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The right leadership style for the right situation

Updated: Jan 23

I’ve been reflecting a lot with school leaders, lately, on how different situations in leadership require a different approach.

When a school is in a bad place, maybe in an OFSTED category or at risk of going into one, there’s an argument that says the leader should be more directive.

I’ve been at the helm of a school in a time of turbulence, where safety needed to be established before other things could be developed. That required a lot of direction from me, many tough decisions and a whole load of courage. I wasn’t in my comfort zone. I was being driven by the fear of bad things happening or of letting people down. I had nightmares about our school being the subject of negative headlines in the newspapers. It was only when things started to settle down a bit that I could tune in more to my own values, which were about empowerment, aspiration and building relationships. That was when I began to find my groove, when I could focus on building a team and harnessing our combined skills, knowledge and aspirations for the improvement of our school. The work of leadership became more about moving towards something: a shared purpose, rather than avoiding a disaster.

The values-led direction I was taking, and that was informing my leadership behaviours, was a more democratic, enabling approach.

There’s a model of leadership devised by Tannenbaum and Schmidt, called the ‘Leadership Continuum Theory’ – it shows a continuum moving from an autocratic style at one end, where the leader tells people what to do, to a democratic style at the other end, where employees decide what to do. I use a similar model to describe pure coaching – moving from the ‘push’ of teaching to the ‘pull’ of coaching.

I think it’s useful to merge the two ideas. At the ‘push’ end of this continuum, you are teaching or training people, telling them what to do. As you move along you are mentoring – mixing in support and advice with opportunities for the person to find their own answers and at the ‘pull’ end you are truly coaching (not offering advice, just helping to draw out the resourcefulness of the other person).

For me, the key thing here is that you are conscious as you move along this continuum, in either direction. You make choices about the behaviours and style you adopt, to suit the situation you’re in and the people you’re working with. There’s less reacting, and more responding in a values-led way.

Spending more time at the ‘push’ end of the continuum, you can expect to secure some quick wins and short term successes, but when you’re more at the ‘pull’ end, you’re likely to find longer term gains, sustainable improvements and benefits for the whole sector.

If I could speak to my earlier self, who was a headteacher trying to improve that school and establish safety, I’d explain this continuum, and say that you don’t have to stay at one end or the other. You can move up and down, depending on who you’re speaking to and what the needs are. You don’t need to wait until ‘things have settled down’ to tune into your values, and use them as your guide.

But moving along the continuum requires self-awareness and skill. Often, leaders come a bit unstuck when they’ve made changes in their organisation with a more directive approach and improvement has happened. They’re then a bit unsure about how to proceed in a way that will empower their team and enable them to grow and develop, even though their values are pointing them towards that. It also takes courage to change direction and approach, when you’ve experienced success with a certain style, and set of behaviours.

What’s your experience of this push-pull continuum on your own leadership journey? Do you find yourself moving up and down with ease, or are there some jolts and bumps there?

Using my experience of headship, as well as leadership coaching, I’ve pulled together a set of behaviours that can help you to be conscious about your moves along this continuum and to be able to ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’, when it’s appropriate:

· Asking empowering questions

· Actively listening

· Being emotionally agile

· Giving quality feedback

· Nurturing leadership opportunities

I’ve created an online resource for those who are keen to move forward on their ‘coaching leadership’ journey. When you join you gain access to a suite of videos and PDFs which explore the behaviours and help you to build up your toolbox of coaching skills. You can find out more here.

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