as a leader. In this post, we’ll look at integrity.

Definition

As with authenticity, there are lots of dictionary definitions of integrity. The OED defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and of strong moral principles“. The Wikipedia entry includes the following quote as a definition of integrity from a ethical perspective:

…an individual is said to possess the virtue of integrity if the individual’s actions are based upon an internally consistent framework of principles.

What is interesting to me is that one’s integrity is centered on internal consistency. Our integrity is not defined by being true to the values of others, or in terms of what others think our values are and if we are meeting them, but instead being true to the values that we personally hold and state to be important.

So, how do we determine what values are important to us? First it’s important to understand that one’s values determine one’s behaviour, and influence one’s choices. Let’s take the choice one makes in terms of buying a car. If you value the environment, then you’ll choose a car like a Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe. If you value engineering, then you’ll choose something German, like a Mercedes. If practicality is your thing, then a Honda estate will be in your line of sight.

At this point it’s probably obvious that authenticity drives integrity; being true to one’s qualities will help define one’s values as a leader. Rare is the leader whose values clash with one’s skill set.

Let’s look at how we can determine one’s values.

Starting out

I’ll make it clear first: defining one’s core values is not easy! If you don’t know where to begin, Colin Hiles has a way of starting; I used this myself. I have five, in no particular order:

  1. Achievement
  2. Family
  3. Knowledge
  4. Service
  5. Security

I’ll now go into these in more detail. The most important to me I’ll leave until last; the rest fight for precedence!

Knowledge

Knowledge has served me well in both the professional and personal realm: having a rounded academic, social and cultural understanding provides a wide range of tools to support one’s educational practice. As for the personal realm, well what is the art of conversation if not to be able to discuss a wide range of issues?

Service

I serve others for two reasons – one, I don’t like seeing others struggle in situations where I know I can help and two, I gain a sense of purpose for doing so. I remember, in the early days of working for Carillion, taking part in a corporate responsibility project to re-open and revive a public woodland area in Wolverhampton. It was incredibly tough, requiring many hours of manual labour and resulting in stiff muscles and grazes, but the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the project? Priceless.

Achievement

As you start out in teaching it is easy to get a sense of success in one’s role. As time progresses, the sense of accomplishment success provides takes longer – familiarity does breed contempt. Instead, I am learning that appreciating the bigger picture, and defining milestones that will map out the path to success are part of gaining a sense of achievement.

Security

The ability to have a standard of living that goes beyond paying one’s bills nothing to be ashamed of. On a professional level, security in your field comes from knowing your role, knowing your skill set and bridging the gap between the two, constantly learning new skills and refining ones practice to be effective in order to provide a level of self-reliance.

Family

My most important value is the happiness of my family. All that I want in life is to provide for them. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the other values I’ve stated and delved into are really a subset of this value: being in service of my wife and daughter (as both a member and a leader of my family); knowing how to be a good husband and father; mutually supporting each other to achieve success in our life together; providing a secure environment for my wife and daughter to live their lives.

Matching personal and professional values

At Dixons Trinity Academy, we expect staff and students to live the following values every day:

  • Hard work
  • Trust
  • Fairness

For me, these mesh quite tightly with mine own. Knowledge, service and achievement require hard work. Security requires both trust and fairness. The success of a family requires all three. Some may snort, but it is reassuring to know that I am part of a professional organisation mirrors my own value system. It is hard to demonstrate integrity if that is not the case!

The challenge to one’s integrity

Whatever your value system, there will be times when it will be challenged, and likewise there will be times where you will find yourself lacking. This does not make you a bad person. What is important is that a) you know why this has happened; b) you are able to reconcile yourself to overcoming this and c) you reflect on what it is you truly hold as a value.

It is often the case that those who demonstrate the strongest integrity are the ones who at some point have not been able to or allowed to. As a leader it is important that when this has been a situation that has been in the public domain, there is an open admission of what has happened, why it has happened and more importantly what you are going to do to move forward.

Integrity is not a fixed attribute. It can fluctuate. This isn’t an excuse to allow one’s integrity to be devalued: keep in mind what you define to hold most dear, and use that as your moral compass. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where your integrity is consistently tested, then think about why this is the case.

In conclusion

One of the oldest maxims of philosophical thought is “know thyself”. Think about the values you hold to be important and take the time to map out in your mind how these should drive your actions, your conversation and your goals. See how these map to the values and ethos of your workplace, and see how (maybe if) they will allow you to flourish in your role.

The Next Level: The Self, Part 1 – Authenticity

This above all: to thine own self be true.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is second of a series of posts about the move from middle to senior leadership – you can find the introduction here.

