Leadership Blog

“The courage of leadership is giving others a chance to succeed even though you bear the responsibility for getting things done.” (Simon Sinek)

South Africa's Leadership Challenge

18 July 2021

A very interesting leadership story has emerged in South Africa over the past week. As a South African who has not lived in the country for over 20 years now, but who regularly visits to see family and friends, I sense underlying tension in that country every time I cross the border. Whether this tension is racial, economic or political, it is always there, on the tips of every South African’s tongue. Conversations inevitably draw themselves into one of these three topics at some point and it can be highly frustrating for visitors to the country.

It’s no surprise then that every so often things bubble over into violent outbursts such as we’ve seen over the past few days. Frankly, it is surprising at how infrequently this does happen. But rather than criticise the events such as the recent looting and rioting, and provide solutions for the actual circumstances, we should be looking at the root causes and trying to understand, through the lens of leadership, what it is that is actually occurring.

There is no question that the rioters need to shoulder their fair share of the blame for the damage that they have caused. As individuals they have acted with primal disgrace and need to pay the penalty for this. However, it can be argued that the real blame lies with the government, and this is for reasons of overlooking some basic leadership principles. Let me elaborate.

Leadership fundamentals are often centred around the idea or concept of building trust. Leaders of any country, who establish themselves and their governments as trustworthy, inspire confidence in their populations. Recent approaches to the tackling of the pandemic show how nations that trust their leaders are those who have most successfully combated the disease; New Zealand being a prime example. 

Leaders that establish high levels of trust have a clear set of values that people can buy into. They use their values to underpin their decisions and to drive their actions. They embody their values in the way that they talk to the people, the way they conduct their business and the way that they approach life in general. And where people understand the values, they understand the reasons why certain decisions are taken, even if they do not like the outcome for some personal reason. 

Furthermore, good leaders overtly communicate their values, over and over, to their people. This creates a sense of transparency and understanding, and even where someone does not agree with a decision, if they can understand the values that underpin it and they have had these values communicated to them clearly and regularly, they ultimately are more likely to accept the decision. 

South Africa has a constitution that, when it was drawn up, drew positive acclaim for its progressive nature, from all over the world. If the government could realign their values with those in the constitution and focus on making deliverable promises, and holding their members to high levels of expectations, they would begin to turn the tide of the public and global perception in their favour. 

In short, the leaders need to look to the fundamentals of leadership. They need to focus on building trust and to do this they need to communicate clearly the values that will underpin the leadership going forward. Only then will they be in a position that they can hold people properly to account, and this accountability, if consistently applied, will be the catalyst for positive change in South Africa.

The "Sting"

9 June 2021

Yesterday multiple law enforcement agencies from a long list of countries around the world, simultaneously launched a ‘sting’ on hundreds of criminals ranging from Mafia to outlaw motorcycle gangs to drug syndicates in one of the biggest sting operations in history. Hundreds of criminals were arrested and taken into custody. Truly incredible leadership achievement!

Without going into the detail of how this was done the first thing that struck me was what an incredibly successful feat of leadership this was. The investigation and lead up to the actual sting took months and months. Throughout that time the integrity of the operation was maintained in spite of this being a dealing with the underworld, where the criminals could have been spooked at any moment. 

If we unpack what happened, as a leadership case study, it comes down to two key points. The first being a very clearly articulated and ambitious vision that was so powerful that it gained the buy-in from literally thousands of law enforcement personnel around the world. You can imagine that if even one of those personnel leaked information to the wrong source the whole mission would have failed. In order for this not to have happened it must mean that every single law enforcement officer involved, at whatever level they were working, across multiple countries and systems, bought into the vision of the operation. This is mind boggling.

It would be inconceivable for this operation to have achieved the success that it did if there were simply one leader at the top of the tree, commanding all the law enforcement resources. Therefore, the way that the leadership must have been distributed must have been flawless and what’s more, all the leaders, at whatever level, must have been totally on board with the way things were unfolding, otherwise the sting would not have had the effect that it did. 

As leaders we can learn a lot from this extreme example. Firstly the importance of a clearly articulated vision for our organisations. This vision needs to gain wholesale buy-in from our teams if it is going to be truly successful. Secondly, leadership happens at all levels and where the leadership strategies and visions are in line with each other, extraordinary outcomes can occur. 

None of this can happen by accident. Great leaders work on building the right teams over time and with a lot of input, and in this way their vision becomes easier to share and gain buy-in, but also is more easily upscaled to reach the most remote corners of any sized organisation. If the principles are right, the logistics take care of themselves.


