Check out our Open-to-learning™ and Growing Great Leaders™ courses for 2015
Perspectives Issue - November, 2014
A dilemma for senior leaders: middle leadership

Having had a considerable amount of my career as a principal, it is with that role that I usually identify.  However, since being in this job as UACEL director, and having made many observations in secondary schools in particular, I have great sympathy with the plight of the middle leader.  In secondary schools these are the heads of departments or learning areas, and deans; and I have seen enough of their role to be concerned.  I imagine also that middle leaders in primary schools (syndicate leaders) may well share some of the issues that are so clearly evident in secondary schools. In sum, this middle leadership role appears to me to be one of the most challenging leadership positions.  Why? 
  • middle leaders are often relatively powerless – they don’t make the decisions that affect them most.  Senior leaders usually decide on the goal focus, make the decisions about resources, and make the high level decisions about what professional learning to engage in as a school – the middle leaders, even if they are consulted, have to live with the effects of all those decisions. 
  • middle leaders frequently have full class loads but are expected to be - and indeed need to be - ‘leaders of learning’. The quality of results and teaching coming out of their syndicates, departments or faculties, is their responsibility, which means they actively need to lead the quality of teaching and embed professional learning into their meetings.  Yet time for all this is often given scant regard in timetabling.  Middle leaders are inevitably bound up with teaching their own classes (which may suffer due to their workload), administrative duties relating to their department/syndicate, and school-wide responsibilities in sport, culture or pastoral care.
  • to be effective middle leaders  need to have high quality ‘coaching’ conversations with staff on an ongoing basis, but commonly we find they do not have the skills because they have never formally learnt how to have focused and effective conversations. 
  • middle leaders rarely get an opportunity to formally learn about leadership. The result of this can be that young leaders develop problematic theories of leadership that guide their behaviour.  For example, I recall a middle leader whose theory was that their job was to support and advocate for their ‘team’ (no matter what the problem), and gave no consideration to the goal orientation of the school or the differing perspective of senior leadership.  Similarly, I note that many people in these positions have never formally learnt some fundamental skills – such as running an effective meeting. 
It is in these day-to-day operations where we display leadership, and, in my view, you cannot separate the management aspects (such as running a good meeting) from leadership.  The distinction between these terms is often made in condescending ways (where management is the poor cousin to leadership) but, from my point of view, a good leader knows how to walk their talk – and that means how to make things happen that are aligned to your goal focus.
I sometimes hear principals and senior leaders moan about the quality of their middle leaders and feel it is timely to remind us all that if we blame someone for something, we need to look to ourselves for the answer first: “What have I not done, or said, to address the perceived problem?"

In our research we have found that senior leaders often do not know what is really worrying middle leaders; they think they know, but they may not.  We have found, for instance, that senior leaders believe middle leaders may be most concerned with behavioural matters, when in fact, they were most concerned about the expectations that teachers held for student outcomes.  This is an important concern to know about.  What we learnt from this is that senior and middle leaders are frequently not ‘on the same page’ and yet that is exactly what is required if they are to be effective. So, what can be done?
Powerlessness Engage middle leaders in discussion about the goals, how to achieve them, what your part in this is -  and what theirs is.
Time to be a leader of learning Time is finite.   How we use time is an indicator of our strategic thinking.  Middle leaders need time in their schedules to observe teaching and provide feedback, and to lead team meetings regularly – about the learning goals.
Conversation skills 


All leaders are entitled to the opportunity to learn some of these skills.  Many of us only learnt leadership skills through many mistakes and through role models; both good and bad.  These skills are not learnt in one or two days; they take a life-long effort.  Fundamentals of these skills can be learnt, however, and then it is up to the leader to practise and reflect.  Learning these skills is essential for any leader because it is through the day-to-day conversations that you lead. 

Leadership skills

We all bring our own personalities and styles to how we lead, but some fundamental aspects of leadership can be demystified and learnt:  how to set effective goals, how to attack gnarly problems; how to resource strategically rather than by ‘wish lists’, and so on.  Just knowing about some of the research on these topics can provide a leader with more confidence.
Effective schools have effective leadership teams Effective leadership teams are made up of both senior and middle leaders who behave in a cohesive, goal-oriented way.  It is senior leaders’ responsibility to include middle leaders more effectively in decisions that affect them, and middle leaders have a responsibility to learn to lead their teachers as effectively as they can.  Only senior leaders can address the issues I have raised here – by listening to middle leaders, by engaging them in decision making that affect them, and by ensuring they do get training in conversations and leadership skills.

Professional Development Opportunities for 2015

In 2015, we are setting out to more purposefully influence New Zealand leaders by running introductory two-day courses on Open-to-learning™ Conversations and three-day Introductory Growing Great Leaders™ courses around the country.  These are aimed at leaders from any sector (though our research base is related to primary and secondary school leadership), and at any level – principals, senior and middle leaders.  They are also very relevant for aspiring leaders.  Click on the links below to take you to more information on our UACEL website.

Growing Great Leaders™

Growing Great Leaders™ Christchurch Starts 12 February 2015
Growing Great Leaders™ (Secondary) Auckland Starts 17 March 2015
Growing Great Leaders™ (Primary) Auckland Starts 18 March 2015

Open-to-learning™ Conversations
One Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Christchurch 11 February 2015
Two Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Whangarei 10 & 11 March 2015
Two Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Auckland 12 & 13 March 2015
Two Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Christchurch 28 & 29 April 2015
Two Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Dunedin 30 April & 1 May 2015
Two Day Open-to-learning™ Conversations Wellington 12 & 13 May  2015
Open-to-learning™ Advanced Practitioner Auckland 30 & 31 July, 27 & 28 August 2015

In Auckland we will tailor one course to middle and senior secondary leaders, and another to primary school leaders.  Elsewhere in the country we are happy to bring these courses to a tailored audience e.g., all principals, or all APs and DPs, and to work with partner associations such as Principal or AP Associations or with networks of school s, to ensure we meet your needs.   We promote student-centred leadership and effective problem solving through our courses, so if any of the above rings a bell, it may be time for you or members of your leadership team to take some time for purposeful reflection.  If you are interested in these courses in your area, contact me on to discuss and organise this.

The University of Auckland also offers opportunities for leaders wishing to pursue formal qualifications. Check out the new EdD (Doctor of Education) starting in 2015. Applications are now open for those interested in pursuing doctoral study in Leadership of Educational Professional Practice. The part-time, cohort based programme is designed specifically for busy educators and offers you the opportunity to work closely with world-recognised researchers in the School of Learning Development and Professional Practice.  To find out more about this new inquiry pathway being offered in 2015 click here. To apply and for more information please contact Leigh Beever: Email or phone ext 48812

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