Leading from the second row

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

BY ALEX GITLIN
No one is an island, so any head of school needs his or her first line of support: a deputy.

Whilst specific responsibilities will vary according to school and time, a deputy principal will have a determined role to play. Whilst the principal has responsibilities towards the purpose and global roadmap, deputies have a duty toward their own regional strategy. In realising the master vision within their key area of responsibilty, there are many roles a deputy needs to play. Given their close proximity to the pupils and staff, deputies must be:
1. A role model
Through words and actions, a deputy clarifies the school’s values and vision. This is not an easy task, and should not be so, unless the standards have been set too low. So powerful is their example – they are the “…key to good teachers”1 – that the values a deputy displays are more important than the worded values they are supposed to embody.
If preaching the value of humility one minute and then to be seen exiting in the latest luxury car the next, it is unlikely that a culture of simplicity and non-materialism will gain much ground or credence. Equally, to impress the love of work and to
be thereafter found staffing the tuckshop, coaching a team or painting the classroom will grow this very culture. Thinking that learners, staff and stakeholders will swallow the “do as I say and not as I do” pill is not going to work.
A deputy that practises a few rules that reflect and build the core values of the school, and is visibly committed to upholding and marketing them, will likely prove an admirable and effective role model. As Simon Sinek has summed up in in his bestselling book, Start with Why, a leader’s job is “[T]o personify the why. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be a symbol of what the company believes.”
Being a senior leader is not about doing everything well. It is, however, about communicating practice – the good and the bad, as this will encourage others to face the value of their own.
It is also about knowing exactly what needs to be done – executing those duties that fall within personal capacity and then delegating the remaining responsibilities to the more qualified.

Good leaders:
1. have very good general knowledge – the foundation of your role
2. have a problem (think opportunity) – it forces adaptation
3. have resources – intellectual capital, facilities and partnerships
4. have the will to execute.

2. A pathfinder
The role of deputy is that of a local strategist (whilst the principal oversees the global (macro) plans). The deputy scans for change and its relevance, asks what is good for today and what will be better for tomorrow, and seeks to understand how to close the development gap. Each should ensure that the core systems of essence (the school’s culture and “feel”), environment (the facilities and place) and people (the staff, learners, parents and the wider linked community) are routinely addressed and developed, for these bind and define a school’s capacity for productivity.
A deputy, on the back of seeking to create options, defines priority, clarifying – across the short- and long-term spectrums – the primary concerns and those issues that fall in the immediate shadow. The deputy then acts in mitigation, delegating an action plan, departmental responsibility and personal accountability. The deputy leads meetings and decision-making processes that question a school’s need to “pivot or persevere”. As priorities are addressed, a continuous review process ensures new concerns are identified and are ranked according to pressing need.
Discipline here is of fundamental importance. Deputies must be disciplined to collect and analyse data from both the external and internal world, and then be ready to focus attention and react according to necessity. Stretching action over too large a field of concern will achieve little but frustration, as efforts are not concentrated. Within the senior leadership team, deputies are there to identify concerns, rank them by primacy and then attack the top few. Then review, recalibrate and restart.
Deputies need to realise that in carving a future, decisions need not always prove initially and overridingly popular, and indeed may be better for some sense of friction. As Richard Rumelt qualifies in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters: “One would hope that the experience of North Korea would have cured people of the idea that forcing everyone to believe in and value the same things is the road to high performance.”

Instead, through a process of vigorous debate and dialogue, deputies must ensure decisions are made correctly and honestly at the time; that given the information to hand, the insight of the qualified, school purpose and overarching values, the decision enacted was needed and proved the best fit. It is their task to lead a problem the school can solve.

The key fault lines for school instability:
1. one-man rule;
2. a fractured, calcified executive team;
3. poor area leadership, and;
4. fiscal instability.

It is clear that an effective deputy is not a steward. They are not there to simply retain what already is and has been. Indeed, if a deputy’s job is purely maintenance, it is unlikely that there exists much need for a deputy in the first place, for schools are so full of institutional experience that others would, and naturally do, carve the preservation path. A deputy is selected to forge a path of considered change.

Attributes of progress:
1. Have a start point and initial direction (this will change).
2. Have an imagining capability – “How else might we….”
3. Have a doing capability.
4. Have a learning capability – capture knowledge so the
school can change and adjust.

3. A quality controller
Deputies are tasked to ensure that all:
•under their governance is of benefit to the pupils, parents and/or staff
•thinking supports the school’s purpose
actions empower the staff
•action reflects and enhances the culture of the school and
helps identify its special difference.

Quality, therefore, will follow a leader’s ability to model what
is required (you cannot lead what you do not know), to ask questions, to forge relationships and to exist as both bridge commander and chief engineer. An assumptive approach will only stall progress.

