What does it take for school leaders to learn from other domains?

Books and talks on leadership are plenty.

Earlier in my career I read all sorts books of this genre and others like popular psychology. They were alluring in that they filled what I had come to realise was a void in those times before educational research was so widely available. Schools can be strange places sometimes, populated by those of us who left school, studied and then returned to the school envrionment with limited wider experience. Reading about what successful businesses do felt like an important thing to be doing to broaden my experience.

In many ways they still are alluring. I find it interesting to vicariously live out childhood dreams of sporting excellence by reading about the All Blacks or Mourinho in his prime. Sporting leadership seems to be popularly applied to school leadership and I entertained this for a while as a less experienced senior leader. Claire Stoneman put that analogy to bed.

The question is in what ways are leadership ideas from other domains useful for school leaders?

School leadership is complex because school improvement is a wicked problem. It is hard to define with unclear solutions and it cannot be fully solved. Having said that, all school leaders, irrespective of the age range taught, part of the country or Ofsted grade, have to tackle common issues; what Ambition Institute terms persistent problems of school leadership.

Developing our knowledge in these domains is the path to expertise and in turn good decision making. Can books about leadership more generally contribute to any of these domains? For many of the persistent problems, I’d argue not. Learning & development, curriculum, behaviour, and school improvement are all very specific to school leadership and already have a wide body of knowledge that leaders can acquire.

There might be some contribution to the persistent problems of culture, administration and self though. Why? Because it seems sensible to suggest that these are not just persistent problems of school leadership, but of organisational leadership.

What can generic leadership books or tales from other industries teach us about school leadership then? Well, it depends. To illustrate this, I’ll use the example of a book called the Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. I read it to learn more about cultural leadership.

Coyle provides what I think is a useful framework and one part of this is the idea of building safety – teams flourish when they feel psychologically safe. I pulled out some of the behaviours that Coyle observed in the highest performing teams:

Because Coyle studied some of the highest performing teams in various contexts, there is undoubtedly some genericism here. This list includes some low hanging fruit for school leaders precisely because in theory anyone could do these things. They may well be very important in the development of a strong culture but they can only be superficial, the way that cakes in the staff room is a superficial (but lovely) wellbeing strategy.

This wasn’t all of what Coyle observed as ways of encouraging psychological safety though. Here’s another set:

I separated these for a very important reason. For a leader to do these well, they’ll need plenty of educational knowledge in order for them to work in a school. Different types of knowledge combine to form expertise:

In seeking to build psychological safety using these ideas from Coyle, school leaders will need to draw on formal knowledge of educational issues as well as their hidden knowledge of their own school context, their colleagues and themselves.

This is the crux of the matter – where there are opportunities to learn from other domains, the ideas offered must be bound up in a leader’s educational knowledge if they are to be of any use. Done well, the formal and hidden knowledge of school leaders can bring substance to the ideas from other fields. In fact, examples such as building psychological safety can be assimilated into the formal knowledge that leaders require to tackle persistent problems.

3 thoughts on “What does it take for school leaders to learn from other domains?

Add yours

      1. I prefer to consider it a service. Cultural, social and economic in nature.

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