New to Middle Leadership? Welcome to the balancing act

Much is written about the idealised virtues and skills of senior leaders in education but the role of middle leadership seldom receives the same spotlight and attention. Middle Leaders, particular in larger schools have immense influence on teachers and learning, but also over the success or otherwise of change initiatives and the wider organisational culture.

Overtime the role of ‘middle management’ in education has changed in both scope and emphasis. As Helen Kelly writes, a Head of Department was traditionally responsible for both coordination of teachers, trips, timetables and budgets but also acted as a lead teacher with expert skills and knowledge in a specific subject area. With the trend towards distributed leadership the job description now also includes references towards developing culture, people and the responsibility for change management. Middle leadership is incredibly important but also exhausting, hard and increasingly stressful for anyone new to the role.

This year I stepped into a different middle leadership role, so this post is partly a reflection but more importantly an attempt to synthesis some of the research how to make middle leadership work in education.

Feeling the squeeze from above and below

A key challenge any middle leader faces is the constant switching of persona and emotions from both leading a team of front line teachers and then in turn following the lead of senior leaders. The feeling of being pulled in different directions and managing both up and down can be stressful as you try meet expectations of your line managers but support the needs of your team. In these different situations it takes an incredible amount of focus to be present, and to act in accordance with the different ‘roles’ you assume each different context.

This conundrum creates the classic squeeze in the middle hierarchy of schools which is frustrating and challenging for aspiring leaders. In one moment you are listening to personally comprehend a policy, strategy or dictum from above and yet in the next moment responsible to implement change with full confidence and bravado to your team. On occasions you might not even fully understand the rationale for a policy shift so are caught as both the carrier of news and the victim of change.

The hardest challenge for me personally, is being able to mentally switch roles from situations where you have contrasting levels of authority and influence. For instance as a middle leader running your weekly team meetings, you have authority, gravitas and hopefully influence to move ideas forward. Yet in meetings with senior leaders or fellow middle management colleagues you need to switch and adopt a more collaborative role or at worst will need to adapt to follow directive or pacesetting leaders.

Coming unstuck as a new leader

The trickiest situations middle leaders face is when they are asked to implement a new policy or directive when they themselves don’t fully comprehend what the changes entail. At some point of your career, we have all seen the tremendous awkwardness where you are pretty sure your boss is trying to pass the buck for an important change onto someone else; usually higher up the chain in your school.

As middle leaders you can quickly come unstuck in these same moments, and loose the trust and rapport of your team that you will have worked so hard to develop. What ever you try, you must always show that you understand what is happening and can provide direction to your team.

In these situations do you take the higher path and push on and convince your team that this is the best for the wider organisation (and hope you enough credit in the bank after shouting last weeks drinks)?, or conversely do you show humility and admit you feel reluctant pursuing something as a team you don’t personally comprehend.

There has been times when I have been caught in this trap, and each time I promise myself that I will do a better job at understanding an issue before it becomes my responsibility to implement it. Research says this misalignment of understanding from senior to middle leadership is the crucial issue which is overlooked in change initiatives in education. Senior leaders need to empower middle leaders with information and most crucially to be transparent and authentic in explaining ‘the why’. Simon Sinek puts this eloquently when describing to inspire action, leaders need not only to describe the what and how of change, but also speak more profoundly to why something is important to the vision of the organisation and worth pursuing. Only when you can speak with clarity about the why do you tug at peoples emotions and really convince them.

Throughout the recent period of school closures and COVID-19 there we numerous changes in our school to reporting, assessment, processes and even timetables. At each step, my immediate line managers would make an effort to loop us into significant changes, ask for quick input to a half baked plan, or just to drop us a message to ensure we at least had a few more hours to internalise the changes before our teachers probed us with questions. When you are facing constant change this communication and trust is crucial to ensure organisational coherence and agility. Without it divisions and resentment quickly grow.

Middle leaders can be frustrated and challenged by the hierarchy squeeze, but I think there are some simple things both Senior and Middle Leaders can do so that teams can enjoy more influence and autonomy.

Taking the initiative as a middle leader

As middle leader I think there are three things you should try to do to make your job easier.

  • Go the extra mile to develop a trusting relationship with your immediate line managers. They will be more likely to confide or loop you in to discussions a little earlier if they feel you can be confidential and trusted with information.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions to you line managers to develop your confidence and understanding. Approach discussions where you might be nervous to challenge or question something by pointing out you want to be aligned when presenting and fronting decisions to your team but also honest to yourself when you are uncomfortable.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your immediate colleagues and always think what you be the first question they would each answer and be rehearse how you would answer these when put on the spot. Sounding out a few trusted members of your team is an excellent strategy for testing the waters ahead of any new initiative or change.

Supporting and empowering middle leaders

There is a dearth of research connected to middle leadership in schools, but from writing in the corporate world there are changes senior leaders can make to empower middle leadership and improve engagement. 

  • Develop your Middle Leadership training programme – provide coaching and support to help middle leaders navigate different power dynamics. For many a curriculum lead or pastoral role will be the first leadership position a teacher has had and the transition to establish trust, rapport and influence with a team can be difficult. Develop a mentoring programme or time for fellow middle leaders to informally meet and collaborate.
  • Help Middle Leaders think of ways to developing their self-identify as a leaders so they feel empowered. Simultaneously can you provide them with autonomy to take a wider school initiative and tweak and implement this in the context of the team they lead.
  • Resist the temptation to micromanage middle leaders but provide them with opportunities for strategic input and to be a sounding board to new initiatives or to be involved in agile working groups.
  • Provide structures (meetings/communications) so that middle leaders can understand changes, policies, initiatives and have input to their formation. Have a script for organisational decision making such as the RAPID model so that middle leadership understand the process and their role within it.

Further reading

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