“We learn the most through our mistakes, not our successes.”

Quality rests on getting stuck in, motivating personalised intervention (sending out blanket improvement policies will never fully engage the individual, as each has different needs), and referencing those who do the “do”. As Bob Garratt writes in his study of effective boards, The Fish Rots from the Head: The Crisis in Our Boardrooms: Developing the Crucial Skills of the Competent Director (the wisdom therein can be equally applied to the roles of the senior executive): “…[A]t its simplest and most cost-effective, the learning organisation requires each director and manager at the beginning or end of the day… to spend ten minutes with his or her direct reports asking: ‘What went right?’ (and to thank the staff for this), ‘What went wrong?’, ‘What can we do about it?’ and ‘Who else needs to know?’”5

4. A mechanic
Deputies are accountable for the functionality and health of the school. Whilst they may not instigate all remedies determined by the scale of the issue, they must know exactly what the discomforts, creeks and groans are, as well as the gains and successes. They must be problem-finders. This is not a negative disposition but the focus of a successful practitioner. Jumping around detailing successes all day will likely achieve little but complacency, allowing time for the competition to catch up, copy and supersede. Finding issue, acknowledging it and dealing with it in an open, honest manner that builds integrity, morale and results, keeps the best happy, the engine running smooth and the destination a continual possibility.
Finding flaw and discovering marvel is best achieved by initiating a process of “catch-up”, a report-back meeting. All those people leading areas that fall under a deputy’s leadership are to meet regularly or are to e-mail a standing report for review. This staff feedback report details what is going well, areas of concern and frustration, complaints, those staff and learners performing with distinction and those needing a boost, and what is coming up that needs focus,
for example. The deputy is accountable for listening to or reading these summations and identifying what needs to be addressed first and foremost; for coordinating an action plan; for delegating duty; and for providing feedback, solution updates and the necessary and associated recognition and redirection.
This review strategy can be extended to parents and learners. Opening oneself and one’s team to criticism is not easy (as is the way, the negative reporting will likely outweigh the positive), but it will build loyalty and community, a more attuned system, and will likely create new opportunity and energy. A “You said” mail shot to parents, followed by “What we did” response, is a quick and efficient way of polling feeling, indicating areas of action and showing team spirit. The key to problem finding is problem solving. Deputies need to be responsive and transparent about what is being done, what has been achieved and what is about to be addressed.

Fixing a negative reputation
First action: Acknowledge the reputation and do it quickly.
Second action: Restore integrity and rebuild morale.
Third action: Focus on results – deliver, deliver, deliver

5. A conductor
Deputies are responsible for managing the school’s tempo and flow; for establishing a pattern of operation (from academic timetables to meeting schedules and departmental appraisals) that breeds collaboration, effort, information sharing and purposeful action. They are to set and manage the regional targets – the “what is to be done?”, “by when?” and “by whom?” within their areas.
Meetings are fundamental in coordinating these activities and effecting strategic implementation. Deputies are to ensure that meetings are needed, are published and invitational, are regular and structured. and that they are directional –; that they are not boring and “sameness”, but that they contain discussion, debate and function; point to the encouragement of ingenuity and progress; identify future content and solution leaders; and drive home core values, short-term goals and strategic direction.

6. A go-getter
Deputies are not to be meek and mild. They are to chase responsibility, ever seeking an opportunity to lead policy and action. Importantly, the driving factor is not ego but an intrinsic, effortful drive to want to act, to achieve meaning and to fuel the growth of others and school.
One of the great impediments to development is an apathetic management team; more adept at protecting their own comforts than encouraging self and organisational improvement. Great leaders don’t put their slippers on.

7. A stretcher
Deputies must introduce challenge and stretch to ensure their colleagues are kept busy, effortful and impassioned. They must be there to provide care, support, a helping hand and an occasional push. They must embody the following attitude, says Sinek: “We don’t want to come to work to build a wall. We want to come to work to build a cathedral.”6
This demands that deputies remain creative and proactive, having a nose to the ground and eyes on the horizon to collate the information for an aligned response.

8. A reinforcer
Deputies must reflect and enforce the core values, message and purpose as defined by head and school. It is the deputy’s job to reinforce the school’s values and to coordinate work and focus that achieves them (think termly themes). This is not easy: it requires constant reinvention of the message, so that it does not become stale. And it requires a constant personal reflection of the values – few will work alongside someone whom they feel is aloof.
The job also demands that deputies proactively challenge (upwardly manage) the head as much as they do their own “regional” colleagues. The last thing a school requires in a world craving conversation is a gaggle of “yes people”.

9. A builder
As much as it is the head’s job to ensure a leadership pipeline exists, so too is it the responsibility of the deputy. Deputies must develop the systems to find those with passion and energy; systems that provide opportunities for project leadership, learning and responsibility.

