Leadership knowledge: more inclusive and hopeful than the 'born to do it' narrative
On the days when there is an angry parent in reception, a child having a panic attack who keeps asking for me, a phone call from Ofsted and an NQT waiting patiently outside my office for feedback on a lesson I popped into, I couldn’t really care less about whether leadership is about generic skills and competencies or of domain-specific knowledge. I just crack on with the job.
But when the job is done or, more accurately, in the rare down times from the job being perpetually done, I do think about leadership and what it is that propels me forward day to day. If I am to accept that leadership is a thing, then what makes up the thing and – more importantly – what will help me to do this thing, that means the world to me, as well as I possibly can?
In a recent blog series from Ambition, Jen Barker and Tom Rees eloquently present this debate, consider all perspectives and move us towards an understanding of leadership which is less abstract and more teachable. This, from learning designers at Ambition, makes a lot of sense to me. If I was designing leadership courses for thousands of current and future school leaders, I would definitely want to know what it is that I actually should be teaching them. We can’t really leave the content of leadership development courses to chance, whim or subjectivity. Like any curriculum, the substantive knowledge needs to be defined and, with something as important as leadership, shouldn’t we – as a profession – arrive at some sort of consensus on what that curriculum content should be?
Jen and Tom work hard to dispel the ever-strengthening sense of dichotomy between domain-specific knowledge and generic leadership skills and, I think, move the argument forward quite considerably by positing that generic leadership skills, whether transferred from other domains or whether grounded in ideas of character or competency, are based on granular and specific knowledge.
What will help me to do this Leadership thing, that means the world to me, as well as I possibly can?
This reminds of me of conversations we were having about procedural knowledge a few years ago and a ‘light-bulb moment’ that a Design and Technology teacher had with me when they realised that knowing how to produce a feather edge joint was entirely predicated on knowing what a feather edge joint is, what makes it durable, what tools to use, what techniques to employ etc. Even the most die-hard, skills-based Design Technology teachers are happier now to use the term substantive knowledge before moving on to procedural knowledge.
And yet for some reason, in the discourse around school leadership, it seems hard to accept that what leaders do and how they do it is based on knowledge. There still seems to be tendency to believe the ‘born to do it’ myth, to posture in the abstract only and, in some cases, even to be dismissive of knowledge.
I suspect I know why this is. I’m a total sucker for the abstract. I fall for the indefinable every time. I’d give my back teeth for a good metaphor. And pithy, truisms about how to be a great leader? Give them to me daily, with cherries on top. I love a good quote. I get inspired really easily. A rousing speech, a spirit-lifting song, a collective ‘hell yeah’; I could write a book on the leadership lessons from Frozen 2, I kid you not.
There still seems to be tendency to believe the ‘born to do it’ myth.
Leadership in the abstract may lack conceptual precision, but it’s highly compelling. It taps into our sense of ego, of having a predetermined destiny, of having a higher calling and of being heroic. Perhaps that’s why it has dominated leadership discourse, and development, for so long. And perhaps that’s why there’s what Steve Munby calls ‘a paradigm shift’ (Munby, S, 2020) going on. If there is a paradigm shift, and I agree with Steve that there is, it’s a counterpoint to the hegemonic view that to be a great leader you have to have certain personal characteristics or generic skills.
As you can tell from my deep-Disneyfication, I’m not averse to generic skills at all – but after two years of being a headteacher of a school in special measures during a global pandemic, I can tell you with some authority that it’s not my natural traits or generic capabilities that actually get the job done. It’s almost entirely dependent on my knowledge.
I made this point in my ResearchEdHome talk last summer, lamenting that a knowledge approach to leadership is not very (forgive me) ‘sexy’. This is because the knowledge stuff is really hard work. It involves lots and lots of reading, remembering, cross referencing and sense-making. However, like all hard work, it makes a dramatic difference.
The biggest difference it makes, though, is to the stuff that everyone else calls ‘generic skills’ or leadership capabilities/qualities. The knowledge I have makes me a better communicator, makes it easier for me to make ethical decisions, makes me more strategic, helps me be resilient and certainly helps me have those difficult conversations. I also know, categorically, that when I don’t have the requisite knowledge, I am at a distinct disadvantage. I can blag it, fairly convincingly, but I can’t fool myself – and it’s me I have to live with at the end of the day.
"After two years of being a headteacher of a school in special measures during a global pandemic, I can tell you with some authority that it’s not my natural traits or generic capabilities that actually get the job done. It’s almost entirely dependent on my knowledge."
If you ask my staff about the way I led them through the pandemic, I hope they might talk of a leader who was clear, resilient, people-focused, safety-focused and determined. I doubt they would talk of a leader who digested every page of every covid-related document from the DfE, Public Health England, the unions, Ofqual… the list goes on. You see, to be determined in the face of a global pandemic, I had to know my stuff – and that was during a time when knowing stuff was pretty difficult, because things kept changing at such a pace. Keeping up with every DfE update wasn’t an exercise in managing change or having resilience, it was just an exercise in printing a lot of paper, having my highlighter ready and reading so that I knew what to do next.
The observable determination, the quiet but focused navigation through choppy waters, was only possible because of the knowledge I had built. It provided the architecture for the exterior presentation of leadership.
This applies to the whole domain of educational leadership. Whether it’s SEND, HR, curriculum, health & safety or admissions codes; you have to know your stuff. The challenge is that the knowledge itself comes from multiple sources, is often buried, can be contradictory and is often written in language which I swear is designed to be obtuse. But again, the more you build your mental model, the more decipherable the language becomes.
I recently read the new Academy Trust Handbook 2021 (previously known as the Academies Financial Handbook) and was staggered to find I understood almost every page of it. Clearly years of being a headteacher, the Chair of a Trust, a member of another Trust and basically devouring everything I could related to education (I have no other hobbies) have paid off.
The mental models I draw upon have been slowly built over twenty years in education. That hard-won tacit knowledge, alongside the impressionistic knowledge I gain daily as I grow to know our school’s staff, community and context, have combined together to provide me with the expertise and confidence to do my job.
The observable determination, the quiet but focused navigation through choppy waters, was only possible because of the knowledge I had built.
And in the end, I just want to crack on with my job. I want to be a headteacher and do it really bloody well. I’m not the most clever, the most well-educated, the most experienced school leader, but that’s what I like best about a position that prioritises specifically what leaders need to know and be able to do – it’s inclusive and hopeful. It’s inclusive, because it’s learnable and allows people like me to enter and succeed in a profession that I love. And it’s hopeful because it does not rest the future of education on a rare bunch of charismatic hero heads who were just ‘born to do it’. If I can do it, anyone can.
Munby, S (2020) A new paradigm for leadership development? Centre for Strategic Education. Occasional Paper #164.
Read our recent leadership blog from Tom Rees and Jen BarkerHere