Upside down leadership?

Scartho SunsetWhilst driving back from consulting work, I listened to a fascinating edition of BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line about leadership.  In particular, the episode concerned the notion of “upside-down management”, where the individual component organisations are empowered to make their own decisions about the operation of their own aspect of the organisation.  According to the programme, organisations which have embraced this notion have seen customer service, profitability, and other key aspects of their businesses thrive.

This got me thinking about how this might apply to school leadership teams.  It is not so long ago that “distributed leadership” was the buzz-phrase.  I started to work at a school as a middle leader more than a decade ago, and every single member of staff was directly line-managed by a member of the Senior Leadership Team, meaning that every staff member was in direct contact with the day-to-day management and strategic leadership of the school.

How do models of distributed leadership, still less “upside-down management”, apply to schools today?  The same school to which I referred above is now part of a multi-academy trust.  Even within the single school itself, with a considerably smaller staff team, far fewer staff are now directly line-managed by members of the Senior Leadership Team.  The hierarchical nature of that school is compounded by additional layers of leadership that come through membership of the Multi-Academy Trust: executive head, chief executive, et al.  Local Management of Schools, a key reform of schools in the 1980s, has now been replaced by the notion common to many Multi-Academy Trusts of models of school organisation common to all schools in the organisation.

This is not a blog post that posits any answers although, of course, we can support schools in developing leadership and management techniques and capacity whether at an individual or trust level.  Instead, this post is designed to generate discussion and considerations of the changing notions of leadership both in schools and in the wider world and whether “real world” models of leadership and management can ever apply to schools.

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