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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

The Five Disciplines of Extraordinary School Leaders

"Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools." Jim Collins

When it comes to school leadership, ‘Good is the enemy of great’. Good leadership is worthwhile, valuable, hard to achieve and harder to sustain (and let’s be clear right now – there is nothing wrong per se with Good Leadership as it is a damn sight better than Bad Leadership!). BUT in this day and age Good Leadership is simply not enough for what our schools require in the face of rapidly changing student needs, community expectations, teacher wellbeing pressures and a continuously evolving curriculum.

The Gravity of Success

Famed leadership guru and author of Good to Great, Jim Collins was right when he said: 'Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools.' From our experience, good school leadership creates its own gravity – the gravity of success.  

When school leaders finally break through the barriers of mediocrity (with the accompanying exhaustive effort that it took to do so) they naturally need to re-group and quickly scaffold and structure their new found territorial gains by repeating and reinforcing the leadership strategies that led to the improvement. However whilst this reinforcement of the leadership strategies that led to the initial improvement cements the positive gains, it ALSO hardens over time and becomes the new 'status quo' and a major barrier in itself to achieving further school improvement. By contrast, 'great leadership' is anti 'status quo' (even the status quo of good leadership) and continuously seeks to Level Up performance with a constantly evolving strategy.

"As water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the leader works out their strategy in relation to the challenges they are facing." Sun Tzu

Therefore, the main challenge for extraordinary school leaders who strive to build the Highest Performance Schools is to break free from the atmosphere created by the gravity of success that good leadership creates, and maintain the momentum upwards and outwards into the larger universe of greatness – extraordinary school leadership that creates extraordinary schools!

The 5 Disciplines of Extraordinary School Leaders

As a team of school leadership practitioners and researchers, we have agonised and argued for years about the differing characteristics between good and great school leaders. Having worked with over one thousand leaders across more than 200 hundred schools in Australia over the last 4 years, we wanted to share the top five subtle yet profound differences we have seen that separate 'good' and 'great' school leaders in their quest to build the Highest Performance Schools.

1.    Over-communicating Purposeful Vision & Action!

Shifting The Focus From Communicating to Over-communicating

"Even a company dedicated to over-communication cannot maintain organisational clarity through communication alone. It needs to build a sense of that clarity into the fabric of the organisation through process and systems that drive human behaviour." Patrick Lencioni

Good school leaders use their own extensive experience and insights to create a leadership driven vision for their school. They then launch their school's vision in a manner which engages all staff and then rely on ‘common sense’ and ‘personal responsibility’ of staff to implement the vision into their daily work life. 

Great school leaders don’t rely on their own experience and insights to develop vision. Instead they use the extensive experience and insights of their staff, (who often have a deeper understanding of the underlying purpose and context of the school) to develop ‘a purpose driven vision’ for their school. They then launch school vision with similar high engagement AND ALSO simultaneously build a parallel system of continuous reinforcement and communication giving them ‘a clear line of sight’ to embed the vision and strategy into the daily work life of staff. 

They ensure that the organisational structures accommodate for the various activities needed to achieve the vision – particular where people may need to collaborate across teams as well as within their normal teams. At the ‘team level' they ensure teams are clear on the connection between the specific purpose of their team with the wider purpose of the school. At the individual level, they ensure the role descriptions and duties of their senior leadership team and accompanying dashboards and performance metrics create a natural and continuous focus on execution of vision and strategy into everyday school life.

Extraordinary school leaders take Vision and Action a further and final step. They also personally over-communicate the connections between the school's vision and the specific actions of their staff and role model vision focused leadership at every opportunity and ensure simplicity and accessibility of message in all passive communication (signature blocks, letterheads, meeting agendas, street signage etc.) and active communication (verbal communication at the start of every meeting, assemblies, huddles and catch ups).

