Leadership Without Barriers

For our first Leadership Story, we're thrilled to hear from Claire Stewart-Hall. Claire is a Director at Educate Together and sits as Chair Of The Board Of Directors for SARSAS. Today she shares her philosophy on what it means to be a leader and why the path to effective leadership shouldn't be an easy one.

I’ve always been a believer in context and the journey. For a leader, this means checking the pulse of the place and working out what kind of leader it needs and what kind of leader you will need to be now, today, in this organisation, in the context of this school.

There is no leadership without context. Things happen: personally, locally, nationally and internationally that rupture our hope and nudge our boundaries and feelings of safety. Leadership is about rooted deliverance and belief in a future that is formed across and in relationships with people.

So I can only write this piece on how to lead without contraints, without barriers shaping the narrative or disadvantage nipping at your ankles with that in mind. How does one lead without a thought for Ofsted’s seal of approval? Strip it all back and how does one lead?

For me, as a leader now, it begins with a vision – call it a spiritual calling, a connection, assimilation to values, a prophecy, even. Something needs to connect you to the organisation or the group of people you are leading. You can see the people clearly and hear what they are saying and where they want to go. You can also probably see a new direction in your mind and feel it in your body. If you don’t have this feeling about a place or a group, you may just be trying to be any leader, anywhere, in any school. Real leadership is about tuning in to what’s already happened and who is there now and how you can visualise moving forwards.

This prophetic vision may not even come to pass, but if you don’t see it or feel it the people being led won’t feel it from you when you try to connect with them and, chances are, they won’t believe you when you try to explain your vision to them.

Real leadership is about tuning in to what’s already happened and who is there now and how you can visualise moving forwards.

Sharing and communicating the vision, absorbed from being around the organisation and its people, needs to be communicated to different audiences. The leader needs to leave enough space between the lines for the people in the organisation to grow shoots of their own.

In short, the people need to own the vision too. Therefore the vision needs to be simplified, accessible and understandable to a wide range of people – call it values, aims, constitution. It needs to stand up and reach a wide audience.

If the leader can’t communicate the vision – what you hope, dream, believe and imagine for an institution, it becomes very hard for people to trust you – see what you see – feel included. It’s not just rhetoric – it is collective visualization.

Once this is heard and believed, there has to be room for people to be inspired, to share in and help to grow that future. It’ll shift and adapt, stop and start. It won’t grow vertically always. The role of the leader is to trust, maintain the core aims, avoid changing tack or freezing. Letting go of control is part of sustainable and systemic leadership. It takes more than one ego for an organisation to be successful and to grow.

The mechanisms to make the future a reality provide the system and the framework for people to use. To me, this is the bit that most people don’t want to discuss. They want whoever is most informed and specialist in the area to set out: how to…when we…if this happens we do this…

If a community or student body is to thrive and have a voice to drive the organisation’s future, what mechanisms in place are needed? Visions and leaders need healthy functional systems to ensure that there is travel towards the aims. They need logical thinkers to help to structure the framework and make it clear and simple to follow.

The role of the leader is to trust, inspire and nurture the growth that comes from this work. It’s a privileged position to be able to see ‘the whole picture’ and an often time-consuming experience to keep seeing it as it is, to stay connected to the organisation you are leading, without interfering.

It also takes time to help others see the whole organisation too. Sharing practice and what ‘the whole’ looks like can be a relief when practitioners release each others’ energy by sharing what they do every day. It affirms trust and breeds belief. It inspires people to continue to grow, to pause, to reflect and take ownership and responsibility for a piece of the whole themselves. In short, it cross-fertilizes and supports co-creation.

The role of the leader is to trust, inspire and nurture the growth that comes from this work.

The school, therefore, can look like chaos sometimes with offshoots in all directions because the vision is owned and grown by everyone. Other times it might look like nothing is happening – questioning, debates, changes, co-operation, healthy disagreements. It’s everyone’s role to contribute, to listen and respond, to heal and repair when things go awry.

What I have found is that successful leadership runs deep. It takes years to root. It shouldn’t be easy to root something meaningful. If the leader is the quick permanent prop to the new ideas, it collapses when the leader is longer there. The majority of the building and growing happens when the leader is not there. These are the people who hold most influence over the organisation. The dynamic between the staff, parents, community and the students and their reciprocal belief in each other needs to be powerful in order to bring a vision into existence.

A learning organisation that holds these principles might look something like this:

  • Classrooms might be uniformly silent or purposefully chattering and planning
  • Children might be working in small groups with an adult supporting each group
  • Students may be complaining about policies and their impact on them
  • Parents may be working with staff to solve a community issue shared
  • Members of the locality may be leading assemblies and discussing their perspective about the school and its direction
  • The momentum to learn spills out of the school and students work with specialists locally and nationally in food, design, writing, art, theatre and sciences

Learning is about more than academic ability: it’s about eating together, sharing what’s happening, preparing for your own life vision and packing your bags for what you’ll need when you get there.

Staff are learning too because, without judgement, they are able to be honest about what they don’t know how to do yet. They are academically developing and planning their career futures and talking to other staff about how they do their jobs, grow their roles and remain emotionally balanced and nourished through their work. They share how they hope to progress with each other, connecting with other people in and out of the organisation.

If leading is to be done well, courage is needed to passively trust in relationships and connections with people across the school. Each institution is different and deserves dedication and commitment to its own journey. Without constraint, there is a chance to lead ethically and sustainably and embed deeply rooted change together to bring an ambitious vision into reality.