Leading from the front, or guiding from behind?

Leading from the front,
or guiding from behind?

Leadership in any walk of life is tricky to get right. What works for one team may not work with another team. We all know this from our experiences of working in the classroom – things you do one year with one class, can fall flat on their face the next year.

The way I am as a leader is “wear my heart on the sleeve, get stuck in” type of person. I try to lead from the front. However, I am learning that this is not always the best way. I can often be described as an excitable puppy when a new idea comes around and I get enthused and can sometimes rush ahead without checking everybody is following me. I have learned that sustainable change cannot happen through personality alone. 

We all like to think that when we say something, it will galvanise the troops and they will follow us through thick and thin. However, life and leadership are not like that. If you have your team in a good place, who trust you and know what you are doing, you can make things happen, but what happens if that trust breaks down, or new team members join? We can’t just say this is the next thing we are doing, come along for the ride.

As part of the Teacher Development Trust NPQEL course I am working on, the first module was about the change process and it made me reflect so much on myself as a leader. I was guilty of not seeing change as a process and more as an event. We can probably all recall times we have implemented something new, planned an INSET for it and then just left it in the hands of the staff to work through. For real sustainable change, it needs to be planned in stages. The EEF (2019) describe change as a process that has four stages – explore, prepare, deliver and sustain.

When reflecting on this, I realised that I would spend most time on explore and deliver, but not enough on prepare and sustain. School leaders are often very good at identifying what the key priorities are for their schools and finding out about different ways to approach these priorities. The EEF model makes it clear that during this explore stage, we should spend a lot of time testing our own ideas and bias. We should triangulate information we have. We should discuss with colleagues. We should test our theories. We should look at how the potential solutions fit within our school context. Can we just lift what one school has done and superimpose it onto our school?

Once this is done, the preparation work needs to be completed. I know that I do not do this bit well enough and I need to really work on this. I need to check temperature the room – are my staff team ready for the change? I need to find out if they are through discussion and consultation. We need to ensure there is a willingness and readiness within the school for the plan to be implemented effectively. We need to have an open dialogue with our team and be respectful of their views and beliefs. We need to really listen to what staff are saying. They may have information which could change our view, or we may need to explain our reasoning to them in more detail. It is really important to have a clear understanding of our why. Why do we need this change? Why is it important?

Robinson (2018) developed a model to explain this process of engagement. We can either engage with staff through a dialogical process or bypass their views through persuasion which could result in change not happening.

Bypass Approach

Dialogical Approach

As part of preparing for change, it is really important for us to have a clear plan of what we want to see and deliver and also know what it is we are monitoring. We need to know how effectively the change is being implemented. We need to develop indicators of success so that we can measure what is happening and these need to be shared with the staff team. We need to fully invest in the CPD for the staff team, we need to show that we care about them and that we need them for this change to happen. It is important to note here, that CPD cannot just be a one-off event for change to be implemented effectively. CPD should be built in through the process so that staff feel valued and able to continually improve practice.

Once this has happened, we can deliver the change. We must ensure we provide the resources the staff need, including training. It is essential we give staff time to implement the change by taking things out that aren’t successful, give staff time to work together and see the change in action. Whilst this stage is happening, it is important to continually watch, observe and talk to identify any problems early on and support the team to problem solve to overcome these problems. These shared learning experiences can help others through the journey and should be celebrated. We need to be willing as leaders to be flexible during this process. If things are not working, do not carry on regardless, find a solution and change your plan if needs be – but do not compromise on fidelity.

Once the change has been delivered, the final step is to sustain the change. This needs to be monitored in a supportive way. As we have developed our key indicators of success, we should be able to monitor the change effectively. Is it having the impact we are expecting it to have? If it is, we need to ensure we celebrate these successes and praise the team for doing well as well as keeping the momentum going. Is it successful in all areas or do we need to support others to bring the level up to a similar level? Can we identify any key change makers who have really bought into the change and encourage them to become leaders? We also need to continue the process of dialogue throughout. We need to keep checking the temperature in the room and ensuring all staff have the possibility to feedback, offer suggestions and continue to be involved in the change process.

So, what have I learned? I am naturally a “leader from the front” type of person who wants to push change through quickly and often through me trying to force it through. There are some benefits to this and I would never want to lose this completely from who I am. This approach shows staff you are willing to get stuck in, allows you to practise what you preach and shows you really do want to make changes. However, this approach requires you to have 100% trust from your team all of the time, is not flexible as it relies on one person and does not take other people’s views into perspective. I am working hard to get better at slowing down the change approach and including more people in decision making and taking a backseat every now and again. Will I ever be able to guide from behind? I hope so, but I am not there at the moment!

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