By Nicholas McKie
What does contemporary international school leadership look like in 2022? The challenges of the last 24 months, while arguably ‘unprecedented’ (how often have we seen that word since early 2020?), showed us that the most effective leadership approaches continue to align with the skills and methods of effective coaching.
A coaching leadership style has the potential to improve performance, support greater staff autonomy and teamwork, and encourage confidence and ambition. There are three core areas to a coaching way of leading: self-awareness, relationships and agility.
When we become self-aware we can then develop new and deeper relationships. This allows us to empower people and enable learning. When we build on this with the ability to be agile we are able to deal with change and complexity.
The foundation for effective leadership is self-awareness. It includes an understanding of who you are, what you can do, what you can’t do, where your values come from and where you need improvement. It is also about being in tune with your thoughts, feelings and actions. In relation to other people and the environment, it enables education leaders to better understand complex situations.
As leaders, we tend to be good at being self-conscious. For example, ‘do people think I’m up to the job?’. But this is ego thinking and can weigh heavily. In self-consciousness, the focus is purely on the self, whilst in self-awareness the focus shifts – you are not concerned with the opinion and judgements of others, rather you are focused on what is unfolding before you.
When coaching leaders, I find that once people are aware of the way they operate – tendencies, bias and potential blind spots, for example – other things fall into place across all aspects of their lives.
One of the tenets of creating self-awareness for a coaching way of leading is using your strengths to meet the demands of your role. There are three ways of optimising your strengths. Firstly, experience new learning, on or off the job. Secondly, engage others to support (coach) you – recognise who to go to for the type of support that you need. And thirdly, educate yourself to develop your knowledge and skills, for example, through reading, gaining qualifications, or listening to relevant leaders or educationalists via podcasts.
As your self-awareness builds, you can develop your leadership identity. The under-developed leader does not see themselves as a leader, but rather, they identify with other professional identities (eg, ‘I am a teacher’); their identity as a leader is not yet internalised. The forming leader does begin to see themselves as a leader, and they may begin to experiment with different leadership approaches to craft their identity (eg, ‘I am a teacher and I am becoming a leader’). They may have some insecurities about whether they are capable of taking the step into leadership. The well-developed leader begins to internalise their leader identity as a part of who they are (eg, ‘I am a leader and a teacher’). Leadership is who they are as a person, it is their way of being.
Self-awareness is also about knowing when to keep going and when to rest. I refer to this as encountering a speed bump in your hectic schedule. Self-care and putting yourself first as a leader shouldn’t be neglected, but too often it is in an education setting. I would go so far as to say this is one of the most common issues to crop up in leadership coaching conversations.
Leadership requires emotional intelligence and the ability to build relationships across your school community; trust is key to building those relationships. Leaders need to be trustworthy and can engender trust through being reliable, consistent, humble, courageous and kind, as well as having a genuine interest in people.
Good relationships need effective dialogue. In education, most of us tend to gravitate towards a ‘telling’ mode – you are convinced that your way is the right way and that anyone who disagrees is resistant to change. To lead more successfully, more often, we need to get better at engaging in dialogue. Dialogue is key to balancing advocacy and enquiry. Advocacy can be a telling mode, enquiry involves holding ambiguity, difference and uncertainty, and rummaging around in them for fresh information or insights.
It can be valuable to look outside education for wider examples of leadership and leadership modelling. When speaking to former teacher and England Rugby Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster, he described leadership as being about balancing the need to keep control whilst also letting go. He believes there are six stages to having an effective team, from creating the right culture, values and behaviours in your organisation, to ownership of that culture and eventual team-led leadership.
Agility is about drawing together ways for dealing with complexity. Leaders must be able to embrace the unknown, be open to new ideas, understand the paradox of change – that change is constant – and change course as required.
According to the agile leadership model by Simon Hayward in his book The Agile Leader, agility can be learned through:
- seeking opportunities to learn, such as enrolling in learning programmes, or attending in-house workshops;
- creating space to reflect and learn from what has gone before: does your leadership prioritise crafting the time to stop, pause and reflect?; and
- using feedback to fuel learning: gathering information from multiple sources from which to launch conversations, help fuel learning and inform planning.
There is a potential paradox between being an enabler and a disruptor in order to influence and lead change.
Being an enabler is aligned to the idea of transformational leadership. It involves being collegial, creating vision and clarity of direction, empowering and working together. A key element is learning to be agile, dancing rather than stomping through change! Being a disruptor might be seen to be at odds with the idea of an enabler. Disruptors are bold and decisive, questioning the status quo and creating new ways of thinking and operating. This centres on critical reflection of best practice. Embracing the contrasting enabler/disruptor roles whilst staying agile are key to successfully leading change, helping individuals, teams, groups and organisations collectively move forward.
When working with successful education leaders and schools my experience tells me that the vast majority of them (if not all) are demonstrating the skills and approaches of effective coaching, every day. When you become committed to a coaching style of leadership it can give you the confidence and tools to unlock your potential as a successful leader.
Nicholas McKie is Founder and Director of Persyou Ltd, specialising in leadership coaching and professional development with leaders and aspiring leaders across the global education sector. His podcast, Inspiring Leadership, can be found on the Persyou website or wherever you get your favourite podcasts. Connect with Nicholas on LinkedIn.