Leading from the middle? Or swimming against the tide?

I’m coming to the end of my fourth year as a Head of Department, and feel that perhaps for the first time, I’m starting to really understand the nature of my role – both in terms of what I want it to be, and what I can feasibly and realistically do. I can’t claim any sense of knowledge about how this applies to pastoral leadership – would Heads of Year, or Housemasters feel the same, I wonder?

In the academic leadership context, middle leadership is often described as the “engine room” of the school: it’s where policy and practice intersect with the classroom, and where the vision of the school is translated into real outcomes for students. But I think that engine room isn’t what I expected it to be from the pre-Middle Leader days – and I was reading Tom Sherrington’s “Learning Rainforest” – and considering what I have learned from my leadership so far.

Let me start with my fundamental assumptions about the academic experience, which can be challenged!

  1. Most schools do best when there is a shared sense of structure and routine. This means that we can’t have ten different structures of learning, purposes of homework, classroom styles, in ten different Departments. There has to be some coherence and “whole school”, and much of this has to be directed by the vision and ethos of the school, as translated by Senior Leadership.
  2. It is the job of Middle Leaders to be subject experts, and to fight for (or defend) what is best for their subject and their Department. They may choose to take on whole school thoughts and perspectives, but their job is subject focused.
  3. Change is positive; but too much change is damaging. There is a sense of confidence and self-assuredness that comes from doing things that have been done before; and a sense of institutional memory – understanding what has happened, and how it can be edited, tweaked and improved – is important for the well being of staff, and the long term growth of an institution.
  4. There are lots of ways to do education. These can be accessed in a variety of methods, including twitter, and blogging, and reading and engaging with post-graduate professional learning. These combine to bring professional experience and the generation of new ideas – everyone comes with their own.

These lead me to propose three models of “middle leadership”, ranging on a scale of autonomy and how welcomed it is.

Model 1: Leadership from the Middle:

In this model, the middle leaders are engaged, bright and enthusiastic about their role as leaders, and are supported to pilot, test and develop new ideas: to lead, and not just manage. They may do them quietly, within their own departments, or publicly, by leading CPD sessions and training for whole staff – but there’s a sense of ownership and collegiality amongst the middle leadership ‘team’. Meetings are purposeful and share great ideas and discussions without judgement. Good practice is brought in, and identified and shared at this level. Ideas that are thought to be valid for the whole school are then picked up, explored and tested, and – if successful – become school culture. This kind of cultural alignment is welcomed and shared, and middle leaders are celebrated for doing it, without generating an expectation (or demand) that they move to Senior Leadership.

Model 2: Swimming against the tide:

Middle leaders may be engaged, bright and enthusiastic, but their input is not quite so welcome. Some Departments may have autonomy to experiment with minor variations in their practice, but overall, they can only make small changes within the large school context. Suggestions are listened to, but not actively sought and engaged, and often the “middle leaders” are disparate and act without collegiality. Each Department does things slightly differently, and innovation is viewed as risk-taking rather than an expected cultural norm.

If this model is a long term one, then it’s likely that there will be high turnover of middle leaders – as they will seek to find a better cultural fit elsewhere, or will “burn out” their frustrations of having good ideas not accepted more widely. They may also feel that their only ‘solution’ is to be promoted on to Senior Leadership, which although allowing them more personal fulfilment and the autonomy to act on their ideas, does create the potential for a leadership vacuum or lack of institutional memory at the middle leadership tier.

Model 3: Executing a (shared?) vision:

There are two options here – but both come down to the same practical outcome. Middle leaders are not generating ideas, they are executing an overall plan that has been communally agreed. It’s possible that this is a top-down structure which is universally imposed without discussion, but it’s also possible that a group – whoever that might be – comes together and generates a single vision that is then uniformly adopted. This might be a cultural education landscape, e.g. “we all use booklets and visualisers”, or a shared behavioural practice, e.g. SLANT from Doug Lemov or similar expectations, but the individual Middle Leader is expected to manage the Department under a vision that is directed, rather than self-generated and experimental.

There are, I think, advantages and disadvantages to all of these models, and I think that people will recognise elements of each of them in their own school. To an extent, that’s natural – I don’t think all components of what we do can ever be exclusively one leadership model or another. However, I think there are big “names” out there in the Edu-Twitter world where the perception of the leadership structure would align with some of these models more strongly than the others.

What I’m interested in is the discussion of the following questions:

  1. Is there any evidence that any one of these models is “better” than others? Is there a correlation between top performing schools/Departments and leadership styles, and is that genuinely causative, or just accidental? I know what I think the answer would be, but it might be anecdotal at best!
  2. Should we, as middle leaders, seek out these different environments *before* stepping up to Senior Leadership? If I go from a Model 1 environment to being Senior Leader at a Model 3, then I will be wholly out of my depth. Would I be better off going from a Model 2 to a Model 1, and rebuilding my portfolio of skills? Is it helpful and beneficial for me to have experienced a different middle leadership culture, rather than transitioning to Senior Leadership as a way of ‘escaping’ a cultural misfit?
  3. How do you learn about the culture of middle leadership from the outside of a school? What signs, signals and symptoms would you pick up on?

What have I forgotten or not thought about?

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