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If You’re Being Led By A Bad Leader, Try Managing Upwards

We’ve all worked under poor management, in schools or elsewhere. Here’s how you manage upwards and learn to lead from the mistakes of struggling superiors, says Jill Berry…

Jill Berry
by Jill Berry
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When I reflect on the different stages of my 30-year teaching career, I consider what encouraged me to move from classroom teacher to middle leadership, on to senior leadership then finally into headship.

There were definitely times when I looked at my leaders and thought, ‘I reckon I could do that job. I think I’d enjoy it. And I think perhaps I could do it better’. It may sound immodest, but I don’t think it’s unusual for ambition to be fuelled by the sense that you could do a better job than those currently leading you. Challenging though it may be, I always felt I’d rather be the leader than be managed by someone whose leadership wasn’t strong. If you ever find yourself in this position, there are also times when you need to ‘manage upwards’ and help those who lead you to make a better fist of it. Consider the following:

1. You’re a classroom teacher without specific responsibility beyond what you teach, but recognise that you lead learning within your classroom and have the potential, in time, to move into a formal leadership role. Your current line manager, however, constantly makes decisions with which you do not agree. What do you do?

2. You deputise for someone you can see lacks confidence. They have seniority, but they actually appear to feel threatened by you. Perhaps they see you as eager to step into their shoes. What do you do?

3. You are an effective middle leader, but what you would like to do within your domain is invariably affected by the decisions and priorities of the senior team. You feel frustrated and hampered by this. What do you do?

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

I would suggest that it doesn’t matter whether you are a classroom teacher, a middle leader, a senior leader or a head – you have the capacity (and perhaps even the obligation) to, at times, manage upwards.

Challenging times

The most dangerous thing for any leader is to be surrounded by team members who agree with everything she says. We all need challengers, as well as champions – people who are prepared to tell us honestly if they think we’ve misjudged a situation, to present alternative points of view and additional ideas.

No leader, at any level, has a monopoly on initiative. Everyone can be wrong. It’s how disagreements and alternative perspectives are handled that is key. If you need the person you lead to be receptive and responsive, present your ideas positively and constructively, and not in such a way that the leader feels her authority is being unhelpfully challenged. Senior leaders work closely with the headteacher, and can model effective leadership practices and demonstrate how to get the best from others. Unless the head is seriously lacking in self-awareness, she should see how the senior team does this, which may help her adjust or improve her own leadership practices. If the head makes a mistake, her senior team needs to discuss this honestly behind closed doors. If the senior leaders don’t tell the head the truth, who will? Heads, meanwhile, work closely with their governing body. If the Chair of Governors doesn’t get the right balance of support and challenge – or if governors stray too often into operational detail, rather than strategic – the head has to help them get back on track. This requires courage. If governors are supported to develop a full, confident knowledge of the school and of the wider educational landscape, they will become better at governance.

Take the lead

Returning to the three scenarios I posited earlier, these are the strategies I would suggest you consider.

1. If your middle leader makes poor decisions, consider specific alternative courses of action and their benefits Plan how you can calmly and persuasively present an argument for taking a different path. Prepare thoroughly, practise carefully, and arrange a time to discuss your ideas in private. You might find she is more receptive than you anticipate, and it may help build her respect for you, and appreciation of your potential.

This is far more likely to bring about the desired response than challenging her publicly. And if you keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself, things may never be any better.

2. If you are in a formal deputy role, in my view, you should be loyal Never openly criticise your leader to anyone else – others in the team, for example – as it’s unprofessional and unhelpful. In private, however, you need to give him the benefit of your insights and support him to build on his strengths, increase his confidence and competence.

Give positive reinforcement when things go well and offer wise counsel when they don’t. Invest in helping the person for whom you deputise. It should be about the team’s and school’s effectiveness, not about your ego.

3. Focus on being the best middle leader you can be, and ensuring the team you lead is effective Demonstrate what can be achieved and work towards becoming an example of excellence. This should give you credibility with the senior team, who will then be more likely to listen to your ideas. They may even seek opportunities to scale up whatever has contributed to your team’s success to whole-school level. If you disagree with senior leaders, do so privately.

Remember also that inadequate leaders teach you more about effective leadership than great leaders do. You can learn from negative examples. When a leader makes a decision about which you have doubts, you get to hone your vision of the kind of leader you might be.

Positive feedback

Three ways to assert yourself – professionally and constructively – with leaders who are less effective…

As far as you can, build on the positives Don’t fixate on what’s broken and how you can fix it, but consider what is working well and how you can build on that. If your leaders do something successfully, acknowledge that and make the most of it – this could give you both credibility and clout: “It’s really helpful when we do this. Could we try a similar approach with a different issue, by using the same idea and in another context?

If you have a problem, consider possible solutions and alternative strategies This way, when you talk to your manager you are presenting possibilities, rather than just appearing to be complaining. Demonstrate you are a problem-solver keen to identify solutions to move forward, rather than just someone who revels in finding fault.

Be honest and open, but avoid putting leaders in a difficult position Disagreements should take place behind closed doors, and you need to be able to present your views calmly, rationally, politely. If you are too emotional and clearly angry, you risk putting your leader on the defensive.

Remember that you’re all on the same side – you all want the best teaching and care for the children. Working together to do this is far more productive than expending time and energy battling each other.

A former head of Dame Alice Harpur school (Now Bedford Girls’ School), Jill Berry is an educational consultant and is an associate at the National College of Teaching and Leadership; for more information, see her profile or follow @jillberry10

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