Nothing can be more frustrating than the mighty maverick who sees it as his or her goal to undermine your leadership. They may even see their actions as driven by a moral imperative on behalf of the school. The problem, however, is that they don’t have to account to governors, parents or inspectors. You do.
Here, I want to examine the strategies you can employ and what to avoid when when going head-to-head with these mighty mavericks – who to talk to, what documents to use and how to conduct a meeting with them.
Firstly, let’s define who I’m talking about. It’s that person, often an experienced member of staff, who fails to follow policy, or walks a line consistent with the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. To be clear, I’m not describing individuals who challenge you in a professional way, but rather that someone who consistently comes against your leadership style, seemingly just for the sake of it!
How you manage this type of personality will often be a direct reflection of your own personality, but it’s important to clarify that this shouldn’t be treated as a battle of wills – in my experience it rarely comes to that. Tackling the issue will essentially involve addressing two simple questions. How are you presenting your strategy? And why are they resistant?
Cause for reflection
Firstly, there’s the strategy (or plan, or development) itself. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Unusually for us, education at the present time is ticking along quietly for the most part, primarily because every civil servant employed by the government is singularly focused on Brexit.
That said, you may well be reviewing your curriculum following Ofsted’s change of focus from core subjects to wider learning experiences (this in itself being a change that’s been quietly evolving for several years). Alternatively, or you might be reviewing your school’s MIS, as many are at the moment.
Whatever conclusions you come to, you will ultimately have at your core a fundamental question to answer – how is this going to support the learners in my school? (Or in business-speak, ‘What’s the benefit to the primary users?’) Once decided, your strategy needs to be implemented. Rarely will we ever impose a strategy, particularly in smaller schools; there will be a genuine consultation process, followed by an agreed implementation process. Your role is to ensure that this is done in a timely way, which may be faster than some teachers would like, but ultimately your chief priority is to support the learners.
It’s during these sticking points that the maverick may make themselves known. Ask why they might be so resistant. Are you pushing too hard or too fast? There could be cause to reflect on this. Are there aspects that are overly burdensome? Again, time to reflect may be wisely taken.
‘Passive’ and ‘bull’
If you’ve discounted your strategy as an unreasonable aspect to challenge – or are unwilling to discount the strategy – then the next step must be focused on the person, but there are right ways and wrong ways of addressing this.
Two classic wrong approaches are ‘passive’ or ‘bull’. The ‘passive’ approach is to do nothing and hope that the situation resolves itself. It won’t. All that will happen is that the member of staff begins to recruit supporters, therefore increasing the challenge when introducing new strategies.
The other approach, the bull, will leave a similarly negative impact. Yes, you can intimidate the person into either leaving or falling into line, but the end result will be that you’ve created a leadership strategy built on being aggressive. This is fundamentally in contradiction to what schools are about; building people up, not crushing them. Certainly, we all have ‘bad days at the office’, and sometimes the maverick can get caught in the cross-fire – but don’t let this accidentally become your default style of leadership.
Consult the evidence
That said, however, mavericks still have to be addressed. As with everything else in education, rely on evidence, or risk becoming ‘the bull’. Fundamentally, have you been clear in what you expect as non-negotiables? How books are marked, how we assess and how we teach are all aspects that a reasonable leader can be specific about, but make this clear in policy or the staff handbook.
You also have the Teachers’ standards. This document states very clearly what’s expected, and is the national minimum standard for teaching. Handily, the digest consists of just one page, but it’s part 2, covering personal and professional conduct, that’s arguably the most helpful. That word ‘professional’ is used frequently throughout; by undermining the leadership, it could be easily argued that the individual isn’t demonstrating the professionalism their role requires of them.
Again, however, before you act it’s well worth contacting your HR team, which will be able to give you concise advice and walk you through the process, if it’s the first time you’ve had to address this particular personality type. Either way, it’s always helpful to talk to somebody else first, so that you can ‘rehearse’ the conversation you’ll be having later.
That just leaves one final step – the face-to-face discussion, and always one of the most challenging conversations you’ll have. That said, remember that nobody wants to be called into the office. It may be that other members of staff are looking to you to engage with this person and waiting for you to act. The longer you wait, the more difficult this will become.
At the initial meeting, try to avoid having it alone. Phrases such as ‘It has come to my attention…’ or ‘In the meeting you made it clear you weren’t happy with the discussion…’ will open proceedings, but it’s important to make clear to them that how they presented was inappropriate.
It’s at this stage that a simple trick can help the situation. Avoid filling any space with your voice; instead, allow long silences and let the other person explain themselves. In situations such as these, silence can do more to say what needs to be said than words alone.
Be sure to hold this initial meeting on your terms. It’s ultimately your name that will be attached to any reports, and your face that’s publicly accountable.
In my own experience, a maverick will often have aspects of their practice that don’t follow school policy, which can provide a reasonable avenue to follow should you wish to take the matter further.
Fundamentally, nothing can hold a school back more effectively than a maverick. It’s therefore critical that you have a conversation with them as quickly as possible.
You’ve been appointed to lead the school, and sometimes that means needing to have conversations which are hard, but ultimately to the whole school’s benefit. Keep that in mind when preparing for your next challenging conversation and remember – let the long silences do the heavy lifting on your behalf.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker.