At some point during the last few years I’ve become a system leader. I’m not quite sure how this happened or whether I ever made a conscious decision to become one, but apparently I am. I’m not even entirely sure what I do differently now as a system leader that I didn’t do before.
Recourse to my NLE System Leaders’ Toolkit wasn’t much help, although it does make clear that ‘system leadership’ is all about school-to-school support. I’ve been doing this for years though in some form or another so it can’t be this that’s new. The toolkit also refers briefly to a requirement that school-to-school support needs to abide by ‘the principles guiding system leaders’. Unfortunately, it fails to explain or define what these principles are.
Chances are, you are a system leader as well, even though you might not know it. If you operate within a collaboration or family of schools such as a federation or multi-academy trust, then you are a system leader. If you are part of a cluster of schools within the LA or Diocesan, then you are a system leader. If you’ve ever shared what you do at a conference or workshop or on social media, then you are a system leader. And if you belong to a Teaching School Alliance or SCITT or in partnership with a University as part of School Direct, then – guess what – you are a system leader.
Anything that results in you influencing the practice of a school other than your own is essentially what system leadership is about. It’s us not having to rely on others but instead being able to do it ourselves from within.
Where it gets messy is that the systems that we now operate in are becoming increasingly more complex. Gone are the days when as heads our circle of influence operated only within the confines of the school gates. Of course we need to get this bit right – it’s our bread and butter – and as heads we need to focus relentlessly on this pursuit. But we no longer demand this solely of our school leaders.
We need heads who are instead able to do all this whilst at the same time focusing on the system that surrounds them.
We no longer need heads that can run a great school. Some are instead able to reach out to other schools, at the same time, by unleashing creativity and innovation from within their own resources.
We no longer need heads that can lead schools that are outstanding according to conventional Ofsted measures. The very best leaders are instead able to flip this on its head and create schools that go beyond this and are standing out.
System leadership is about being able to do all this and more. It’s about being able to walk the corridors and run a tight ship, all the while making sure that we keep the rear doors closed. Good headteachers do this. But great headteachers are instead able to take this to the next level – to scan the horizons and look further afield in order to bring other schools into the fold.
These are our ‘instead able’ leaders – those that are able to do the instead.
Insteadable leaders are not frightened of compromising the security of their own school in order to support others. Instead, they are able to do both and take a more utilitarian approach. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA agrees: ‘The truth for leaders is that the work of system change means going above and beyond, and sometimes sacrificing what seems to be the short-term interests of our own organisations.’
Insteadable headteachers are our true system leaders. They understand that by supporting other schools as well as their own, the energies and synergies that are subsequently released become the driving force behind the continued success of their own school.
What we need then are system leaders who are not only great leaders in their own school but are also insteadable. Only then do we have any real chance of creating a truly world-class system of schools, whatever that might turn out to be.
Andrew’s new book, The Art of Standing Out is published by John Catt and will be out in July 2016.
 Taylor, Matthew, Comment, RSA Journal, Issue 1, 2016, p5
This post first appeared on the Leadership Matters website.