As leaders, we all have aspects of our work that ignite our passion more than others. A number of years ago, I read John C Maxwell’s “Five Levels of Leadership”, in which he argued that the most effective leaders are those where the “must – should – love” elements, if represented as three circles on a Venn diagram, overlapped each other totally.
Maxwell argued that our work falls into three categories: Must – that which we have to do. It’s in our job description and it is a non-negotiable aspect that comes with the role itself. Should – based on our skills sets and experiences, these are elements of work where we would naturally excel, and as such it is an efficient and effective use of capacity for such work to be undertaken. Love – areas that ignite our passions, that get us out of bed in the morning, and that drive us forward each day in making a difference. When our job description (must) compels us to undertake the things we’re good at (should) which are also things that enthuse us (love), we become both highly effective and happy.
We would all recognise such a dynamic, but also appreciate that those who find themselves in such a position are both fortunate and a rare breed. We may also be familiar with the sentiment that if we “choose a job that you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.” I’ve most frequently heard this from sports stars or those working in the creative fields, where there is a clear alignment between personal passion and their means of paying the mortgage.
An area of my work that has ignited my passion has always been strategic choice. Many years ago whilst studying for an MBA, it was this component of the course that I found most stimulating and enjoyable, and it was within this area that I chose to undertake my dissertation. I’m not sure why I find this area so fascinating. It may stem from the same root as my enthusiasm for history. A sense of causation, of shaping, of consequence.
Recently, my work has seen an even greater emphasis on strategic choice than usual, as I have become involved in a consultancy capacity in work that spans many and diverse school settings beyond our own trust (which itself is a source of constant strategic considerations!). Through this work, and wider experience, I thought I would share reflections on three impulses that drive leaders in schools. I’ll emphasise both here and in my concluding remarks that strategy is always contingent upon context. In other words, there is a time and a place for any of these three approaches. Where leaders go wrong is selecting the wrong approach for their context. Why they can be prone to do this may require another blog!
The first impetus I’ve described as the Theseus’ Ship Approach. You may be familiar with the philosophical problem that was presented by Plutarch: If, in order to preserve the Ship of Theseus, the Greeks replaced each rotting plank and each frayed rope and torn sail, to the point where none of the original components remained, can the object still be referred to as the Ship of Theseus? There are alternative versions of this problem, including a contemporary version from the BBC comedy series “Only Fools and Horses”, in which “Trigger’s Broom” was commended as being the same broom that he had had for twenty years, with “17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time”! In schools, there is sometimes an urge to attempt to replace the component parts with identical replicas, in the hope that we can retain the original. This is a legitimate strategy if (a) the original cannot be bettered and (b) there are suitable identical replicas. If, like me, you’re struggling to find things that change in schools – staff, buildings, qualifications etc. – that fit the tests of (a) and (b), you may appreciate why this approach is problematic. It neglects the opportunity to improve, and often results in disappointment for everyone (especially if the “component” that is the replacement is a person!).
A second impetus I’ve described as the Brailsford Bike Approach. Sir Dave Brailsford, formerly Performance Director of British Cycling and more latterly of Team Sky/Ineos Grenadiers became the poster boy for the concept of improvement through marginal gains. Every millisecond that could be derived through part selection, engineering design, coaching and nutrition and fitness of rider was to be squeezed out, with the expectation that this would make sufficient difference to result in success. This approach requires constant evaluation, and an openness to change. There are schools that have seen significant successes through marginal gains. It may be in the curriculum: If we give an additional thirty minutes to maths each week, if we put our phonics teaching at the start of the day… It may be in staff development: If we invest more in middle leadership training, if we ensure consistency in behaviour management… and it may be through other “marginal” decisions – how to spend Pupil Premium funding, for example. The potential drawback of such an approach is it rests upon a central premise that what is current is (a) at least slightly sub-optimal yet (b) worthy of essentially being maintained. Such an approach can destabilise those who are invested in the current system or provision, in that they fear – often with good reason as a result of (a) – that change will always only be around the next corner. If they can own and drive that change, this fear can be turned into enthusiasm, of course. But if they can’t… The issue with (b) is that there may be a reluctance to make a step change, if the culture of the organisation is too wedded to the strategy of incremental improvement.
The third impetus I refer to here is The Wright Brothers’ Approach. Here, there is a drive to change more radically. To reject the orthodoxy and tradition of the bike shop in Dayton, Ohio, and strive forward into the skies of Kitty Hawk. Again, this can prove highly successful. We know of world-leading schools that, through innovation and creativity, have forged ahead and set the standard for others to follow. We rightly admire those organisations, and we all benefit from their success when, as “late adopters” we acquire many of the benefit with none of the risk. And the risks can be considerable. It’s the risks that keep the majority from adopting such a strategy. Innovation is resource intensive, and often results in an outcome more akin to that of Icarus than Orville Wright. When the greatest risk is to the education of children and young people – who only get one chance – many will understandably hang back.
Where truly skilful leaders are effective is in knowing when to stabilise and maintain, when to adapt and evolve, and when to jettison and then revolutionise. Their schools may be the subject to all three approaches in different areas of provision, or at different times. Conversely, some leaders will deliberately find settings to work in that match their own strategic impetus. This is just as effective. The worst of all worlds is the self-styled “new broom” that, in reality, is an iconoclastic wrecking ball that sees an effective and harmonious school as a test centre for vanity projects dressed as innovation, or the “steady eddie” that hopes that much-needed improvement can miraculously and spontaneously come into being without any change being implemented. After thirty years in education, I’ve seen the damage caused by both the new brooms and the steady eddies. But I’ve seen much more from the leaders who get it right, and admire them immensely for it.
As always, thanks for reading.