Distributed leadership at scale: lessons from the education sector

Distributed leadership at scale: lessons from the education sector


By Penelope Cottrill

Many organisations are taking a new focus on distributed leadership – leadership at all levels, with a shared purpose. In many sectors, disruption and the threat of disruption are fuelling the push for more adaptable and innovative organisations; organisations that draw on the strengths of all staff, making good decisions in the context of shared goals, without burdensome hierarchy.

While the notion of leadership that is shared, and not about a hierarchical position, is new in some sectors, the education sector has been working on distributed leadership in schools for some time. This has been driven by the research-backed insight that school leadership is a significant factor in improving student outcomes, as well as the increasingly complex and demanding role of school leaders that means a single heroic leader can no longer do it all.

For many organisations, leadership development has meant sending people on courses. While these investments have had varied and uncertain impact, it is clear this traditional approach to leadership development is not scalable to develop distributed leadership – leadership by the many and not the few.

The pursuit of distributed leadership therefore challenges many traditional notions of leadership and also of leadership development.

Given the education sector has been working on these challenges for decades, what might other sectors learn from that experience?

In May Nous hosted one of the UK’s leading thinkers on leadership in education, Steve Munby, to discuss his experience transforming the approach to leadership in Britain’s school system.

Steve has spent his whole career in education, first as a teacher and then as an adviser and inspector before moving into leadership. For more than a decade he was chief executive of the National College for School Leadership in England and then of Education Development Trust, an international education charity.

I sat down with Steve in Sydney to discuss what we could learn from this experience, including a system-level approach to leadership development and the leadership practices we can all work on.

Penelope: Most people thinking about leadership development do so in the context of a single organisation – a single business or school – but you’ve worked on improving performance across a whole system through leadership. How do you get distributed leadership across a whole system at scale?

Steve: In terms of leadership development, there are five ingredients.

The first is to give people a chance to lead. This is where people often go wrong; instead of being given a chance to lead they are sent on a course instead. They also need to have regular feedback from a peer or a line manager as part of their way of working.

Then you’ve got to give people exposure to great leadership in different contexts. Otherwise their expectations of what can be achieved might be too low; it might be recycling mediocrity instead of great leadership. The fourth aspect is exposure to case studies, materials, evidence and research, that is going to make people think and challenge them. And the fifth aspect is the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with peers.

Those five things don’t have to be a program, in fact they cannot happen just in a program because you would not get the exposure to context.

There’s a movement in education away from leadership programs and towards an understanding that context matters. The leader you need to be is partly based on the kind of person you are and partly based on the kind of context you are in. Since that context changes, the leadership needs to change.

If you want to get things to scale, there is no point in taking people out, giving them some training and sending them back to an existing culture. Instead, you need to support local solutions.

In England, we licenced groups of school to run their own middle leadership. This is where you get scale, because if you licence people to run their own middle leadership, they can make it happen in their context. If you have high quality assurance and good materials, then local solutions that are right for that context are the way to get to scale.

Penelope: I love what you’re saying about context. It’s borne out by research outside education into what makes the most difference to people’s performance and behaviour. Contextualised learning is what matters.

One barrier that can get in the way of people moving to distributed leadership is they worry about coherence and about losing control.

To achieve coherence, a sense of shared purpose seems crucial. In education some talk about moral purpose in this context. How do you get people to have coherence in their leadership even if they’re all doing different things in different places?

Steve: I’ve just written a book called “Imperfect Leadership: A book for leaders who know they don’t know it all”. It’s about celebrating imperfect leadership, because if we think we must be perfect leaders, then three bad things will happen.

Firstly, it will do our heads in, making us mentally and physically ill. Secondly, we’re not empowering our staff, because we think we should do it ourselves. And thirdly, we’re not developing future leaders, because we’ll think they have to be perfect before they can become a leader. Those things are all bad, so imperfect leadership is a great thing.

Even though imperfect leadership is great and context matters, certain things are constant: authenticity, integrity, principled leadership and moral purpose. That’s what gives you some coherence, even if the way of leading may vary from team to team and institution to institution.

Penelope: And how do you cultivate those qualities of authenticity and integrity in leaders? Where have you seen that work well?

Steve: There are two ways to address this. The first one, the obvious one, is modelling. If you want people to live the values, model it yourself. You can’t argue your way out of something you’ve behaved yourself into. People will watch everything you do: what you say, your body language, who you praise, who you don’t praise. It’s a really big part of the job.

But there’s another equally important aspect: institutionalising that within the operating procedures of the organisation. Incentivise the right behaviours rather than the wrong behaviours. If you’re seeing behaviour you’re not happy with from a large number of people in an organisation, that’s not their fault, that’s the organisation’s fault.

Penelope: Can you give us an example of that, where you’ve institutionalised something and seen the shift that you’re talking about?

Steve: 360-degree feedback is a good example. In organisations that I’ve led, every member of staff will get some kind of peer feedback, so you cannot excel in the organisation unless your colleagues think you’re living the values. It’s one way of starting to institutionalise the good behaviours and prevent the bad ones.

There are others that relate to induction, performance management and how you celebrate values. The key thing is how you institutionalise it rather than just modelling it.

Penelope: I’ve been impressed with your work on recognition. Obviously you’re in a constrained environment in the school system, where you aren’t giving out million-dollar bonuses, and yet you’ve been able to create clever incentives that make people want to opt in to the way you want things to work. Can you talk about how you’ve incentivised positive behaviours?

Steve: There such a thing as a leadership premium. By that I mean, good leaders can have an impact beyond their institution. And if you believe that, you’ve got to find a way to get that leadership shared.

