The Substance Project

Some encounters I’ve had recently have made me realise that some of the stuff I write actually gets read, and has even been well received. It is a funny thing. Blogging is often like launching one of those spacecraft out in to the universe, never to return, hoping that some alien race will intercept it one day and know that there is other intelligent life out there somewhere. When the alien species suddenly rocks up, shakes your hand and  says ‘I love that thing you wrote about…’, its kind of weird.

So, a few weeks ago I made a decision to take the leap and write something more substantial. I’ve had the ambition to write a book since my teens when I wanted to be the next Stephen King. However, I’ve taken the advice Mr King offers in his excellent book ‘On Writing’, which is to write about what you know.  I haven’t experienced much gratuitous horror in my life, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time in schools (perhaps this does qualify me?). So that’s the topic – no-one said it would be a bestseller.

I feel mortified having to admit I’m doing this as it feels like everyone is jumping on this bandwagon, but this is honestly not a vanity project; I just want to prove to myself that the semi-literate, nonacademic student I once was can write something half-decent.

My reason for going public is threefold. Firstly, by telling people it will hopefully make me see it through (I’m not a natural completer-finisher). Secondly, I want to throw a few ideas out there to assert some intellectual property rights. What I am writing about seems to be an area on a few peoples’ radar. I don’t care if someone beats me to publication, I just don’t want to be accused of stealing their ideas!

Thirdly, I’d like to pick your collective brains and ask for your help in pointing me towards any research or reading which you think may be relevant.

What’s my angle?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last thirty years reading about, thinking about and doing school leadership. I know this is a well-trodden path for literature, but I want to come at this from a different angle. If you’ve read any of my blogs on leadership then you’ve seen the trailers. My contention is that the way we think about leadership is misguided, particularly in the school system; that we’ve become distracted by genericism and waylaid by the abstract. In doing so, I think we’ve downplayed the importance of what leaders know – that deep, interconnected well of knowledge which enables experts to make good decisions under pressure, show exceptional skill in situations of uncertainty and steer their organisations towards success. Here are some of the things I am thinking about…

Is leadership even a thing?

Decades of theorising and research have failed to adequately define what leadership is, or arrive at a coherent model of leadership that stands up to scrutiny or stands the test of time. Perhaps the problem is that there is no such thing; we’re merely attempting to capture a range of observable phenomena and give it a name. Could it be that the whole pursuit of leadership as a conceptual entity is just a distraction from the important task of working out what exactly it is we need to do to make schools better?

The Elusive Theory of Everything

Are there parallels to the (perhaps fruitless, according to Stephen Hawking) pursuit to find a Theory of Everything to explain the universe? Are we better to settle for a number of models which help explain specific things – theories of ‘something’? If we can accept that a model is an abstraction from reality and is not the thing itself we’ll not only see it for what it is – a useful tool – but we may focus our attention less on abstractions and more on the actual terrain of leadership through which we walk. As the scientist Weiner said, the best model of a cat is the cat itself.

Do we move too quickly from describing to prescribing?

The evidence is not exactly firm for what effective leaders do, but even where we can accurately explain what good leadership is, we over-reach ourselves when we use this as a blueprint for how leaders should be. Most leadership development programmes suffer from the fallacy that the way to become a better leader is to mimic what better leaders do. What is the process by which these leaders themselves became effective?

The myth of generic skills

Too often, theories of leadership contend that leaders have a toolbox of transferable skills which they carry with them from one problem to the next, with no regard to context or the domain-specific knowledge required. This is a gross misconception. Leaders require knowledge, and from this knowledge grows expertise. By accepting that knowledge can be taught, but skills must be learnt, how does this change our understanding of how to develop expert leaders?

Do leaders need to be generally clever, or specifically knowledgeable?

We like our leaders to be a bit cleverer than us, but do they actually need to be? Effective leaders might actually turn out to be the people who know what they are talking about; to have the technical and contextual knowledge to get the job done and command the respect of their teams, regardless of their fluid intelligence.

Does our educational system promote abstraction and distraction for school leaders?

League tables, Ofsted, managerialism, progressive ideology, data, pedagogy… is it any surprise that leaders are distracted from the real job of improving schools and employ horrific abstract auditing systems to protect their jobs?

None of these thoughts are original, but putting them all together I would like to build a case that leadership genericism has become the norm in UK schools, and that this is the key barrier to school improvement in our system today.

So what is the antidote?

I don’t have a theory of leadership to offer, but I do have a perspective. Imagine that we had some magic spectacles which, when donned, filtered out all the leadership bullshit; the distractions, abstractions, grand theories and fallacies which cloud our view. These lenses would allow us to focus on the real substance of school improvement, and what it takes to effect positive change.

By substance, I mean:

Substance: the matter of which the thing consists.

What do leaders actually need to know?

How is this knowledge developed in to expertise?


Substance: the most important or essential part of something.

Where should school leaders focus their attention?

What will make the most difference to the children in our schools?


Substance: a meaningful and valid point (‘the argument has substance’)

What do we know to be true about leadership?

What evidence do we have to support our claims?


I’d like to apply this perspective to some of the classic things that leaders supposedly do. What do leaders with ‘vision’ actually know? What do you draw on when you ‘show empathy’? How do leaders access their vast schema of knowledge to solve complex problems? To be a great public speaker, don’t you actually need to know what the hell you are talking about? What does it take to become an expert leader?

I’m interested in leaders with substance and schools with substance.

That’s the pitch. If you want to write this yourself, go ahead. I’ve got my hands full doing other things. But if not, then I guess my weekends and holidays just got busier.

If you want to help, get in touch on Twitter. If you are working on something similar then it would be good to know. The rocket ship Substance has been launched. Who knows what it will discover?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s