Managing upwards

At #TeachMeetLondon in 2016 I spoke about managing leadership transitions – at Middle/Senior Leader/headship level.

A comment on Twitter, in response, made me thoughtful:

“Do you have any advice on how to deal with leaders that aren’t leading effectively?”

Challenging though leadership may be, I always felt I’d rather be the leader than be led by someone whose leadership wasn’t strong. In particular, deputising for someone you don’t respect can be uncomfortable: how can you be professional/loyal when you doubt this leader’s judgement or competence? The only consolation is, arguably, these leaders teach you more about effective leadership than great leaders do. You learn from their negative example. When a leader makes a decision about which you have doubts, you hone your vision of the kind of leader YOU might be.  There’s more on learning from positive and negative leader role-models here.

Even if you admire your leader, there may be times when you disagree with how they act/what they say. How much influence do those who are led have? Is it possible to support and challenge those who lead you to do the best possible job?

I think as a Middle Leader you can manage upwards by being a positive example of what can be achieved. In the leadership of your particular domain you can model effective, productive leadership. Ideally, you want senior leaders to look to your team as a beacon of excellence and see you as a positive leader role-model. Through your example you demonstrate what could be achieved on a wider scale, and this can give you influence beyond your particular sphere. It can also mean your view is respected and, when you disagree (privately/professionally) with your senior leaders, your opinions bear weight.

Senior Leaders work closely with the headteacher, and, again, can model effective leadership practices and demonstrate how to get the best from others. Unless the head is seriously lacking in self-awareness and completely unreceptive, they should see how you do this, which should help them to adjust/improve their own leadership practices. In addition, if you feel the head makes a mistake then calmly, constructively and behind closed doors you should be honest about your opinions, justifying and evidencing them as persuasively as you can. If senior leaders don’t tell the head the truth, who will?

Heads work closely with their Governing Body. If your Chair of Governors doesn’t get the right balance of support and challenge in their dealings with you/your staff, you can help them to see this, even though you may be acutely mindful that the governors appointed and employ you. If the Chair of Governors strays too often into operational detail, rather than confining their activity to the strategic, you have to be able to help them to get back on track. This requires honesty, openness and courage. Help the governors to develop a full, confident knowledge of the school and of the wider educational landscape, and you help them to be better at their governance role.

So can YOU manage upwards?

Photo: Martin Burrett

This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2016

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