Before I start to investigate the roles and responsibilities of the senior leader, I think it’s important to look at the leader themselves; who and what a leader should be, and how they should act.

I should also add that I am using this as an opportunity to reflect on my own practice, so those of you who know me or are familiar with my work a) should not be surprised by this and b) hopefully you’ll see the impact of this series on my work.

So, to begin with, let’s look at the self.

The self is defined in philosophical terms as the essential qualities that constitute a person’s uniqueness. I’m going to divide my reflections on the self in two parts: authenticity, and integrity. In this post, we’ll look at authenticity.

Definition

There are lots of dictionary definitions of authenticity. In the professional and leadership frame of reference, I would say that Wikipedia’s definition is not a bad place to start:

Authenticity concerns the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.

My reasoning is that the authentic self is one who lives out their actions in a way that is true to themselves. When we are not being authentic, the security and faith in our role and responsibility comes into question both by oneself and others.

So let’s break that definition down.

Origins

Avid readers of my blog will already know this, but my origins are pretty humble. Raised on a council estate with not a lot of money around, I was lucky enough to have a love for schooling and a want for self-improvement. I did well at school, not exceptional, and after a trying time at college flourished at university. Although my academic studies were technical, a strong founding in societal issues and popular culture, as well as a thirst for knowledge mean that given time, I can get a good sense of the core issues of a topic.

So what does this mean in terms of being authentic as a leader? Well first of all, my main concern as a teacher and as a school leader is ensuring that all students in my care are given the opportunity to use education to improve their socio-economic status. With that in mind, all of the schools that I have worked at (apart from my first training practice), have been in socio-economically deprived areas (the root causes of this deprivation being variable). I also know it would not necessarily be easier to work in a school based in a more well-to-do area: all schools have their own challenges at what ever scale. My career, therefore, has been a reflection of my upbringing. This has not taken place for any validation other than that I want to give the youth of today the same opportunities that I did.

Attributes

I recently did a Myers-Briggs personality type questionnaire – go here if you fancy a try – just to get a summary of my attributes as I percieve them. Of course others might have differing opinions, but it was an interesting exercise.

NB: I know the test-retest validity of the MBTI is somewhat variable. But this is not meant to be anything other than a reflective exercise.

Apparently I am a ENFJ-T personality, aka a Protagonist. According to the profile on the website I completed the test, protagonists are tolerant, reliable, charismatic, altruistic and natural leaders. However, on the flipside of that, protagonists can also be overly idealistic, too selfless, too sensitive, fluctuate in their self-esteem and struggle to make tough decisions. The latter traits are things that many of us face over time, and if I’m honest as I’ve developed as a leader I myself have found myself in those positions; less frequently, of course, as time has gone on!

(I appreciate that this definition is not fixed, and there is probably some blurring of the distinctions given by the MBTI)

It’s interesting that much of this correlates with a view of my own self, however (particularly in terms of the weaker areas that define protagonists) what is interesting is how some of these traits may seem to clash in terms of a fuelling a person’s action. As I move through this series, I plan to explore the traits defined in the indicator as a way of understanding what it takes to overcome any associated barriers to effective leadership.

As a leader, therefore, it is important to understand one’s true qualities, and then think about how to make the positive ones as much of a lever to create as much success as possible, and mitigate or remove the less positive ones in order to be 100% effective as much as possible.

Commitments

This is probably a little more obvious in terms of definition. Who and what are you committed to? These can be defined in two ways:

Personal commitments – yourself, family, friends, your belief system, etc;

Professional commitments – your team, leaders, organisation, trade, etc.

It may be that the two overlap – I have many friends in the education profession and I have a personal belief in the importance of education.

It is also important that a sense of balance is drawn between the two, and that one can reasonably manage ones energies in living up to those commitments. In March I made a conscious decision to hold back on as much involvement in my roles beyond my family and my job, as an opportunity to ensure I wasn’t reneging on my commitments to myself (i.e. being able to have chance to relax!) and those who were important to me.

Although this is the easier to define it is probably the hardest to achieve. I have learned very recently that whilst one’s capacity to succeed in each commitment is unbounded, one’s capacity to take on commitments is limited. In other words, to spread oneself to thinly is to limit one’s potential.

Sincerity

Sincerity is your ability to be honest and to be genuine with your feelings. A leader should be clear in one’s intentions and not say what others might want to hear. The truth, in other words, works. I know that this is one of my strengths as a leader. I do not cloak my actions because I feel that I value those around me better than to unintentionally mislead. Please note that I’m not saying that people don’t always misunderstand me! The point is that I say how I feel, and what I’d like to happen.

