The domain of senior leadership (I)

Following on from two posts here and here in which I made a case for the importance of leadership knowledge, and against the idea of generic leadership competencies, this series of posts will explore the parameters of a domain of knowledge to be developed by all school senior leaders.

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Part 1: Overlapping roles and inter-dependencies(in which I provide an anecdote to hook the reader in to a more theoretical discussion)

In recent months we have set aside some time in our senior leadership team meetings to discuss the jobs each of us do. This might seem an indulgent use of time given all the pressing matters which require our attention, but schools depend on the people at the top operating as a team, not as a random collection of overworked, lone-wolves. To do this, we must ensure that the work we do is complementary.

It became apparent to me that, whilst we all generally knew what role each member of the team played, we had never taken the time to explore exactly what it entails to carry out the responsibilities we each hold, including the challenges and frustrations within each person’s job. It is usually the case that teachers seeking promotion to senior leader level have followed different pathways and have not undertaken a range of middle-leader posts. For example, we may have been a Head of Department, a pastoral leader or SENCo. We each have an awareness of what other aspects of school leadership entail but haven’t developed the deep knowledge of some aspects of school leadership which can only be obtained through experience of holding various responsibilities. By understanding better each others’ roles I hoped to build empathy and, on a more practical level, establish where we might be pulling in different directions, reducing overall effectiveness and giving contradictory signals to staff about our values and priorities.

The first stage of this process was to talk through each of our roles and ask each other questions to get a sense of what it was like to perform each job. Next, we turned to how each of our jobs intertwined and connected with each other.

To provide a structure for this discussion, I asked each member of the team to consider how their roles overlapped with those of others (where there were shared goals which more than one person contributed to achieving) and where there were inter-dependencies (where the work we do is dependent on how effectively another member of the team carries out their duties). My rationale was that where there is overlap we need to ensure we work closely together and where there is inter-dependence we should be mindful of others needs and reliance on the performance of our role.

As a team-building exercise, these discussions were definitely more constructive than raft-building, developing a shared understanding of opportunities and tensions in the actual performance of our roles rather than attempting to bond individuals through a manufactured shared goal; a bond which could never survive transference back in to the realities of day-to-day duties. Team building is something you can do, but it must be rooted in knowledge (a point I made in previous blogs and one which I shall come back to later).

The final stage was to consider the responsibilities which we are jointly accountable for as a senior leadership team. The starting point for this was the lines which appear in the job description of every member of the team, as follows:

  • Playing a full and leading role in the senior leadership team, contributing to the effective performance of the team in leading the school
  • Duties commensurate with a member of the senior leadership team, including attending and contributing to senior leadership team meetings, line managing middle leaders, supervising duty staff, maintaining a presence around the site and in lessons, maintaining discipline and enforcing school rules, supervising senior detentions, contributing to staff meetings and professional development, attending parent forums and the oversight of events such as information and award evenings
  • Attending meetings of the governing body and its committees, as required, and the provision of information to governors to enable them to fulfill their responsibilities

Given the nature of job descriptions, these joint responsibilities are very much expressed as duties (things which need doing) and therefore much of the discussion was of a practical nature, considering ways in which we could collectively be more effective. For example, we discussed whether our presence around the school was sufficient and whether a more systematic approach to coordinating our time and efforts in this regard would be preferable. Reflecting on this stage of our discussions, it occurred to me that there is much more to be explored here in terms of how we carry out these duties. The collective responsibilities of senior leaders in schools are extensive and require considerable expertise. How can we help leaders develop the knowledge they need to be an effective senior leader in a school?

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In the next post I will consider what expertise senior leaders must develop, no matter their role, and the balance between a ‘House Style’ and variety in execution of common duties.

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