Leading from within - Education Matters Magazine
Expert Contributors, Latest News, Leadership, Professional Development

Leading from within

An Ancient Roman God and the work of middle leaders in a school are analogous, according to Dr Stephen Brown, Managing Director of The Brown Collective. He discusses how the role of the middle leader remains pivotal for the successful leadership of a school.

Given the ever- increasing expectations and demands on schools and school leaders from various quarters, the role of middle leader has become ‘pivotal’ to the effective functioning of a school. Typically, the work of middle leaders varies depending on context and schooling sectors. Middle leaders generally have a teaching allocation with defined, negotiated and agreed areas of additional responsibilities. The breath of foci in these roles’ ranges from curriculum leadership, pastoral care, wellbeing and faith formation. 

Why are middle leaders so important in a school or indeed any organisation? The behaviours and leadership practices typically are about connecting, linking, leading and providing a bridge between stakeholders, classrooms and a principal. 

In her seminal article entitled The Real Value of Middle Leaders (June, 2021), Zahira Jaser compares a key aspect of the role of a middle leader to that of Janus, the ancient Roman god. He, Janus, is typically depicted as having two faces – the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, duality, passages and doorways. Leading from the middle requires a capacity to balance an array of tensions, dilemmas, loyalties and priorities: 

  • Communicating with team members the strategic direction of the school whilst listening to and advocating for the perspectives of staff.
  • Balancing the tension of individual priorities or needs of their area of focus and responsibilities and the common good-what’s best for everyone.
  • Managing the duality of the professional practices of teaching and responding to the many broader administrative and leadership expectations of the position. 
  • Sustaining their moral purpose for becoming an educator-a leadership credo, a personal ‘why?’ informed by the desire to making a difference for and in the lives of young people.
Leading from within, middle leader training in action.

It is acknowledged that middle leaders along with other leaders face the ongoing challenges of work intensification, people and time. The lingering COVID 19 and teacher shortages are two significant issues that amplify the challenging nature of the work.

Simon Sinek (2020), the global thought leader, suggests that the hardest job in any organisation is that of a middle manager. Why? He contends that despite the importance and centrality of this layer of leadership in any organisation there is little leadership formation of an individual to undertake such roles. Moreover, Sinek contends that ‘everything breaks in the middle’ providing further validation of the necessary investment in development of the middle layer of organisational leadership.

The vast majority of middle leaders in schools want to remain in this role. In 2015 a research study entitled, Middle Leaders: Career pathways and professional learning needs, affirmed this by concluding ‘that two-thirds of middle leaders see themselves as leaders of teaching and learning rather than as promotional applicants for Principalship’     (Flückiger, B, Lovett, S, Dempster, N and Brown, S, p.71). A subsequent study commissioned by the NSW Department of School Leadership Institute (December 2020) affirms the 2015 role perspectives and career aspirations of middle leaders with again two thirds of surveyed respondents wishing to remain in their roles. Rhodes and Brundrett’s (2009) study in the United Kingdom mirror this national trend with 70 per cent of middle leaders not aspiring to headship. 

Dr Stephen Brown, Managing Director, The Brown Collective.

Given the aspirations of middle leaders and the importance of the role in a school, what professional learning and support is most beneficial to or desired by such leaders? 

  • Middle leaders generally want to refine their professional practices and those of others that they lead so that they can make a positive difference in the lives of the students they engage with. Given the diversity of the areas covered by the catch all term, ’middle leadership’, the needs will vary. However, developing an understanding how students learning and how to support and engage them in schooling; support their well-being; plan quality curriculum and refine teaching practices are enduring priorities for all middle leaders.
  • Understanding self before leading others is a crucial phase in the imperfect pursuit of leadership excellence for all leaders. In the case of middle leaders, it is arguably much more a focus for middle leaders given that many of them are experiencing leadership for the first time. It is important for middle leaders to explore their values, approach to leadership, communication and as noted earlier, their ‘why?’ 
  • I often say that as a leader ‘the best work you do is the people work and equally some of the most challenging work a leader does is with people’. Priorities for middle leadership development in relation to the ‘people work’ are team development; delegation; undertaking difficult conversations; managing staff performance and engaging effectively with others.
  • It can be argued that leading change is a consistent remit for all leaders. In a school setting the role of middle leader in mediating, enabling, encouraging and leading change is just so important. Mc Hale (2020, p.150) notes that, ‘unless you get middle leaders on board, you will see very little meaningful change at the front lines of your business.’ Middle leaders need to be equipped with skills to enable them to gain ‘buy-in’ from their staff in relation to innovation and or improvement initiatives (Flückiger, Lovett, Dempster and Brown, 2015, p.64). 
  • Like all leaders, those in middle leadership roles have a shared responsibility in creating and contributing to work cultures that are positive exemplified by mutual respect, high levels of trust, curiosity, and shared accountability. 
  • Coaching and mentoring are necessary dispositions for any leader. In the context of the work of middle leaders, leadership capabilities fundamental to the provision of feedback and the growth of others.

The above reflections on middle leadership and their learning needs are based on my experience as a middle leader, school principal, system leader and my work in supporting the formation of over 10,000 middle leaders nationally and internationally. As noted above most middle leaders want to remain in the role and lead from within an area of focus or responsibility rather than at a principal, whole of school executive level. One of The Brown Collective’s flagship programs is entitled Leading from Within, a program designed to support the leadership development of middle leaders. Our program is offered in a mixed modality format at a school, network and whole or system level. The program is customised to meet contextual needs. Leading from Within articulates to one unit of a Master’s program at a number of Australian universities. 

An investment in middle leadership is a must for schools in the ongoing aspiration for performance improvement and ultimately, making a difference for students.

For further information visit,
www.thebrowncollective.com.au

This article was first published in Education Matters Primary Magazine, September 2022. To read the issue download it here. 

Send this to a friend