That said, I am brutally honest and wear my feelings and emotions too well at times. The analogy of the duck, who when swimming looks to glide across the water but below the surface is frantically paddling is not a bad one to follow. There is an art to leadership of being genuine with one’s thoughts and feelings but communicating them in a way where emotion does not cloud the message. Clarity and economy are always more effective than bluster and an air for the dramatic.

Devotion

Your devotion underpins your commitments. If you choose or are chosen to be responsible for something, then as a leader you have to demonstrate a sense of loyalty to that cause. For example, at Dixons Trinity we are given autonomy to run elective co-curricular sessions. There is an expectation that once that commitment is stated, that you should dedicate (proportionately) the amount of care, time, and planning one would to your main role.

Likewise, I chose to move up the hierarchy in terms of teaching – and at each stage upon taking that role have endeavoured to make sure that no one role is given too much precedence than is required – i.e. keep the main thing, the main thing…

It is important also, to take the time to reflect on one’s commitments and think carefully if you’ve properly shown devotion to them. Many a time I have had to do this, both pro-actively and re-actively. I now take time in my week – usually during the commute home – to think about the people and things I am responsible for and to, and evaluate my devotion to them.

Intentions

Finally then, the authentic self is clear on their goals, their aims. What is it that you want to achieve. Stephen Covey talks about ‘beginning with the end in mind’, or in other words, what would you like people to think of you at the end of your life? Simon Sinek talks about about ‘starting with why’ – what is it that drives you to do the things you do every day? At Dixons Trinity each member of staff and of the student body have our own sentence that reflects what we want to achieve with our life, to help us define our purpose.

Professionally, there is an element of circularity to my intentions – they go back to my origins, in the sense that I want to help who had similar starting points in life as I did elevate themselves out of trying circumstances, and create opportunities to succeed in life. Personally, my intentions are simple – I want my family to have the best of everything possible I can give them, so the lives we lead, the experiences we have and the opportunities we take allow us to be happy and fulfilled.

Again, the professional and personal do not have to be mutually exclusive. I can serve my personal intentions by earning a good living serving my professional ones. The combination of the two provide a powerful purpose to succeed in life.

Ultimately, if our origins and attributes help define our actions, it is our intentions that drive our actions.

In conclusion

Defining the authentic self is the first step to developing one’s principles as a leader. By looking at our upbringing, qualities, who and what we are responsible for and so forth, we can form a true sense of how to achieve success in whatever position we undertake.

Next up, I’ll be looking at the notion of integrity, and how the demonstration of both authenticity and integrity help the leader become effective in their role.

The Next Level: Introduction

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other

John F. Kennedy

When I decided that I was going to train to be a teacher, I thought I was going to revolutionise Mathematics teaching. I remember walking home from the works office on Gresty Road in Crewe thinking about how I was going to get every student to love the concept of Pythagoras’ theorem. How hard could teaching be? As it turned out – and as all teachers know –  it could be very hard. The naive confidence of youth (I was 23) was quickly blown away and replaced with humility and a willingness to learn from those better and more experienced than me. 12 years later, that approach appears to have paid off.

In my time in education since then, I’ve spent time learning my trade at a variety of positions and levels – pastoral, academic, departmental lead, extra-curricular, etc – and that humility and capacity for learning has served me well. However, with success comes confidence, and whilst I’ve never lost those core values I did assume a feeling of authority in my field.

Like more hierarchical organisations, it’s often the case teaching staff and middle leaders look at senior leadership teams and think ‘I can do that, how hard can it be’. Feeling like an authority in my field and preparing to be a senior leader, it was just like the aforementioned walk home 12 years ago readying myself for teacher training. I am not ashamed to admit this; after all, being Head of Mathematics is bloody hard – but I soon I felt the bump of being brought back down to earth.

The past year has shown me that being a senior leader is bloody hard too – it’s just that there are different challenges that a) teachers and middle leaders don’t have and b) they don’t see. Just as being a teacher isn’t simply about turning up and teaching students about something, being a senior leader isn’t simply about making big decisions.

This website so far has been focused mainly on middle leadership and the teaching of Mathematics. Since my role as a leader has evolved, then so this website does. I mentioned in the Situation Report post that I wouldn’t do much beyond the Actual Maths and Building a Department series. I will continue writing on these, but the majority of the posts from now on will be about school leadership, under the banner of The Next Level.

I’ll be writing about what I’ve learned, what the key thinkers have to say and discovering and sharing best practice. The early focus will be around evolving from being a middle leader to a senior leader: what the challenges are, how I’ve learned to tackle them, and so on.

I look forward to what the future holds.