Academic leadership: what’s the secret to being a great leader?

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“Be true to the image that best reflects your leadership style. ”

On the walls of the room were a few images: a conductor, a general briefing of the troops, a duck and a line of ducklings, a shepherd leading sheep, a firefighter in full fire, a visionary scanning a digital matrix and soon.

Once we had made our choice, we took turns explaining why we considered ourselves to be conductors, firefighters or generals.

Discovering your leadership style is an essential part of leadership courses, from MBAs to NPQSL, as part of management theory that offers a range of styles from ‘autocratic boss-centered leadership’ to ‘boss-centered leadership’. on subordinates ”.

Reflecting on 20 years of leadership – many of them on the international stage – it’s clear that there is no one right style of leadership, it’s about finding the right style of leadership for a particular context.

Adapt your school leadership style

All leaders have a “natural habitat” – a preferred leadership style that best suits them.

Circumstances may require principals to adopt a different style for a while, but our natural habitat – the image of the exercise that left its mark on us the most – is the default setting we are working on. As such, living in our natural habitat can be difficult.

In addition, most teachers tend to turn to distributive models that promote a high degree of autonomy. After all, our classrooms are our castles.

As we take on leadership roles, we take with us the years of relative freedom to run our own domain behind us, and that often dictates how we want to lead.

However, schools increasingly operate in a top-down context. The combination of increasingly stringent government regulations, tighter inspection criteria, and tighter examination board scoring systems means that innovation and creativity in leadership is harder to come by. This is often what pushes school leaders to a more authoritarian approach.

Also, as appealing as a distributive leadership style is, the reality is that there must be a number of conditions for school leaders to be comfortable giving teams more freedom, autonomy. and independence.

Here are some factors school leaders can consider:

1. Are team members ready to play a role in leadership decisions?

New school leaders need to think about what kind of leadership style has been the norm in the organization they are joining.

In schools where there is a tradition of strong, top-down leadership, it can be difficult to be faced with an expectation of being more involved in the decision-making process.

Conversely, teams that have enjoyed considerable freedom resent the school principals who are starting to make all the decisions.

2. Is the team ready to take responsibility for decision making?

While some will appreciate the opportunity to step up and lead, others would prefer not to have the responsibility or may view it as a “throw off the ball.”

It may take time for individuals to develop the skills that allow them to play a greater role in leadership.

School leaders need to devote time to helping their team develop key competencies – this often involves shaping distributive leadership by giving responsibility to the team.

For example, “rotating the chair” for meetings – where team members take turns preparing agendas and chairing meetings – is a way to help more junior colleagues develop key management skills. of meetings.

3. Does the team adhere to the values ​​and goals of management?

It is important that everyone is pulling in the same direction. If there is no alignment, the distribution of leadership will be counterproductive.

The leadership style adopted by a founding school principal is likely to be very different from that of a principal who takes over an established school.

A founding director faces the challenge of forming a new team and setting standards and norms for the new organization. It’s a blank sheet of paper and there will be fewer preconceptions, so it may be easier to foster a collegial approach to leadership from the start.

Conversely, entering an established school may require a different style. By taking over someone else’s team, you may encounter resistance and demand a more assertive approach.

This is especially true when there are entrenched ideas and practices or when there is a need to manage institutional or cultural change.

It may be necessary to have a period of more direct leadership in order to realign values ​​and goals, before moving to a more collegial approach down the line.

Take over in crisis mode

The last point to cover perhaps concerns crisis situations, which the last few years have clearly underlined.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me over the past two years of dealing with chronic crisis (first protests and civil unrest in Hong Kong, then Covid-19) is that whatever our resistance to the idea, we are all firefighters at times.

In these times, leaders often have to make important decisions in the moment, without reference to a larger group. There is seldom time for wider collaboration or consultation.

Instead, leaders need to make the best decisions possible, based on the information available and, most importantly, communicate it effectively.

It might be autocratic, but it’s still good leadership and there’s no reason to fear this moment when it comes.

Ultimately, it’s about realizing that there is a toolbox of leadership styles and that the real art of leadership is reading a situation and knowing what the right approach is in that context.

Mark S Steed is the Director and CEO of Kellett School, the British international school in Hong Kong, and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead


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