2. Reporting Systems To Achieve The Impossible During Business As Usual!

Shifting The Focus From Accomplishing to Striving

"What gets measured gets done." Tom Peters

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a

process, you don't know what you're doing." W Edwards Demming

Schools are very very busy places! There is a lot going on ALL the time! From simply keeping the doors open everyday and having safe and clean classrooms, to the complexities of managing the daily needs of a large teaching and non teaching workforce and even more complex needs of students and parents whilst ensuring the curriculum is delivered, behaviour and attendance issues are addressed and completing various inter-school and communality activities. 

The volume of information that needs to be managed, and decisions that need to be made on any given day is staggering – and at times overwhelming! It’s no wonder therefore that many school leaders get consumed by the ‘urgent’ of day-to-day operations and make very little inroads into the ‘important’ strategic initiatives of school improvement.

Yet this twin focus on both the important and urgent is EXACTLY what great school leaders do very very well indeed! They keep ALL the plates spinning in the day to day business as usual challenges AND progress the strategic initiatives of school improvement AT THE SAME TIME! They create a Golden Thread that weaves through all their communication and decision making cycles that makes strategy-focused operational decision making easy for everyone day to day and week to week! (As well as making sure everyone is kept up to date and ‘in the loop’.)

Great school leaders keep everyone focused on the strategic goals they are trying to accomplish within the business as usual environment – keeping the ‘main thing’ the ‘main thing’ (as Stephen Covey would say!). Extraordinary school leaders go one step further, they focus on the process – the Lead Indicators associated with striving towards the goal – thus they break down the steps further and focus on communicating about the measurement and achievement of the steps towards the goal even more than the goal itself.

Extraordinary school leaders are able to achieve seemingly impossibly amazing results (amidst all the high performance operational and strategic activity) by narrowing the focus of staff down from bigger strategic goals and targets onto smaller and more regular lead indicators displayed on simple dashboards. These Lead Indicator Dashboards show whether progress is ‘behind’, ‘on track’ or ‘ahead’ on key strategic issues allowing early intervention where ‘behind’ and importantly further support on ‘ahead’ stretching great performance into extraordinary performance – all within a business as usual environment.

As a result, their performance reporting systems are lead indicator focused and continually relevant at the daily and weekly level making it impossible for people to lose sight of the bigger strategic goals amongst the daily challenges of school life. This focus on 'striving' vs 'accomplishing' has an additional benefit in that goals are often achieved well ahead of time and ‘stretch goals’ become the new normal as people are focused on what is actually possible vs the baseline system targets that are necessary and thus can push harder towards greatness when the opportunities arise (as opposed to sitting back and relaxing knowing they are on track).

3.    Matching Communication to Inspire & Motivate Everyone!

Moving Beyond Equality Towards Inclusion

"When everybody is included, everybody wins." Jesse Jackson

Good school leaders believe in equality – ensuring everyone is treated similarly and afforded equal opportunity. Great school leaders go above and beyond this to maximise inclusion. To do this they need to deeply understand each person’s goals, aspirations, personality type and work interests, and build working relationships which help their staff feel included and supported to be the best the can be.

This focus on understanding the whole person and matching communication and opportunity to individual needs is far more powerful than simply providing equal opportunity. After all, not everyone 'equally' needs or wants additional training or leadership promotional opportunities – and the desire to be 'progressive' in your career vs 'stable' in your career fluctuates from person to person, but also within each person over their lifespan. Because of this, great school leaders are constantly looking to provide ‘matched’ opportunities to each individual which massively reinforces their personal sense of inclusion and belonging.

4.    'Going First' In Leading Wellbeing & Developing Relationship Fitness

Avoid The ‘Overconfident’ Trap Through The Vulnerability of ‘Overcoming’ 

"There will be no more 'them and us', only 'us', sharing struggles and challenges as part of being human." Laurie Davidson

Good school leaders promote a culture of wellbeing and resilience by practicing what they preach – role modelling wellbeing and actively enquiring about the wellbeing of others. Great school leaders go one step further by being appropriately vulnerable. They ‘Go First’ in leading wellbeing check-ins by appropriately disclosing their own challenges and seeking ideas from others so that ‘help seeking’ becomes a natural part of conversation. They also maximise their relationship fitness by practising the discipline of continuous team building.

