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Should Headteachers Lead with Love or Fear?

January 8, 2019, 15:35 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Jeremy Hannay looks at what it means to lead with strength versus warmth – and why the latter can help you go further...
Should Headteachers Lead with Love or Fear?

Is it better to be loved or feared? That would be an interesting discussion to have amongst headteachers, though I’m confident we’d eventually all agree that you need a bit of both (and that ‘feared’ could perhaps be changed to something less scary).

The real question, however, is what we as leaders should start with first – warmth or strength?

I read a great article in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago that characterised this exceptionally well. Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you. The article’s authors maintain that one’s decision to follow our lead is based on two main thoughts: Can I trust this person (warmth) and can I respect this person (competence/ strength)?

Strength versus warmth

Most of us start with our strength – how many degrees we’ve earned, how much experience we possess, how long we’ve served in the trenches, how busy we are. We’ve worked hard to be competent and want others to see us that way.

In schools, this may translate to starting with lesson observations, learning walks and other forms of scrutiny, monitoring and quality assurance. In a thriving inspection culture, this can be a great way of protecting ourselves from poor judgements, or help us decry them as invalid if they don’t go our way.

Unfortunately, when we lead from strength we run the risk of eliciting fear. By putting strength first, we gain compliance without courage. Schools run like this end up following an ‘everyone for themselves’ philosophy that can extend to the school itself – competitive rather than collaborative, secretive rather than willing to share and more concerned with seeking recognition than identifying areas for improvement. The teachers become less metacognitive, less creative and more disengaged.

Warmth is a greater factor in one’s evaluation of us as leaders. It facilitates trust, communication and the absorption of ideas. Once we’ve established our warmth, our strength is a welcome reassurance. Moreover, it’s a conduit of influence.

Leading with warmth allows us to connect immediately with our staff, letting them know that they’re heard, understood and valued. At Three Bridges, we call this ‘Leaning In’. We know from largescale studies that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. They improve our life expectancy, brain function, general health and wellbeing. The prioritising of connections, relationships, and warmth is key to leading successful schools.

The power of language

I’ve always been amazed at the power of words and language. As a Canadian, when I started teaching in the UK I encountered a number of linguistic misunderstandings. The one that always stuck out most was the simple British greeting, ‘Y’all right?’ It was how virtually every day started in school, and for months it bothered me.

In Canada we have many ways of saying hello: ‘What’s up?’ ‘Bonjour.’ ‘Salut.’ ‘How are ya?’ ‘Hey!’ ‘Hi.’ But when we ask ‘Are you all right?’ the implication is that the speaker has noticed something wrong; they’re worried about you. As someone new to the country, being asked every morning if I was all right, I’d go to the toilets, look in the mirror, smell myself, check there wasn’t something in my teeth. It was a weird way to start the day. And no one knew.

I quickly learnt this wasn’t what everyone meant, but even after understanding what their intention was, I couldn’t let go of the power that phrase had on me.

Some years ago I carried out a small experiment with some of my senior staff. I asked them to write down what they believed their role was, based on a variety of requests I’d make of them. I wanted to see if their interpretation of my intention would change based solely on the language I used, whilst keeping those intentions consistent. At first, I asked them what they believed their role was if they were asked to ‘monitor and scrutinise’ a person, subject or development area. I then changed the phrase to ‘quality assure’, before replacing it with ‘support and develop’.

Their expectations shifted hugely. The first phrase was coupled with militaristic ideas – holding to account, checking up on, making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to, finding problems, reporting back, etc. This changed slightly with ‘quality assure’. Most seemed concerned with standards of some kind, or else outputs, results and products. The themes of hierarchy were mirrored.

The final phrase, however, elicited rather different feelings altogether – asking people what they need, modelling best practice, team teaching, facilitating access to training, sharing practice and resources, collaborating for planning and learning. What’s scary is that in each case I meant for the same thing to happen – sustainable, capacity-building, values-led school improvement. Language is powerful.

Common narrative

As a headteacher that’s had the good fortune of working with many schools, leaders and teachers across the country, I can say without any doubt that performance management processes are often the main contributing factor to a teacher leaving the profession. We start with strength – countless lesson observations, learning walks, scrutinies, monitoring activities, planning checks, checklists, and so on. School leaders want their schools, teachers and pupils to improve, develop and flourish.

The teachers, on the other hand, feel untrusted, micromanaged, automated and fearful.

Leading with warmth means building collaborative processes instead of individual judgements. It involves placing connection at the heart of school improvement, rather than competition. It requires us to dissolve the link between hierarchical inspections and school improvement.

It compels us to ask ourselves better questions. If learning observations are designed to develop, align and enhance professional practice, how can we achieve the same goal through a model of social capital and collaborative professionalism? If scrutiny and monitoring are in place to maintain high standards and support consistent practice, is there a way to manage that through learning communities and collective expectations?

At Three Bridges, we have regular learning and lesson study driven by professional interest and school development. Teachers self-refer to each other for development and practice dissemination. Team meetings are learning communities, centred around support and development targets, generated from informal information and feedback. Teams work together to design collective goals, related to areas of strength and struggle.

We don’t use traditional monitoring and observation exercises. Experienced teachers aren’t routinely observed in a year. We don’t have book or planning scrutinies. There aren’t any learning walks. We have low to no staff turnover – in an inner London borough, at a school that’s near the top of the deprivation tables, with high proportions of pupils with EAL and who qualify for Pupil Premium and free school meals. Standards and expectations are consistently high, and attainment is strong.

When we aim to align the underpinnings of great leadership with school improvement, teachers feel trusted and valued and begin to see the difference they make. Their collective efficacy soars, and they start to feel deeply responsible for the life of every child. When we #LeanIn on relationships and relational processes, we move our schools, our profession and our people forward.


#LeanIn on leadership

Want to lead with warmth in your setting? Try observing the following…

1. #Levelout
It’s often helpful to speak at a lower pitch and volume, as if you were comforting someone. Find a tone that shows you’re levelling with people. Share a personal (but appropriate) story that lets them know you understand.

2. #Iseeyou
Make sure staff know that you see them. Acknowledge their feelings and what they’re going through. Know them. Often, when you appreciate other people’s positions, they’ll be more willing to listen to yours.

3. #Livednotlaminated
Warmth isn’t easy to fake, but it is easy to see through – so you need to mean it. You need to live it.

4. #Weserve
As educators, we’re servant leaders. Serve your children, your community and your staff. If we want our children to flourish, our adults must flourish first.


Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School.

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