What school leaders need to know about cultural leadership

The most important driver of outcomes for children is the quality of teaching and school leaders can influence this on a systematic level. Effective leaders will have a good mental model of what quality education entails including how to establish and maintain it. This mental model will consist of at least:

  • Curriculum design
  • Evidence based teaching strategies
  • What makes effective CPD

However this alone is not sufficient.  How well leaders’ vision is realised depends on the school culture being conducive to good implementation, just as the EEF Implementation Guidance for Schools describes in its second recommendation.

Effective leaders are cultural architects and in order to create and maintain a culture where quality teaching can flourish, there’s a body of knowledge that is required. 

Formal knowledge of cultural leadership

It is useful to know how high performing teams behave.  Fortunately, Daniel Coyle has looked extensively at this in his book The Culture Code.  Coyle found that the highest performing teams in all sorts of contexts build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose.

So what does building safety look like for a school leader?  What behaviours need to be modelled and encouraged amongst the team?  Knowing these things can help leaders deliberately craft a high performing culture.  Here’s more detail on building safety.

Many of these are self explanatory but some are worth exploring in a school specific context. Asking questions to draw others out can be exemplified in every day problem solving that leaders engage in. Let’s say that the lunchtime organisation for getting children seated and fed needs refining. Asking colleagues closest to the problem is exactly the insight needed rather than attempting to solve the problem alone. More importantly, it is a strong cue to those asked that their opinions matter and that they belong.

Sometimes in schools, teachers can find themselves at the top of an unintended hierarchy over teaching assistants and operational staff.  If leaders celebrate the humblest of tasks through regular narration to colleagues, children and parents, that can further show that all matter and belong.

Sometimes we settle into routines and patterns regarding who we come into contact with, with colleagues in different year groups sometimes going days without seeing each other. Making mixing happen involves understanding this and creating opportunities throughout the school day to interact. Staggered break times work against this.

Here’s more detail on sharing vulnerability:

Good leaders accept that they do not know everything and are not threatened by the insecurity of admitting ignorance. Leaders can exercise this sharing of vulnerability through one to one conversations with the prompts on the left hand side. Debriefing situations to build a shared mental model is a vital routine for leaders to establish. For example, following an exclusion, it would be beneficial to run through the decisions made at each point by everyone involved to look for good choices and missed opportunities to guide future action.

Here’s more detail on establishing purpose:

To make best use of the many educational conferences run on Saturdays, leaders might choose to repay the time spent with a day off during the week and this is a good enabler to promote a culture of professional learning. It’s also an example of establishing vivid, memorable rules of thumb: ‘If you attend a conference at the weekend, take a day in lieu.’

I really like distinguish between where proficiency is needed and where creativity is needed. An example for school leaders might be that we want teachers to follow to the letter escalation procedures for repeated inappropriate behaviour, but we don’t want to constrain teachers by insisting that feedback is the same in each subject with a blanket policy.

Additional required knowledge for leaders comes from Daniel Pink’s Driveautonomy and mastery on top of the already discussed purpose and belonging. Teachers are more satisfied when they have autonomy over working practices and leaders should not only plan to make this happen, but narrate the autonomy that teachers have to make sure that is understood.

If staff are good at their jobs, they’ll enjoy working more and this will contribute to an effective culture. High repetition, high feedback training can improve practice influence culture.

Informal knowledge of cultural leadership

This blog post from Ambition Institute describes the difficulty in codifying informal knowledge. When it comes to cultural leadership, leaders need to know, for example, when postponing a meeting might be more beneficial for teachers during a busy week than going ahead with it. A great headteacher I once worked for knew the value of clearing the building and sending everyone home at times of peak potential stress.

Impressionistic knowledge of cultural leadership

Impressionistic knowledge in terms of cultural leadership is best exemplified by this scenario from the Ambition Institute blog:

Consider, for example, a situation in which a teacher requests a leave of term-time absence. Deciding whether to agree to this and how many days to allow, for example, relies upon a huge range of factors: how much time the person has asked for, what the reason is, what impact the absence will have on the department within which they work, and so on. These are impressions of need, merit, difficulty and cost. Of course there is likely to be a policy which a leader can use to simplify the situation, but in reality, this can be superseded by leaders’ impressions of the situation and the individuals involved.

The hidden knowledge of experts

Self regulatory knowledge of cultural leadership

Leaders need to know how to manage themselves in a situation. Leaders’ every word and action are scrutinised and mirrored in the community. If we’re relaxed, it sets the tone for everyone else. If we’re stressed, others pick up on it and if that’s at odds with what we’re saying, we risk discord. Leaders need to know what makes them react in positive and negative ways and seek to manage their emotions for sake of climate.

Our expectations fulfilled

The pygmalion effect is fascinating and I suspect has implications for leadership. Leaders need to understand that even through deliberate cultural leadership, applying all of the above, that we still have biases which are betrayed by our own consciousness and unconscious behaviours. How we treat people demonstrates our expectations of them and they either live up to them or live down to them. We need to consider any inequalities in:

  • Eye contact
  • Proximity
  • Warmth
  • Frequency and length of interactions
  • Giving challenging work
  • Amount and quality of feedback
  • Amount and quality of support offered

School leadership is a persistent problem of school leadership but one that is universal (we all, no matter the context in which we work, need to address is); causal (we can make a difference if we tackle it effectively); and controllable.

Leaders just need to have a good enough mental model based on sufficient knowledge of cultural leadership and their own school to tackle it effectively.

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