Leading from the front

I wrote a blog in January 2018 when I was President of the Association of Managers in Education about how you could be an ethical and effective leader in difficult times.

It was published on the AMiE website on Jan 31st, 2018, although I never shared it on this website. Considering the UK’s current political crisis illustrating exactly how NOT to lead, today seems like a good day to share it – so here it is!

I was recently at an event where I was on a panel discussing ethical leadership and management, particularly in a time of austerity.

The audience was made up of those at the start of their careers in education who wanted to know how you could be an ethical and effective leader in difficult times.

So what personal attributes did I suggest were necessary to become a strong manager and leader?

In my view the main skill has to be communication. It is the starting point for everything. A marvellous plan is no good if you can’t explain it to others. Alongside this goes a degree of emotional intelligence. You need to be honest, have integrity and treat your teams with respect. Never forget they are your most precious resource.

You must be prepared to take responsibility. Equally you need to share successes and always give credit and praise where it is due.

Be brave and prepared to challenge when you know things to be wrong or unfair. This doesn’t mean just challenging those you line manage! Be prepared to stand up and challenge those with the power, whether they are your line manager, chair of governors or a Government minister. The latter may be difficult unless you are a Principal but you can stand up and be counted as part of the National Education Union and make your voice heard as a member of the largest education union in Europe.

Never lose your enthusiasm. The daily grind of accountability measures, data, funding issues and the difficult personal circumstances of students who you may have to deal with can drag you down but never forget why you chose to work in education and why you wanted to become a teaching assistant/teacher/manager/leader. For most of us there is a moral purpose driving us so let that shine through even on the darkest days.

Be inspirational while being realistic in your expectations of yourself and others. Be accessible to your team members and don’t forget they have lives outside the school or college often with family responsibilities. When they are facing difficulties your empathy will be sincerely appreciated. They won’t think you are “weak” because you listened and offered support. And the majority of them will remember your compassion, just as they will remember if you treated them badly.

There is a lot of literature out there to help develop your thinking in this respect but a long time ago I came to the conclusion it is all about core personal values.

Don’t routinely ask others to do things you would not be prepared to do. This is not the same as being expected to be an expert in everything. If I had to deliver a music tech lecture on acoustics I would be at a loss however I have been known as Director of Arts in a large college to sweep chips up from the floor wearing my smartest attire just before local dignitaries arrived to an important event!

There are times when it can be difficult to be all these things and none of us is perfect, but when you allow an uncaring culture and ignore your teams as people then you become their biggest problem. And you cannot then also be the solution.

It is fair to say that being a decent person does not cost more so even when we are working in times of austerity why should it affect our basic moral code?

Treating people badly leaves scars and sometimes these do not heal. Do you really want to be responsible for permanently damaging someone’s mental or physical health? However difficult the circumstances, as a leader you need to always treat others the way you would wish to be treated.

I will never forget the day I shared with my Faculty team the details of a large restructure which potentially involved redundancies. It was always going to be a stressful experience.

One of the managers in my team was terminally ill at the time but he insisted on being present at the meeting because it affected his staff. He was their manager and wanted to be with them, supporting them. 

He died three months later, a week after his 40th birthday.

That’s leadership.