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Be the Middle Leader you Want to Be

October 21, 2019, 20:02 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Be sensitive to both your own and your colleagues’ performance, and you’ll have a better chance of becoming the middle leader you want to be, says Kevin Lister...
Be the Middle Leader you Want to Be

In my view, the leadership of teaching and the curriculum should not be an exercise in ‘do as I say’ or ‘do as I do’. It should be far more about offering help and support.

Over the years I’ve encountered many people who think that a head of department must be the best teacher of that subject, or that to be an effective senior leader you must be an outstanding classroom practitioner. I don’t really subscribe to these views. Just as a great football manager doesn’t need to be the best footballer, an effective – or even great – leader doesn’t need to be the best teacher.

To lead effectively you need to have credibility within your team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you must be demonstrably better than them. The task of school leaders is primarily to ensure that there are systems and structures in place to support the teachers in the classrooms. If teaching is made easier by the right support structures, then the core task for teachers becomes that of making learning as effective as possible for their students.

It’s easy for school leaders to focus too directly on the students, bypassing or neglecting the needs of the teachers. This is probably because there is often little or no training for middle leaders on how to lead or manage. In his book Out of the Crisis*, the American industrial theorist W. Edwards Deming highlighted the need for supervision to focus on supporting the ‘next in line’ customer. By Deming’s definition, in a factory the next in line customer is the person one station down from you in the production line, not the actual consumer who buys the car. If you pass an issue on to the person who’s next in line, you harm their ability to complete their job correctly, and therefore the issue is exacerbated.

Supervision on the factory floor works by making sure that the line workers each do their individual jobs properly, not by checking the quality of the car at the end. Doing the jobs properly all the way down the line ensures a good outcome.

Personal impact

For school leaders, the next in line customers are the teaching staff we supervise, not the students. When we focus explicitly on the students, we forget the needs of the staff. If the staff are supported in their needs, doing the right things well and in the right way, then the resulting outcomes for the students should be good.

This is also a reason why bullying or overly aggressive management is counterproductive, because it demoralises and alienates the people who need to deliver to the students. The core role of school leaders is to provide systems and structures that facilitate, encourage and celebrate the processes of selfreflection and self-improvement for teachers across the school.

Personal impact is a massive part of leadership, but often underestimated. A leader sets the tone for their organisation and can have an enormous influence on morale and attitude, often disproportionate to their apparent remit. What we do and how we carry ourselves has a big influence on others, particularly the teams we lead. This influence – like ripples in a pond – will radiate through the organisation, often caused by unconscious behaviours as much as by deliberate actions.

Depending on how they interact with the ripples other leaders create, they can either reinforce, detract from, neutralise or completely undermine the intended messages.

Middle leaders

For middle leaders there can be a conflict due to the dual role of being both the leader of the team and also the voice of that team to the leadership. Often, middle leaders will naturally align to one of these positions, but seeing or presenting yourself from only one of these perspectives can detract from the impact you have within your team or within the wider leadership. At times you’ll need to choose the more difficult of the two roles, to ensure that the right messages are delivered and received in the intended way.

Leadership happens at all levels, and it’s easy to get into the clichés of ‘can-do attitude’, ‘self-starter’ or ‘team player’. However, there’s something useful at the root of these clichés. I’d encourage you to reflect on the following questions to consider the impact you’re having in your teams, and whether this is what you want or intend.

In the teams you’re part of, are you a source of energy or an energy sink? If you don’t provide a source of energy for the department, who does? I’m not suggesting that you always have to be the most energetic person; we all have our ups and downs. However, if your general demeanour is low energy, then it should not be a surprise if the rest of your team follow suit.

Are you outwardly more or less optimistic than the others in your teams? Teams need reassurance that the work they’re doing is likely to be successful. This requires a dose of optimism – not the mindless kind that ignores reality, but a healthy optimism that the future holds better things. If you genuinely don’t think this is true, are you doing the right things?

Do you actively manage the morale in the teams you lead? If you don’t, who does? Unmanaged morale is uncontrolled and left to chance. If morale is not where you want it to be, find out why and make changes to improve it.

Countering negativity

When issues arise, do you dwell on past events and apportion blame, or do you seek a solution? Understanding why something has happened is important so that it’s not repeated, but nobody benefits from lengthy recriminations or scapegoating. Seek to draw a line under a situation and find a way to move forward.

If you’re not the champion for your team, then who will fill that role? While negative things may happen – and all teams have weaknesses – sometimes these are best discussed quietly with those involved, with positive positions shared more widely. Do you criticise or question other leaders in private or in public? There’s a time and a place for this type of thing. Consider who can overhear you and the message that this sends. An impressionable junior member of staff hearing their line manager being criticised by another head of department or a senior leader is likely to feel more negative about the next task that individual asks them to do.

Do you challenge negativity or seek ways to improve morale whenever negativity is encountered? Obviously, this has to be tempered with reality. We can’t all be positive all of the time, and there’s a time and a place for acknowledging negativity. However, negativity that’s allowed to fester can spread, to the detriment of the wider organisation. Try to establish a route forward that counteracts the negativity and leads towards a more positive future.

Your answers to these questions will shape the way in which others see you. It will determine whether they see you as a source of help or not. Fundamentally, it will determine whether they want to work with you or not.


Consider the following questions and answer them as honestly as you can:

• Would you be inspired by someone who behaves exactly like you do? (i.e. exactly as you do now, not as you might like to, pretend to or aspire to.)

• Would you be proud to be in a team led by someone who behaves exactly like you?

• Which of your current behaviours would you find most annoying if you were leading yourself?

• Could you change your behaviours to improve the impact that you have?

It is common in 360° leadership reviews to get feedback from a range of people who work for you, alongside you and who supervise you. Sometimes this is a good way of getting honest answers to these questions when it is difficult to be that honest with yourself.

Kevin Lister is a senior assistant headteacher at an academy in Warwickshire. This article is based on an edited extract from his book Teach Like You Imagined It: Finding the Right Balance, which is available now, published by Crown House Publishing.

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