Middle leaders and senior leaders in schools often perceive each other as blockers to development. Many teachers in middle leader positions report a high degree of physical and mental fatigue often due to high workload, bureaucracy and an underlying feeling that they are inadequately supported by their senior management teams. Senior leaders, on the other hand, may feel that they don't have full support from middle leaders, especially when having to make tough decisions.
Implementing a new assessment policy as leadership struggle
Take, for instance, following example: At a primary school in the UK, the senior leadership team struggled to implement a new assessment policy due to resistance from middle leaders. The middle leaders, like the Head of Departments and Grade Level Coordinators, felt that the policy was too prescriptive and did not align with the school's values. The senior leaders did not fully explain the rationale behind the policy and did not involve the middle leaders in the decision-making process. As a result, trust and communication between the two groups eroded, and the policy was not effectively implemented.
Often, middle leaders feel disempowered when they are not involved in taking projects forward or when decisions are taken against their advice. Their proposals, which were developed with a lot of energy, may not have been fully heard. When they are required to explain decisions that they don't personally agree with to their team, they then receive criticism, leading to a cycle of complaining. A frequently mentioned issue is that decisions are not transparent in terms of "why". On the other side, senior leaders may feel that they don't have full support from middle leaders and perceive them to be disloyal.
The main issue here is that trust is eroded, and things are not done consistently throughout the school. This leads to growing negativity among the staff, which in turn can hinder the implementation of strategic goals and development plans.
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The four aspects to build loyalty among leaders
From our experience, there are four main causes to reflect on:
- The first is honesty. There are many different perspectives in a school that come together to feed into a decision, and sometimes learning principles clash with operational realities. However, leaders need to make a call one way or the other. It is a reality that the more senior you become as a leader, the more likely it is that you will have to disappoint people because you can't please everyone. As a senior leader, you have to be honest about this. As a middle leader, you need to advocate for your perspective while acknowledging that there are others as well.
- Secondly, transparency of decisions. Senior leaders have to take the time to explain their decisions and be clear on why they have made them. They must acknowledge that their decisions may disappoint others, but they can explain how they arrived at their conclusions. It's important to give room to negative emotions in an adequate, likely small forum.
- The third aspect is the "how" of decision-making. Leaders need to be proactively clear about the decision-making process. Is this a democratic decision? Do you give input, but the senior leadership team decides? Will you be fine with only a specific set of options?
- Finally, standing in for each other is crucial. Senior leaders can't just communicate critical decisions through middle leaders. Sometimes, it takes a senior leader to stand in front of the team, explain a decision,and “take the beating” if this will cause discontent in the teams. Senior leaders need to understand when to back up their middle leaders in critical moments.
In all of this, loyalty is non-negotiable. Middle leaders may not like it, but they have to accept it. They can be brutally honest and complain during internal discussions with their superiors, but when they leave the room, there should be one decision that everyone takes forward. This comes largely from positive relationships and trust, as well as continuous alignment on overall purpose and goals, which must be built proactively over time.
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