Managing both the down- and up-flow of information, deputies need to be adept at connecting data and ideas to establish improved connections, associations and processes. As with all leaders, they need not have all the answers but have the capacity – the adaptive mentality (see box below) – to combine existing elements in a new and better way.

The “how to” of adaptive mentality. Leaders must show:
1. strategic intuition (draw on experience)
2. a clear mind (calm the noise)
3. “a-ha” moments (acquire insight)
4. persistence (work through the challenge)
5. a desire to see potential reached more than to see people
appeased.

They are to listen to young teachers and partner them with senior staff; as this will better enable a transfer of experience, institutional knowledge and new ideas. They are to seek out minority viewpoints – not because they tend to prevail, but because they stimulate divergent attention and ideas. They should allow manageable experiments to take place and – as should the head – be ready to take the “rap” for any failure, to learn from it, to invite another chance, to offer their experiential insight, and to direct the praise when it succeeds. Riccardo Semler puts it this way in The Seven-day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century: “Our old timers should be able to rub business sense into our young guns. And they should be able to rub refreshing zero-base concepts onto us. And this rub- a-dub should take both of us into the future, instead of re-editing the past.” Deputies should create a
web of interaction and not get hung up on control, the “you can’t talk to her before it has gone through me” style of command. As teachers are given responsibility, autonomy to think and question, and the right to action, they will intrinsically connect the right dots and act in a manner supportive of the school, not opposed to its goals.

The three things a deputy cannot afford to do are:
1. Veto change until it is tried
Failure has to be accepted – indeed, embraced. Fear of failure is far more destructive. As Gary Player, all-time Hall of Fame golfer, writes in his book Don’t Choke: A Champion’s Guide to Winning Under Pressure.

A bad shot must be seen in the light of its ability to force a correction. We learn the most through our mistakes, not our successes. And we grow the most in tough times. If you can get your head around this and see tough times as a chance for growth and deeper meaning, you will arm yourself with the most powerful mental weapon known to man – optimism.

Senior leaders must encourage all to take acceptable risk – that is to work towards an identified end game where the probability of success is relatively unknown. The staff are the people adept at motivating change and ideas. If they are not freely tasked with this opportunity, the school will “come short”. In this, and as Gary Player continues, deputies must “…know the strengths of (their) game to make sure (they’re) not just hitting and hoping. That’s the difference between taking a risk and the simple blind ignorance that is merely hoping for a positive outcome.”

2. Stand back from the change
If the deputy is not immersed in the process of the change, that change will likely be built to fail. Without key support, change in a school environment is doomed as soon as the champion leaves.

3. Go it alone
The job is too big, diverse and complex to fall to one individual. The senior leadership team stands at the heart of the organisation, but not in a stance of autocratic control and ego. Instead, their visibility is crafted for the protection of the staff; to be there to take the flack when required and, equally, to direct the praise to the deserving when appropriate. It is a deputy’s parenting qualities – the provision of love and care, heart and brain, discipline and direction, humour and the promotion of freedom to self- create and discover, not rhetoric – that will determine whether their elevation above others is welcomed and is justified, or whether it is seen as a measure of frustration and suffocating control.
As clarity of judgement is influenced by the clarity of
supporting information and opportunities made available for momentum and action, a deputy’s effectiveness is an indication of the quality of relationships, trust and team unity that his leadership has built.

The art of courageous leadership. Great leaders have:
1. convictions that are stronger than their fears
2. vision that is clearer than their doubts
3. self-esteem that is deeper than self-protection
4. appreciation for discipline that is greater than for a love of
leisure
5. dissatisfaction that is more forceful than the status quo
6. poise that is more steadfast than panic
7. risk-taking that is stronger than safety-seeking
8. right actions that are more robust than rationalisation.

Alex Gitlin is deputy head: pastoral care and discipline at Uplands College in Mpumalanga.

References:
1. Bennis, W.G. and Tichy, N.M. (2009) Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. New York: Portfolio.
2. Sinek, S. (2011) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio.
3. Ries, E. (2011) The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. New York: Currency.
4. Rumelt, R. (2011) Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters. New York: Profile Books.
5. Garratt, B. (2011) The Fish Rots from the Head: The Crisis in Our Boardrooms: Developing the Crucial Skills of the Competent Director. New York: Profile Books.
6. Sinek, S. (2011) op. cit.
7. Semler, R. (2004) The Seven-day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st
Century. New York: Random House Business.
8. Player, G. (2010) Don’t Choke: A Champion’s Guide to Winning Under
Pressure. New York: Skyhorse.
9. Ibid.
10. Maxwell,J.C.(2005)DevelopingtheLeaderWithinYou.NewYork:Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Category: Autumn 2019

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