Stop 'being' the best and start 'doing' your best

30 May 2021

A few years back, as a school, we were starting to become mildly obsessed with the idea of being the ‘best’ school in town. We developed initiatives that helped us ‘compete’ better and look stronger. We marketed ourselves by advertising how our results were the highest and our attention to the core subjects was more rigorous, and we set out to ‘beat’ the other schools as much as we could on the sports fields. We took on a very definite competitive approach and made no bones about it! 

This approach was not ‘wrong’ per se and indeed many organisations adopt a competitive approach to make sure that they stay ahead of their competitors, in a sort of ‘dog eat dog’ philosophy. But somehow it is a negative way of viewing your business. We found that this approach begun to affect the way that we viewed education and ourselves as educators. It also begun to have a negative effect on our interpretation of our Core Values, something which we held in high esteem. Neither of these outcomes was what we really wanted for our school so we begun to feel that there needs to be a better way that would allow us to shine in our own right regardless of what others were doing at the time.

What we started to do has had a profound effect on our school. Instead of looking outwards to our competitor schools, we started to look inwards and assess what type of students we were starting to turn out from our school. What was it that we wanted and how did this align with what was currently happening? From that crucial starting question, we built everything else. We re-evaluated our curriculum to be more values focussed, and begun delivering all our material through this lens. We focussed more obsessively on what the future would hold for our students and started to build elements into their learning that were far more contextualised and would suit their future needs as they got older. And we consulted widely within our own school community (internally and externally) to ascertain what it was that our education needed to offer our children from their perspective so that we could accommodate our community and more closely align ourselves with their values and aspirations. 

The effect of this change of focus was profound. Our school developed its own flavour within the community. We started to become known for certain elements and charactersitics that really reflected who we were and not how much better we were. New and existing parents would choose us not because we were ‘better’ than the other schools but rather that we were what they felt suited their family circumstances and their children. And these reasons meant that new families started off in harmony with our ethos and values, an important consideration for any family. 

At the heart of all excellent organisations lies a well defined and tangible culture, a clear understanding of their purpose. In our case our focus was drawn back to what type of student we wanted to pass out at the end of each year, and our school culture was built up around those reflections. This newly formed culture resonated far more deeply with our community, and any competitor schools ceased to be competition but rather colleagues in different settings. In many ways this was a liberating change and seemed somehow to ease friction and rivalry that had previously existed under a more competitive approach to education.

Will a 7 day working week work?

25 February 2021

Changing times mean a changing approach to how we are working. Over the past 18 months working at home has become an increasingly evident phenomenon. People seem to have displayed a range of responses in reaction to this necessity, from very positive to very negative emotions. But one thing that can be widely acknowledged is that it has lent itself to a far more flexible working arrangement in many cases and this has suited a lot of people. 


Inadvertently, born out of this flexibility, we seem to have stumbled across a new phenomenon – the 7 day working week. In a nutshell this means that people have been making use of all 7 days in the week to do their work, not simply Monday to Friday. This has allowed them to reduce daily working hours in theory, and spread these out over more days in the week. And it would appear that this has allowed many people to tap into their natural working rhythms more astutely with the inevitable positive impacts that this would have on their own wellbeing.  


But can this really work going forward? And since this column is ostensibly about the impact that this will have on leadership, it would be interesting to unpack this a little further to try and foresee what we, as leaders, may face in the future should the 7 day working week become a ‘thing’. 


The key challenge for leaders would seem to me to be around the concept of teams, team spirit, camaraderie etc. Traditionally leaders have had the advantage of being able to have physical oversight of their teams. They have been able to observe behaviour, hold impromptu conversations or hold incentivising events because they have been able to rely on the fact that their team members are present in the same space at the same time. These tools are all very useful in keeping the team positive, happy, and forward thinking. 


But since this has not really been possible over the pandemic period it has been interesting to observe what successful practices leaders have used to keep their team together as a unit. One such tool used, which proved to be highly effective, was the use of online gatherings. Sometimes referred to as ‘huddles’ or ‘catch ups’ these online gatherings were held with one specific purpose; to maintain the wellbeing of the team and its individuals. Notably they were most effective where any talk of work related matters was purposefully banned! By opening up these informal forums team members continued to feel part of a team, had an opportunity to offload and generally provide each other with support, humour and chatter that is such an important part of enjoying our jobs. 


For the leader these gatherings were particularly important in keeping a ‘wellbeing’ eye on each of the individuals in the team as well as the team dynamic as a whole. In a way they acted as intelligence gathering so that the leader could continue to gather ideas on how to keep the team together as far as possible. 


This is one example of a strategy that could be employed more widely to facilitate and even encourage the move towards a 7 day week. And it should also be remembered that if people are given the opportunity to work to their own rhythms they will be performing from a positive starting point. It then becomes the leader’s focus to manage the efficiency, an easy task once the team members’ wellbeing has been taken care of. 

