In education we are very comfortable using the term “middle leaders”, rather than “middle managers”, to talk about heads of department and heads of faculty. But are they really leaders? What distinguishes middle leaders from middle managers?
Middle managers – and senior managers for that matter – work to the specification of their leaders. Managers only become leaders when they inject something of themselves into their work. Managers sing the hymn sheets of others. Leaders do much more, they add verses, create harmonies and the best compose new scores.
In this sense, all teachers are managers of the young, and some become leaders in their classrooms and beyond amongst colleagues.
So, for those who aspire to become effective leaders, the key is finding that something of yourself you will inject into your work. What do you do, will you do, that distinguishes you as a leader, as opposed to managing other people’s expectations?
The language of leadership
Our unnecessarily complicated language of leadership doesn’t help. Colleagues talk about aims, objectives, missions, outcomes, success criteria, goals, targets, expectations, aspirations and vision. The differences often come down to deadlines: “at the end of this lesson, this term, this year, eventually…” At their simplest they are all steps towards achieving a desired state of affairs and we often describe this longer term focus our vision.
Of course, any vision must meet statutory requirements, professional standards and specific criteria set by the school, or group of schools. However, if you only work to government, MAT and school expectations you will remain a manager. To become a leader, your vision needs to contain something of yourself. So, where to begin?
Creating Your Vision Statement
When embarking on this process, it can be useful to draft your vision statement as a document. Start with a set of notes and thoughts about why you teach and want to lead. Then augment your thoughts with words from respected others. Aim for just a few paragraphs containing a tangible and realistic description of future activity.
This should be your set of practical aspirations. It will become a source of strength because you’ll refer to it as the simplest, clearest statement of what you, your team and the school is trying to do and to be.
Whilst it must be practical and realistic it must also be capable of development and modification. It will be about the ‘whys’ (the purposes) and the ‘whats’ (the things to do), but also it should be about the ‘hows’ (the ways of working).
It must not be ethereal, impossible and unachievable. However, it ought to have elements within it that inspire and cause flutters of anxiety about whether it can really be done. It should challenge you, and those you lead, about the excellence and wisdom within you all. It may even be audacious.
Creating it, writing it down and carefully planning moves towards it is the start of achieving it. The start of turning your ideals, ethics and moral purpose into reality.
Remember, your vision will only be realised when it is shared, understood and becomes a motivator for all who will eventually believe it and contribute to it. So, as your vision statement firms up, begin to think of it as a rallying point for those in your team and the school but also as an advertisement for those who may benefit from your aspirations.
That is hugely important. Achieving a vision has to be a collaborative process. What better way to refine, reshape and motivate others around your vision than involving them in developing it?
If you are not sure how to get your team to buy into your vision, and help you create it, here is an activity that may help. It is also great professional development for everyone involved.
Leading a Vision Walk
While this is a straightforward activity, it will require the support of senior staff and colleagues. At simplest, it is a team activity, led by yourself, taking a minimum of half a day, plus preparation and follow up time. I have used often and successfully over many years.
The purpose of the activity is not only to identify the vision of those who walk but to analyse what is helping the team succeed and where there are barriers to improvement. It is a risk analysis with bells and whistles.
A vision walk is a self-evaluation prior to making an action plan for improvement. Therefore, the task of each team member as they walk is to record answers to three simple questions:
- What do we see we like and want to keep?
- What do we see we would like to lose?
- What don’t we see we would like to see?
They should be encouraged to note what people are saying and doing as well as the physical environment, displays, furniture, etc.
After the walk, or even during, the team should coordinate and analyse results. It is important to prioritise actions to strengthen the ‘what we likes’ and ‘what we would like to sees’ (within the team’s control) and remove the ‘like to lose’ or barriers to progress.
A first outcome should be feedback, especially of the positives, maybe in a report to all who were involved. Feedback can be a great motivator. The second outcome should be a draft Action Plan to offer colleagues as a tangible way to realise their vision.
The power of the vision walk is that all aspects of environment, activity and behaviour are subject to scrutiny. Most importantly it checks reality against the vision. Are we actually doing what we claim to be doing? It should also provide new ideas that can be incorporated into your developing vision statement and School Improvement Plan.
It will help your vision to be realistic, achievable, and focused on the things that matter most. It will ensure that your vision leads the way for your team.
John Pearce is a former headteacher, school improvement advisor, author and creator of the iAbacus, an online tool for school self-evaluation (which uses the Vision Walk process) For more visit johnpearce.org.uk and iabacus.co.uk or follow John at @JohnPearce_JP on Twitter.
John is now happy to support leadership thinking – often pro bono – for more email firstname.lastname@example.org