Leadership & Domain Specificity: Part 1 – What’s the challenge?

This week, I finished reading a book called Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. A former Google corporate executive, she later joined Apple to develop and teach leadership. She has been a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics and Twitter, she has been a senior policy adviser, a business developer, a founder and CEO of a software start up, she’s a Princeton and Harvard Business MBA grad… and her work comes recommended by lots of the great tech names you’ve heard of – Adam Grant, Sheryl Sandberg et al.

I’ve never really bought in to the “Silicon Valley” hype – I think there are lots of great examples of leadership and thinking from lots of places – but she’s certainly shown a mastery of her domain. And so, I was interested to read what she had to say. A lot of her insight is about the importance of caring personally: if you show that you are honest, authentic and open as a person, and you care deeply about your people, then you will be able to give them frank and candid feedback – in fact, it’s your obligation and your moral purpose to do so. There’s a lot of her thinking echoed in ideas I’ve heard expressed by Mary Myatt, or the Michaela team, for instance.

Like many of the books I have read on these topics – I’d read Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself immediately prior, and I’ve advocated for other thinking by Simon Sinek, or David Marquet et al. before – there are definitely elements of the learning and thinking that definitely resonated with my experience of education. I loved a lot of her ideas, but there were also elements of thinking that I couldn’t meaningfully translate in to the education context.

This set me thinking, and a poll was born:

Sample of 273 votes in 24 hours on a Twitter poll.

The results were marginally surprising: I think, despite the broad central agreement, I was interested by the extremities and polarizing element of some of the views expressed.

I think there are a number of ideas that come out of this. In Part One, I just want to consolidate some of my thinking about the key components of the narrative that I feel are expressed here. In Part Two, I want to think more carefully about some of the context and impacts of our educational domain.

5.5% of respondents (in a tiny and biased sample on Twitter…) feel that the specific domain of education is not transferable, therefore these things are of no use to us. I wonder what examples they would have in mind? I wonder whether they have been burned by mis-applied ideas, or whether they just believe in the exclusively school-centred nature of what we do? If anyone voted in this category, I’d be fascinated to understand your thinking further.

78% of people felt positively: either believing that we have a huge amount to learn, or that we have some learning, but it’s limited by our context or application. Many of the commenters felt that this “value” component was the nuanced element that was important. I suspect that many who said “not enough to be important” were also getting at this concept.

For example, Andy Lewis (@AndyLewis_RE) commented that:

I think we have become a little polarised… running a school means you need to know loads about running a school BUT I’ve found through reading Goggins/Adeleke/Marquet/Willink&Babin they teach you a lot about human beings and about yourself – and that is always very useful. It’s easy to dismiss everything non school as irrelevant and highlight business terminology as a blight on schools (I think it is problematic), but maybe we miss something if we do.

Andy Lewis

Andy Buck (@Andy__Buck) agreed with the duality of the skill-set required by school leaders:

Many business books are useful for some of the ‘generic’ aspects of leadership such as managing change, building trust or having difficult conversations. But that is only one side of the coin. You also need the role specific expertise as shared in Teaching Walkthrus, for example.

Andy Buck

Both Andys share a clear point: there are human skills – leadership, your values, your key motivators – that are fairly universal. You recognise them and are drawn to them in the texts you read: whether that’s sports, leadership, military history – and they help you understand more about yourself and what you believe.

It is my perception that, increasingly, people are more aware of their values – as education divides and becomes a more “diverse product”, different approaches and perspectives on education become part of your thoughts, experiences, and your applications/jobs/job histories. Articulating your values and vision of education – and going through a process of shaping that discussion – is an enormously powerful and important component of understanding your purpose and approach. I believe that these books, TED talks, and experiences have a real value here.

However, school leadership is also about applying that purpose through the lens of the education system that we operate within. There are specific skills I use in my classroom that are not found at Google, or in the battlefield (I hope!), and we often struggle to recognise the requirements of creating cultures on deep and meaningful expertise. Mark and Zoe Enser’s Durrington Talk on Creating Cultures, for example, looks at the way in which we can explore subject-domain expertise. Matthew Evans’ excellent work on Leaders with Substance is predicated on a desirable mastery of domain-specific knowledge.

I do not believe that these two ideas are in inherent opposition: rather we need to find an equilibrium balance and pathway towards better understanding in both areas. For each of us, I believe that the domain and the values experience needs to be developed in parallel with our systems and school-specific expertise. Some of us may start from different positions: experience in a different career, life circumstance or wider non-educational context (e.g. competitive sport, parenting, family experience) having shaped your philosophies to a greater degree than your educational skillset – or vice-versa: getting in to teaching as a very young graduate, but not having the “life experience” to really understand yourself or your team leadership skills. In comments, Jonathan Mountstevens (@MrMountstevens) highlights the delicacy of this balancing act in terms of value for the institution and for the individual, as well as flagging some potential risks.

For me respondents have overestimated the value of non-educational books for leaders. It’s not that I doubt individual leaders can draw lessons and inspiration from them, but that I doubt they will be effective for improving school leadership at scale (my emphasis). We are all influenced by the things we know and care about e.g. my thoughts about leadership have been shaped by my understanding of the Reformation, but I wouldn’t suggest that all leaders should read books about 16th century history! Also, mostly I think these influences from outside of the field are necessarily quite vague and tend to confirm in us what we already think. Therefore there are limits on their potential to improve school leadership. There is also a danger that ideas will be applied out of context and do considerable damage… A good example would be the Dave Brailsford aggregation of marginal gains stuff which was all the rage a few years ago. I don’t doubt that the idea can be applied in schools (although I’m not sure this was demonstrated), but it assumes you should tweak existing practice. What it was used to justify was ever more obsessive marking policies, intervention mania etc. What was rarely questioned was whether these things were right in the first place. Educational expertise would have been needed for that and it could have been a game-changer. So for me there is no question that reading domain-specific work is of much more value to leaders. Sadly it has been neglected. Other material can be interesting and inspiring, but mostly on an individual level and only when informed by educational expertise.

Jonathan Mountstevens

Jonathan’s core point – the need for inspiration and ideas to be filtered through the lens of educational experience and expertise, and the risks of doing it badly – may well be at the heart of the 5.5% who do not believe the business world has anything to teach us. Certainly, his example of “risky application” – the marginal gains theory – is something that I have seen explored and discussed as an INSET and then through a school year as a topic, though in my case, I feel it was a positively driven message of “we don’t need systematic change here and now”. But we have all seen weird exercises transferred – Google’s 10% time rings a bell for me, for example – without contextual thought to the educational domain.

It may be that this is simply a “cost-benefit” analysis. As Jonathan identified, these may not be effective considerations to make changes to schools at scale – it may be individual only, and therefore not something that we should advocate, or corporately spend time on. Certainly, if you are in a school struggling with teaching and behaviour, strong domain expertise in these areas is the most powerful lever you should be pulling first!

I think the most interesting component of this, then, comes when we try to analyse and explore more specifically what are the features of education that make it difficult to transfer components? While there are certainly job-traits that are specific, I believe that’s true of almost any profession: I doubt there’s many jobs in the world that I could immediately do, just because I’m a person: everything requires some training and skill development!

In Part Two, I want to organise my thinking about the key structural features of the educational domain that may limit the transfer of ideas, and be key components of the lens that we develop as educators.


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