The school leader: harnessing colleagues’ expertise

Feb. 7, 2020
Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans

Headteacher, Farmor’s School

In the second of two posts on how school leaders draw on their expertise to solve educational problems, headteacher and author, Matthew Evans, considers what can go wrong with decision making, and how leaders might get better at managing complex change.

In Part 1, I discussed the mental models, the schema, which school leaders draw upon when they are faced with complex problems. Next, I will consider how school leaders might get better at analysing educational problems by calibrating those models.

Understand the problem

Much of the leadership literature and folklore focuses on the ‘how’ of leadership: implementation, execution and style. There is less attention given to the ‘what’ of leadership. And yet, a leader’s ability to deliver is irrelevant if the problem analysis is flawed.

In schools, we see considerable effort expended on managing change, but often this change fails to deliver improvement. The solution to this is to attempt to improve the ability of leaders to manage change, but what if the failure is not just in the execution, but the understanding of the problem which is to be solved? In other words, what if this is more a failure of knowledge than capability?

Problem analysis may be negatively affected by:

  • Critical knowledge gaps
  • Flawed analysis of the problem
  • Inadequate calibration of perceptions

Let us take these in turn. It is, of course, impossible to know everything. School leaders operate in conditions of complexity, pressure and constant change. It is unsurprising that leaders will often lack all the information they need to make an informed decision.

"We follow leaders who know their stuff, not those that strut their stuff."

If I reflect on the many flawed decisions I have made in my time as a school leader, I can almost always identify a gap in my knowledge which has been significant. This is easy to do in retrospect, knowing now what I didn’t know then.

That is the problem: we often don’t know what we don’t know - our ignorance exists in a blind-spot. Keeping this in mind when we make decisions should make us more conscious of potential knowledge-gaps.

Even if we are in possession of the knowledge we need, we process this information subjectively and through the lens of our current state of mind. How we see things will often be different to how the same problem is perceived by others. Perspective is important in schools as the problems are usually social ones, and values-laden. In complex systems, there is no single, correct solution.

Therefore, we do not require leaders to be a human enigma machine; cracking the code against a deadline. Taking the time to seek out alternate perspectives – stepping outside of one’s own experience – is critical to decision making in all but the most straight-forward scenarios.

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To gain others’ perspectives on the problem, we should ‘calibrate’ our analysis of it. Calibration involves ‘borrowing someone’s schema’ and learning from their mental models. This may be necessary where a leader recognises the limits of their experience and wishes to borrow the expertise of a colleague.

However, asking others to contribute to problem-analysis may simply be a recognition that two minds are better than one. Articulating our reasoning process, and asking others to do the same, is an insurance policy against false assumptions, flawed logic, cognitive bias and bypassed morality.

Expert problem solving in practice

Thinking of leaders as experts who draw on a deep well of knowledge to solve complex problems is important. It is important because this conception of leadership:

  • reflects the day-to-day reality of what it is like to be a school leader – it feels true
  • acknowledges just how difficult the job can be – it is reassuring
  • suggests a way to get better at the task of leading – which gives us hope and a pathway for development

How might expert school leaders get better?

If we value what we know then we should set about cultivating this. However, it is not sufficient to merely know a lot. Expertise will develop through applying knowledge to solve problems – this is the knowledge of the practitioner, not the academic. Therefore, one habit of leaders should be to tackle the problems of leadership whenever they can, not avoid them.

We can also learn a great deal from the problems faced by our colleagues. Even at senior levels in schools, leadership roles are quite specialised and discrete. If you are responsible for the curriculum, gaining experience of tackling pastoral problems can be difficult, and vice versa.

There is much to be said for job-rotation to overcome this, but failing that we can lift the lid on each other’s roles and take the time for joint analysis and ‘calibration’. Using meeting time for this purpose is constructive and will help both those confronting the problem and those who might have an interesting perspective to give.

"We do not require leaders to be a human enigma machine; cracking the code against a deadline. Taking the time to seek out alternate perspectives – stepping outside of one’s own experience – is critical to decision making."

In my own school, calibrating our thinking is a regular occurrence amongst our senior team, whether it be dropping in for a quick sense-check, bringing something to the table at Senior Leadership Team meetings for discussion, or carrying out a retrospective ‘case review’ where things might not have gone according to plan.

Each of us bring our expertise to bear on the problem (and our differing value-systems), and when we find the time to do this, the result is usually better decisions.

Expert implementation of solutions

Of course, once we’ve arrived at a solution it needs to be executed, and executed well. What role does expertise play in delivering the desired outcome?

Hopefully our expertise has set us on a path which is more likely to lead to success. Taking more care to understand the problem fully, and to evaluate the possible ways to resolve it, should also make us more likely to avoid the pitfalls along the way.

Our knowledge of the socio-cultural context within which actions will be taken, the due process which should be followed, and the barriers which have frustrated us in the past will inform implementation and mitigate the risk of failure. Knowledge continues to play an essential role beyond the problem-analysis stage.

Style is undoubtedly an ingredient in success. Leaders need an ability to carry people with them, whether that be through charisma, force of will or the trust built up over time. However, what is often overlooked in discussions about how leaders influence others is the fact that, in the long term, we follow those whom we trust to deliver success.

It is expertise that produces results, not stylistic flourish. We follow leaders who know their stuff, not those that strut their stuff.


Matthew Evans is the headteacher of a secondary school in Gloucestershire. He is the author of Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools, and blogs at educontrarianblog.com on a variety of educational topics. Follow him on Twitter @head_teach

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