Leadership is all about influence and the groundwork necessary is based on relationships. If a 7 day working week improves flexibility for people, and the leader can develop strategies to suit his or her leading style, that will facilitate this, then it seems to me that it is a ‘no brainer’ to shift towards this new, inadvertently discovered, model of work. 



Tackling Social Media - A Leadership Story

25 October 2020

I and my school were recently the victim of a malicious article on a facebook site. Seeing your name on such a public arena can be debilitating and demoralising but it is important to remember that such things are, in a sense, an inevitability of leadership at a high level. 

So this is an excellent leadership story and lesson in many ways. Leaders in all organisations will understand that it is impossible to keep everyone happy all of the time. We all strive to do so but rarely can this happen. The correlation between climbing the leadership ladder and the amount of judgement that you are exposed to, both positive and negative, grows, the higher you climb. The challenges along the way also change and grow with the times and the position. I think it may be fair to say that one of the most extraordinary challenges that we face nowadays is our public image in the era of social media. 

Social media is a relatively new and powerful arena that ‘invites’ unregulated and undiscerned comment from a faceless critic. Sometimes this is incredibly beneficial but on the flip side it can be enormously damaging. As leaders we need to be looking for wins in all cases, so the question is how do we make a win out of a negative, and potentially damaging, social media post? As they say “no publicity is bad publicity!” It all comes down to perception, and in these cases perception is wide-ranging and underminable in its extent. So turning ‘bad’ into ‘good’ becomes the focus. 

It is my view that it is not possible to battle each incident on its own but rather to create a media ‘personality’ that is overwhelmingly positive. By developing relationships with the media outlets through engaging them if they are local, or through putting into place a clear social media strategy, an organisation can build its profile in the way that they want it to be built. In other words, organisations should own the rhetoric that pertains to them so that the wider public gains an overall positive view upon which they can feed, rather than sporadic negative articles that risk descending into argumentative and confrontational situations.

In our case the negative article was not preceded by an overt positive media campaign which unfortunately has resulted in a uninformed public view dominated by one negative article. However, the win for us is that this incident stimulated the development of a social media strategy that will make the school look very good in the long term, as long as we pay regular attention to it. This won’t necessarily mitigate the immediate effects of the article but it will certainly, in time, put a public face to the school that will be enjoyed and appreciated by a vast number of people in the public.

Choosing the higher ground is a key lesson in all of this. In so doing schools and organisations become valued and transparent entities that can be appreciated and enjoyed for the institutions that they are and for the values that they portray.  

Beach Ball Leadership

10 June 2020

Leadership is often challenged from all angles. This is the nature of the game, and indeed this is part of the reason why leadership is such a complex and fulfilling art! Unlike management, which is all about following the rulebook or company manual, leadership needs to take a broader perspective on the direction that any organisation is taking, and constantly go through a cycle of evaluating, observing and adapting to times as they morph and change. Leadership is all about driving towards a vision; and to get there requires a deep understanding of the human condition within the organisation. Good leaders understand how their team thinks, feels, grows and moves at the deepest of levels, where empathy and understanding are the drivers and where the ‘bottom line’ is no more than a cursory measure.

I recently used the analogy of a beach ball to try and explain what this is like in practice. If you imagine a beach ball with all its different coloured stripes, and you imagine that one employee is positioned on the red stripe and another is positioned on the blue stripe. From where each of them stands the world will seem either red or blue. Their perspectives on life are therefore, quite different and will certainly impact on their choices. But blue choices may not always be compatible with red choices so this could be a point of conflict!

Now imagine that the leader of an organisation holds the beach ball in their hands. They can see both the red and the blue stripes (as well as all the other colours). To them the world is multi coloured and they have a bird’s eye view of all perspectives. If they are perceptive, they can see how both red and blue perspectives may be ‘right’ but just from different points of view. Not only can they appreciate these differences but a skilled leader can also see how to find common ground where red can appreciate blue and vice versa.

The skill of the leader, therefore, is to navigate the understanding between the different colours so that, even if the red employee cannot see the ‘blue world’ they can still appreciate that it exists and empathise with what the world may look like as a different colour. To take the analogy further still, the skilled leader can develop each ‘colour’ so that the people involved can realise that if they share their skills they can create ‘purple’ – a way of enhancing their perspectives beyond that which would be possible if they merely maintained their perspectives.

