I lived through the brief period of school leadership theory in the UK that believed in the concept of the “Super Head” as the key to successful schools. Before taking my first headship in 2015, I was on a working visit to the USA and asked a very experienced and wise school principal, Bill Bixby, his thoughts on the topic.
Bill didn’t believe in the “Super Head” idea one iota. His own leadership was modest, calm, humble, wise, thoughtful, visible and very much “primus inter pares” when it came to his own leadership team.
Bill’s strength, running a large hugely successful IB high school just south of DC, was very much about the strength of his team, their skill sets, ability to work with one another and to operate their strategic brief.
“I have been very fortunate to see good leaders operate.”
On his desk was the Truman quote: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”. Bill also talked about the importance of “having the right people on the bus in the right seats” when it came to teams. Serving now as a superintendent of schools, he coaches and mentors school leaders, including time to support and advise me, in this model.
I have been very fortunate to see good leaders operate. I have been a part of successful leadership teams throughout my career, in all sorts of schools and settings and what I saw in a high school in Virginia a decade ago is very typical of strong leaders and strong teams. I have also seen not so good school leaders and subsequent weak teams to the detriment of the effective school organisation.
“The head liked his costly ‘away weekends’ at a local hotel, spending a lot of time to see who was ‘the change agent’.”
Team leadership in schools is an interesting topic that is often overlooked. I spoke at a Global School Alliance webinar on this theme at the end of May, listening to my fellow panellists and school leaders describe the way their school teams operated, the relationship, collegiality and their own role as school principal or head. It made me evaluate my own role and team in Moldova, especially the success in tackling together some of the most challenging issues we have faced in Eastern Europe from pandemic to war.
From a theory point of view, most school leaders have a passing knowledge of Belbin’s work on team roles and I was once part of a leadership team where the head liked his “away weekends” at a local hotel, at great cost, especially with an outside expert, spending a lot of time to see who was “the change agent” etc.
Whether we picked up Tuckman from the NPQH course, all school leaders recognise the stages of how teams are formed and go through the “storming” phase to hopefully get to the “performing” stage for the sake of the students and staff. Alas, too many never do and to quote Peter Drucker, culture really does eat strategy for breakfast, especially when it comes to leadership dynamics.
“Brighouse rejects the idea of the false dichotomies of a leader over a manager.”
I have seen a lot of leadership teams and school leaders operate in schools around the world and what is common in the strong leaders and strong schools is cohesion. In international schools, often with several languages, a local strand, lots of nationalities, creating the conditions of this cohesion (not coercion) is key to a strong team and a successful school. It also means a culture of innovation, support and a dynamic that continues to develop the organisation positively and to adapt successfully to challenge. What Sir Tim Brighouse called “living the vision”.
Brighouse also rejects the idea of the false dichotomies of a leader over a manager or being strategic not operational. He makes it clear that strong leadership, strong management and the ability to be both strategic and operational are in practice in effective schools led by strong leadership teams.
He also makes it clear that leaders are constantly building teams to serve the ever changing needs and landscape of education. A recent question I have put to my leadership teams is this; does our organisation match our strategy? As well as the perennial we all think about constantly as school leaders: what does success look like for us?
“Be highly visible, be highly energetic and always read the tea leaves”.
Finally, Michael Fullan placed the necessity for a strong team in allowing the school leader to spend time not on micromanaging but in the spaces of the school that needs to see the principal such as the school gate greeting the students, being accessible to parents, in the hallways and corridors, supporting teachers and admin staff.
Having a strong team allows for this and the last key takeaway from Bill Bixby before I embarked on my career as a head chimes with this and has stayed with me daily; “Be highly visible, be highly energetic and always read the tea leaves”.