This is the third in a series on leadership. Please see What future for leadership? and Leading in Uncertain Times

Just over fifteen years ago, I was studying for an MBA with a specific focus on educational leadership. Much of the required reading was on the leadership of change, presenting various models as approaches to understanding and articulating the latest thinking and research. Synthesising this thinking, I proposed a model which would enable me both to shape and to reflect on my own leadership at regular intervals and to outline the leadership I would like to nurture in colleagues and pupils. I offer it now to stimulate your own thinking on leadership.

It is deliberately not a definition of a leader but an identification of leadership processes. It is designed to break down the idea that leadership remains the preserve of the titleholder (the leader) and apply it to the main responsibilities and opportunities to lead we all have.

In 2002, when I proposed the model, I expressed it in terms of compound nouns: leaders are… Sometimes I prefer to articulate it in terms of verbs reinforcing activity rather than identity. I offer both as alternatives for your reflection.

Leaders are/leaders:

  • Culture-Shapers/ shape culture
  • Power-Sharers/ share power
  • Problem-Solvers/ solve problems
  • Standard-Setters/ set standards
  • Learner-Coaches/ learn and coach

It was intended as a model for organisational or institutional leadership, so the explanations relate more closely to that but there is no reason why it should not be applied to any context and to families.

Culture-Shapers encourage the development of a moral basis or a core purpose (a vision if you like) for what they are leading, aligning structures with vision. The articulation of values is therefore crucial. They shape because they encourage everyone to partake in those values, making sense of them for themselves rather than being forced. Each of the other processes of leadership are linked to it and encourage a culture suited to adaptation but with a clear purpose. I would argue therefore that this is the most important.

Little did I know that I would take on the leadership of Cranleigh which has the motto, Ex Cultu Robur, from culture comes strength, helping us to articulate our aspiration for Cranleighans to be strengthened through their education to shape future culture in whatever context they arrive.

Power-Sharers are aware that they do not have every skill and strength required and seek to compensate through the encouragement of others who have different skills. Moreover, people are motivated by a leader’s willingness to devolve responsibility and encourage innovation for improvement (within the boundaries of direction and accountability – this is not abdication). I would suggest that control freaks do not aid adaptation and that control needs to be loosened to enable collaboration and diversity.

Problem-Solvers plan proactively and focus on current problems and future directions. Keenly aware of a complex context, they seek information and gather data to make informed decisions. They involve others in the problem-solving process to enhance the range of perspectives and are keen to receive feedback. They are able to utilise a range of problem-solving approaches appropriate to the task in hand.

Standard-Setters hold themselves and the people they lead accountable. Such standards may be nebulous in the sense of high expectations and more quantitative in terms of targets and structures. Standards are aligned with the culture, ensure that aspirations have outcomes and maintain controlled flexibility.

Learner-coaches coach through their own example of reflection and personal development and critical reading. It is a complementary process in the sense that encouraging the personal and professional development of others enhances a learning community. Moreover, as every teacher knows, the best way to really learn and embed something is to teach or coach it.

The idea is that each of these processes embraces change and provides readiness to change when necessary whilst respecting and recognising the potential of all individuals and then seeking to develop it. Surely this principle is at the heart of schools. My ideal would be that a school with a moral purpose which is collaborative and equitable would have the potential to lead profound social change.

Where I find this model useful still is that it helps me identify processes I am doing well and things I need to address or strengthen or re-balance. Looking back, although each should happen simultaneously, I think there are times when one process comes to the fore more than another. Sadly, for me at least, I have found that the learner part of the learner-coach tends to come more from reflecting on experience than from critical reading and research.

However much we theorise and create models and enjoy the process, leadership is not just an academic or practical exercise, it is an emotional one. In defining emotion I am not talking simply about feelings but about the thoughts that influence or control them and therefore often the sense of conviction or purpose that leaders hold.

If I reflect on all the times that I or colleagues or friends have been least effective as leaders, it has been in that mucky ground where confidence and conviction have taken either a battering or a flattering and emotions have led downwards not forwards. We would all like a smooth running service where we are in control but that is not reality. Increasingly, I think, if we are to grow leaders, our teaching and learning and professional development has to focus on this more difficult, personal terrain. Now that really is a leadership challenge!