The difference between sharing 'mastery' or sharing 'struggle' is enormous! Generally people feel a sense of connection and increased motivation when they have the empathy from others who have faced similar struggles, but feel isolated and alone when they cannot emotionally relate to others who give the outward impression of ‘having it all together’. 

Great school leaders know at any given time ‘everyone is fighting a battle’ of some sort in their work/life or personal wellbeing. Because of this they make wellbeing check-ins a routine part of everyday communication, and always ‘Go First’ – leading by example in appropriately disclosing their own challenges, and seeking ideas and advice from others. As a result, when additional support is needed it is asked for (or offered), and received easily and naturally as part of everyday conversation rather than awkwardly and anxiously as an unusual one off request. They also know that ‘people change all the time and forget to tell each other’ so they are firm believers in the value of continuous team building to maximise relationship fitness to create the ‘goodwill’ needed to manage the inevitable pressure points and challenges of teamwork.

5.    Leading 'In The Zone' To Maximise Staff & School Performance

Progressing Beyond Coaching Into Advisory Relationships 

"If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Abraham Maslow

Good school leaders believe that empowering their staff through effective coaching relationships brings out the best in people. They believe that telling others what to do is poor leadership and builds helplessness, so they are continuously using coaching questions and problem-solving discussions to enhance the growth of their staff - at times inadvertently delaying or distracting from the wider school improvement agenda.

Great school leaders know they are first and foremost responsible for running a High Performance School with staff empowerment, and growth an important second tier priority. Because of this they know that they need to move beyond traditional coaching approaches and build advisory relationships with their staff – a place where they can freely move between Manager, Mentor, and Coach roles to fast-track the achievement of school priorities whilst accomodating to the varying learning needs of their staff. They know Coaching is still an important and powerful tool to take highly skilled staff to the next level, but equally know the importance of using quality Managing (direct instruction) and Mentoring (co-construction) approaches with staff grappling with skill development challenges in the ‘learning pit’. Just like teaching and learning requires the right amount of scaffolding for a student to be in the ‘zone of proximal development,’ great school leaders mix their level of direction through the use of an ‘advisory approach’ to 'Lead In The Zone' - bringing out the best in the staff they work with whilst keeping the wider school improvement agenda the main priority. 

Bringing It All Together

The Five Disciplines of Extraordinary School Leaders

Where are you at as a school leader? Have you made the jump from good to great?

Do you over-communicate the vision or believe this is not necessary if the basics are in place? Do you focus on measuring and managing the ‘milestones’ as your school ‘strives’ towards its goals – leaving room for goals to stretch and thus achieve so much more when the opportunities arise? Do you move beyond equality to focus on inclusion in how you build relationships and match opportunities to individual talents and career aspirations? Do you role model overcoming challenges vs accidentally creating the impression that you are bullet proof, over confident and stress free? Do you build advisory relationships with your staff so you can flexibly Manage, Mentor and Coach them according to the school’s priorities, or do you simply coach them, inadvertently creating gaps in the timelines and priorities between what’s best for the school and what’s best for the person?

Start Now! Break Free From The Gravity of Your Own Success…

Start the next stage of your school leadership journey now! Have a conversation with your own advisors and peer leaders about where you sit with each of the five disciplines and what your next steps look like.

When you’re ready, share aspects of your own journey with staff about each of the Five Disciplines: (1) When do you sometimes forget the connection between the school’s vision and your day-to-day work and what impact does this have? (2) When do you fail to look at the micro-progress towards the goals and miss the realisation of what is really possible versus what the stated goals are? (3) What do you need from your leaders in terms of healthy working relationships and growth opportunities to maximise your sense of inclusion? (4) Where are you most challenged on work/life and wellbeing and what tools and tips do you use to improve? and (5) Where are you at working with your leaders, coaches and mentors – do you have a flexible advisory relationship established or is it a traditional coaching relationship? Where do you need more direct advice and guidance versus questions and prompts to be the most extraordinary school leader you can be?

As you reach the end of the beginning of this next stage of your leadership journey towards greatness some wise words from Brene Brown are shared to encourage you: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”

Onwards and Upwards!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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