In England about 10 years ago we were asked to support schools that were struggling. The model at the time was to monitor them and give them feedback – which had very limited impact – or to persuade a great school leader to leave their school and lead that school – which was often career suicide.

Instead we came up with the idea of national support schools and national leaders of education. We said, we want to make this the pinnacle of the profession, so the best accolade you can get as a school principal is to become a national leader in education and your school become a national support school.

I wrote to all the schools and said, we’d like you to apply to become a national support school, if you meet these criteria and you think you’re up for it. If you do and you get the status, you have to be willing to support other schools. I didn’t know if people would apply, because we weren’t offering any more pay, but we got hundreds and hundreds of applicants.

We started with 68 and linked them with other schools, and they had great success. These leaders weren’t going there to monitor them, but actually going to help them to do the work. Not only did the schools getting the help improve, but the schools providing the help carried on doing well because there was great professional development and opportunities within the school for talent to grow.

It was win-win, and now we’ve got over a thousand schools taking part. This is how you do something significant at scale and at low cost: through recognising and valuing the great leadership you see.

Penelope: If we believe in the leadership premium, we need more leaders, which means the job of leaders is to develop others. Creating space is one big thing, identifying talent and creating pathways for their development is another. Are there other approaches to being an active developer of others that you’ve seen work in schools?

Steve: If you’re a teacher, your job is to help children to learn; if you’re a leader in a school, your job is to help children and adults to learn.

We had a big issue in England of not enough school principals, because they were retiring, so rather than run a leadership program to improve the pipeline, instead we went for local solutions. The local solution asked schools to come up with their own ways of developing talent more rapidly.

For some that was school principals stepping back and allowing others to have a go at being an acting principal – our research told us if you’d been an acting principal you were more likely to want to be a principal. Other models included work shadowing, job swaps, coaching and mentoring; it depended on the situation. Local solutions were hugely successful and one way we ensured we had enough school principals going into the next decade.

Penelope: In the challenge of how you get more leaders at more levels, I think the trick is to see the system as a system, and identify the points at which you can intervene to make the most impact. You need to think about how you motivate people to make good decisions and let go of the idea of controlling everybody’s development.

Steve: You will never get whole-system improvement if you treat every school as a separate entity. There has to be a way in which learning can be shared, so you can grow a sense of “systemness” rather than just individual schools. That’s why this notion of a network is so essential to system improvement. I know of no system in the world that is improving that is not focused on school-to-school collaboration.

Penelope: That’s a powerful point and a great challenge to organisations that aren’t in a connected system, because there’s clearly power in joining forces. There is increasing opportunity as organisations are becoming more porous; we’re partnering with each other more, and people are collaborating on different gigs then going their own separate ways at the end.

How can we work with a greater range of people so we can all learn from each other in ways we couldn’t if we kept a narrow focus on our own backyard?

Steve: Invitational leadership. We ask for help and invite others in. As an invitational leader, you’re worried about groupthink in your own organisation, you’re worried you’re going to miss things because you’re too close to it, you’re worried you’re going to hear your own voice coming back at you in an echo chamber.

So you go out of your way to invite challenge, to ask people to come and look at what you’re doing and see how you can do it even better. The more you do that, the more it will be reciprocated. People like being asked for help and are then more likely to ask for help back.

Penelope: These examples about continual improvement places a real premium on being a good learner and having access to good learning practice. There’s a lot of buzz in sectors beyond education about learning agility.

Steve: I think if you model that for students, they’re more likely to copy that too. Modelling the fact that even the teacher is a learner is good for students.

Penelope: That’s a challenging idea. Imagine teachers not knowing everything!

Steve: Can I give an example? I’ve been mentoring a CEO in England, and she’s fabulous, but her team knows she’s bright, so when she asks them a question, they know she already knows the answer, and therefore they know if they wait long enough, she’ll tell them the answer. When the CEO really doesn’t know the answer, and is genuinely asking for help, it’s a far more empowering environment.

It’s the same sometimes in teaching; when the teacher genuinely doesn’t know the answer but wants the students to work out the solution, and the teacher is genuinely interested, that’s a much more powerful learning moment.

Penelope: Whether you know the answer or you don’t, what makes a difference is genuine curiosity about other people’s thoughts. I wonder if we can bring that genuine curiosity to more conversations – “I’ve got a pretty well-formed view, but I’m still really curious about other people’s thoughts.”

Steve: One of my great heroes in leadership, a guy called Tim Brighouse, said if you’re going to lead change well, you have to have huge curiosity, you have to enjoy the fact that complexity can be fun, you have to have a complete absence of paranoia and you have to have relentless optimism. They’re four great qualities for leading change.

Penelope: You have conversations like this all around the world. What is distinctive to Australia in an education context?

Steve: Firstly, the work Nous is doing on talent identification and talent management is really, really good and has potential for further use in other states. I think it’s at the heart of improvement, and I applaud you for your work.

Secondly, there’s a big gap in Australia around system leadership. There’s some good work going on, but overall it’s an area where Australia could do more. How do you incentivise people to lead beyond their school? Through moral purpose, through opportunities to recognise that those who are at the pinnacle of their profession are also those who should be asked to share their leadership expertise beyond their own school. I think that’s the next step for leadership development in Australia, and I hope Nous has a key role in that.

Penelope: We’d love to do more of it, because we know it has a profound positive influence. Steve, I enjoyed our conversation.

Steve: Great to speak to you.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous Group can help your educational organisation develop great leaders.

Written by Penelope Cottrill during her time as a Principal at Nous.