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What do we mean by leadership?

In a recent post, I shared my realisation that many of us in education have been using the words ‘leadership’ and ‘promotion’ interchangeably. Since then, I’ve had many more conversations with many more folk about what we actually mean by ‘leadership’. What’s fascinating is that when talking to teachers, and others involved directly in education in Scotland, the vast majority agree with me that it’s often used to mean ‘promotion’ or ‘management’, and that it’s not necessarily something classroom teachers see as relevant to them – unless of course they’re going for that first PT post…

Even some of the language around education in Scotland still reinforces this concept of what is meant, for example ‘senior leadership’, ‘early leadership’, ‘first leadership position’. What’s even more fascinating is the few conversations I’ve had on this topic with people from outwith education. They’ve often commented that of course leadership is a component of all roles, no matter where they are in the hierarchy and they’ve shown genuine surprise when I’ve outlined how the word is often used in education.

So what do we mean by leadership? This is a question which I’m spending much of my time exploring and discussing. I posed this as the title of my presentation at the recent InnovateEducation event and I’m asking the question again this evening at Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian’s Creative Learning Network’s series of Creative Conversations. That presentation uses a range of resources to explore the question (including quotations, images of kayaking, resources from my teaching, some of my work at SCEL, and a song about stew), but I also find the following quotation from a recent book chapter by Christine Forde and Beth Dickson of use:

leadership is a “lay everyday knowledge term not a scientific construct” (Forde & Dickson, 2017)

I personally sometimes wonder if we have over complicated the term ‘leadership’ to the extent that not only is it the preserve of those in promoted posts, it’s also quite a complex thing which can be off-putting to busy teachers. I know that when I was in the classroom, I was aware of leadership ‘theories’ and ‘styles’ etc. and even if I felt that these were of relevance to me (which I didn’t) I was, frankly, put off by what sounded like a lot of work to get to grips with them when I was busy with getting better at the job at hand. It’s for this reason that I like this quote as I’m drawn to the idea that leadership is a lay term. It is not the preserve of those of who have read and studied the term in depth, it is a term which is available to us all to use in our work and lives.

So, if we choose to use it, what might it mean? Again from Christine Forde and Beth Dickson:

Leadership is an interactional process where influence and power are exercised in different ways, in different locations by different people across an organisation. (Forde & Dickson, 2017)

I like this as it again captures the universal nature of leadership, whilst also highlighting the importance of relationships, influence, power and the variability of each. There are an increasing number of helpful sources such as this to reference in this regard, but this doesn’t always mean that this can easily be translated into the practice of those in education. So, how then can those of us who think that it’s important to encourage teachers to think of themselves as leaders, and crucially, convince middle, school and system leaders to support and encourage leadership go about achieving this?

I’ve been quite struck by the simple power of talking about all of this in the context of practice. I was asked to give a short presentation on teacher leadership at St. Andrew’s & St. Brides’s High School in East Kilbride earlier this month. It was kindly open to staff from across the area and it primarily consisted of me talking for about 45 minutes on my thoughts on all of this with a couple of examples from my own practice as a teacher and as an enquiring practitioner. As ever with a one-off short presentation, my fear was that this would have little or no impact on those who attended the session. In fact, I find that my imposter syndrome goes into overdrive upon completion of these sessions and I drive away convinced that everyone will have no doubt regretted having wasted their time turning up for that. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I received some feedback from the session last week which included an almost universally positive response. I really appreciate the time taken by all those who shared their feedback and for the school for sending it through, but one comment in particular leapt out at me in the context of what I’ve been exploring in this post:

The presentation encouraged me to reflect and develop my own leadership skills, an area I had never really considered applicable as an unpromoted member of staff. After this presentation it was clear that effective classroom leadership can have a fundamental and lasting impact on our learners and this is something that I believe all teachers strive for.

Two things strike me about this comment. Firstly, that developing leadership skills had never been considered applicable to their role as a teacher (something I can empathise with) and secondly, a 45 minute presentation which primarily consisted of my current thoughts and past examples might have changed their mind on this a little and they are now able to summarise the point of all of this a lot quicker than I ever manage!

Perhaps therefore if we can all take a little time to share what leadership means to us and what it looks and feels like in our practice we can collectively redefine what we mean by leadership in education. I therefore will now go and give my presentation in Edinburgh and try my best to keep my imposter syndrome at bay.

Thank you again to the staff who sent me their feedback from the session at St. Andrew’s & St. Brides’s High School. I’m glad it was of use. 


Here’s what I went on to say after writing this…

One Comment

  • Reply Richard Lynas |

    No debate, Fearghal, about the validity of the point that you make about the pervasiveness of leadership skills among the education community, including classroom teachers. But your focus is, quite rightly, on the developmental dimension of collaborative leadership among classroom teachers as they share insights and expertise about what constitutes effective learning and teaching. There is also, however, an accountability dimension about leadership that enters the ring when a classroom leader applies for a promoted post and becomes, for the first time, formally accountable for the work and development of colleagues, both as individuals and as members of a team who share common objectives and common strategies for achieving those objectives. At a point where the Scottish Government is proposing to place greater decision-making powers and funding directly into schools, I would respectfully suggest that the accountability dimension of school leadership at every level, as well as the developmental dimension, merits close discussion and analysis. Be sure that by delegating more decision-making powers to school leaders at every level, the government will hold school leaders at every level more legally accountable than ever before for raising levels of attainment overall and closing the attainment gap between rich and poor. It may be that many more teachers, having reflected on the different kinds of challenges involved, will be more attracted to the developmental dimension of leadership than will be attracted by the heat of the accountability kitchen.

So, what do you think ?