The concept of distributed leadership is widely talked about as something every headteacher should aspire to if they wish to see that their vision is continually driven forward. There’s perhaps less discussion about where this should start or stop – do you employ staff who support the school vision and then find their leadership ‘niche’? Or do you begin with a distributed leadership structure that you aspire to, and then look to recruit accordingly?
Moreover, how can the leadership distributed throughout your school be regularly reviewed and reshaped so your team are presented with fresh challenges and opportunities for growth?
At Chestnut Park, as a new build school with an initially small but ever growing team, these questions provoked much thought. Our thinking, however, was that the vision always came first. And here’s why.
A ship without a sail
When one has no building, no previous Ofsted results and no long term legacy to build on, it’s your vision that will capture hearts and minds and compel families and potential staff to follow you. It’s about recognising that leadership without ‘followership’ is like a ship without a sail.
As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, “Focusing on leadership alone is like trying to understand clapping by studying only the left hand.”
Haidt suggests that ‘followership’ requires three leadership qualities. First, the leader must establish why he or she is a credible authority figure for followers. As headteachers, we do this when we show that we completely understand, and indeed love our community, and thus create a vision of school development that supports and develops this – a vision of equity and equality of provision.
Secondly, a leader must express that his or her leadership will be fair. If leaders are clear that the whole team is there to support the realisation of the vision, the team will be able to recognise that everyone, not just senior leaders, can have an impact and will want to be part of what you’re doing. They’ll want to make their own mark. We often talk in schools about ‘everyone being a leader’, but if just one person fails to embrace that ethos, the whole school will be affected.
Thirdly, Haidt holds that loyalty to the leadership is a requirement of followership. For me, this is about leaders sharing a vision that’s clear and deeply rooted in pedagogical understanding, with the result that staff loyalty follows out of loyalty to the vision – because the vision really matters.
Having established a firm foundation of ‘followership’, a headteacher can then proceed to distribute and redistribute leadership throughout the school, which will in turn result in other leaders creating ‘followership’ within their own teams, further developing the distribution throughout the school.
A self-improving school system is therefore born out of the vision. Once people start following you, we can look at the CPD they’ll need to develop within their identified leadership niche. In this way, we can support a model of talent spotting and growing your own leaders, whilst at the same time energising the school system by distributing and redistributing where the leadership is.
I ask myself daily whether I’d have taken the same approach in an already established school – to which the answer is yes. Vision is the heart of the school. If the vision is where your leadership starts, then distributed leadership and followership are what will surely follow.
Esther Brooks is the headteacher of Chestnut Park Primary School, Croydon.