Good leaders can not only identify differences between their staff and make sure that they are able to empathise with each other, but they can also help their staff to collaborate and share ideas through developing empathy between people. A multi talented staff  is only the best they can be if they are given the opportunities to share their talents and work together to create a team which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Leadership lessons from the Dog Sled

20 December 2019

I recently watched a documentary about the Iditarod, a gruelling multi-day dog sled race in the Alaskan wilderness. There is a lot to learn about leadership watching the dog mushers (the guys on the sleds) with their dogs. 

By necessity the musher stands on the sled at the back of their pack of 16 dogs and as such they need to lead their packs very astutely from behind; in many ways this emulates what leadership should be about:

Wellbeing Is All: 

The mushers take care, first and foremost, of their dogs’ wellbeing. Dogs that are not feeling ready or fit for the run are cared for as much as possible but if they are unable to keep running they are removed from the pack so as not to slow down the rest, and to preserve their welfare. Mushers care deeply about their dogs and will not put their own gains ahead of that of their pack.

Choose The Leaders:

Mushers place their dogs in the pack according to their strengths and skills. Dogs that run out front of the pack are those that others will happily follow, that know a clear direction of where they are going and that can run fast. Similarly, in schools teachers that have a clear idea of the ethos and values of the school, as well as those who can lead effectively, should be placed strategically so that they can lead their colleagues and drive the school development forward in line with the ethos of the school.

Maximise The Influence Of Strong Practitioners:

Dogs in the middle of the pack are the ‘strong’ ones. Those who have the ability to pull hard in the direction determined by the front runners, and who are happy not to lead the pack (in other words, good team players), are placed closer to the sled to provide the power and momentum to keep the sled moving. In schools the best teachers should be given the most challenging groups. 

Remove Disruptive Influences:

Mushers will take the decision to remove dogs from the pack if they are disruptive in any way. For example if a dog always fights with their partner, or shows tendencies to try and pull in the wrong direction, they are removed from the pack, even if the pack is then down a member. In essence mushers are happier to run a smaller pack that is always pulling in the right direction rather than count on the extra power given by the extra dog. 

Schools who hold on to teachers who frustrate the balance of power are likely to spend their time trying to fix problems that should not occur, such as internal squabbles, negative influence and contrary attitudes, and this means that the school cannot reach the powerful point of school development that comes with cohesiveness amongst the staff. 

Focus On Downtime:

Mushers make sure that their dogs have the right amount of rest. In fact this is enforced by the race regulations! This focus ensures that the dogs are always ready to run strongly and effectively. Likewise, school leaders should make sure that their staff has rest times. Loading more and more on to teachers workload has a negative effect on morale and therefore effectiveness. Rule of thumb; add something on, take something else off.

Short Lineout Meetings

20 December 2019

Surveying staff wellbeing often results in staff wanting a greater ‘voice’. I’m guessing that this is a common factor that comes up in most schools. In fact I would guess that schools that don’t provide opportunities for staff to voice their thoughts and concerns, experience a higher turnover of staff than schools that do make efforts to provide the approprate channels. And it is probably fair to surmise that schools that have a high churn of staff find it difficult to establish and maintain a culture of developmental thinking beyond the basics of providing good quality teaching. 

Let’s analyse this. Put bluntly, the best teachers are professionals who are reflective and who display pride in their roles. They are the people at the chalk face of education; and they understand and embody the pedagogy that help children grow and develop in line with their individual needs and potential. Importantly, however, they need the opportunity to share this beyond their own practice. 

Sadly, in many cases, this key knowledge is confined to the teachers’ classrooms because often there are not the channels within the structures of a school hierarchy that facilitates good practitioners sharing their skills. Good leadership recognises this and provides the necessary channels for this knowledge to escape into the powerful realms of the school developmental thinking. 

At St. Andrew’s we have adjusted some of the ways that we do things in an attempt to open up new channels. Recently we held what we have called ‘short lineout’ SLT meetings. For those of you not familiar with this term, it is a rugby analogy where a limited number of forwards (only the necessary ones) are present at a lineout to receive the thrown in ball. Sometimes members of the backline will be present as well. In other words a limited number of players go to the line to receive the ball whilst the other players ready themselves for the next phase of play. This makes the next phase more effective because more people are available to move the ball, and also it allows the play to continue much more quickly. 

In our short lineout meetings we only require those members of the SLT that are concerned with the matter at hand, to attend. In addition, other members of the wider staff team, that may also have a vested interest in the matter at hand, are invited to attend so that a broad spectrum of perspectives can be heard. The decision making from these meetings is quick, versatile and multi faceted – much more powerful.

It also allows other staff members (regardless of status) to voice their thoughts. In the long run this builds a huge amount of trust and loyalty by developing people’s professional pride through providing recognition of their skills and giving them a voice to share their expertise. Very effective indeed.