The Art of Leading a Department: Play to the Strengths of Your Team

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work…

Vince Lombardi

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

No two people are the same. In a team, that situation is accentuated, as people play off each other both positively and negatively. Larger teams can separate into cliques of like-minded individuals. You can have cadres of compliant, complacent and defiant teachers.

Heads of department find themselves starting out from one of two situations – either they were part of the team and promoted, or appointed from outside to lead a bunch of strangers. Both of these situations have their pros and cons. Being promoted from within means that you know your team and what makes them click, but you have to move from being ‘part of the gang’ to being the ‘leader of the pack’ – a very difficult position. Being appointed to the role from outside means you have to learn how your staff work, but it means you’re ignorant of past baggage and can cut through the politics.

With all this in mind, how do you get the best out of your team?

I’ll be absolutely honest in this post – I still have a lot to learn, but then don’t we all? One constantly has to evolve one’s practice, since as soon as one stands still, then you’re failing. But, as someone who’s led two departments over a number of years, I can offer a lot in terms of what I’ve learnt. So here goes…

I was raised in the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ of the 1980s, where money was scarce and times were hard. People often came together to overcome problems – the local tenants’ association, football teams, youth clubs, libraries all were formed in the understanding – correctly – that the quickest way to success is through collective action.

It’s a left-wing concept, I know, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned in education is that one never achieves success individually. As such the strength of a team is directly proportional to it’s chance of success. Divide and conquer is a method of control but it is not a method of positive action.

I’m going to use a cliched analogy here, but for me, a team is made up of drains (of varying, ahem, drainage) and radiators (of varying, well, radiation). Pareto’s 80/20 rule almost certainly applies in this case. The drains will take up 80% of your time and energy, because they need structured, proactive support. The majority of the time as a leader will be spent with the drains, and you cannot ignore them.

How to deal with the drains? How to deal with radiators?


Relationships are crucial in any organisation. Positive, professional relationships are half the battle when it comes to making a team successful. The challenge is to cut through the political baggage, whether as someone being promoted from within or as a new leader.

Drains need a sounding board, most of the time. They need to know that a) they’re being understood and b) that you’ve got their best interests at heart. They might have underlying issues that affect their day-to-day working life. Offering suggestions on how to best manage these are a positive step into you showing that you’re genuinely concerned for their well being as well as someone who’s driving them to do a job properly. Showing that you’ve got their best interests at heart isn’t always a happy-smiley conversation; quite often it has to be frank and direct and couched in their interests but most importantly of those students they teach.

Radiators need a champion. Give them opportunities to demonstrate their potential as much as you can whilst at the same time keeping them focused on the objective in mind. For example, ITTs and NQTs are (usually) classic radiators. Many a time I have encountered ITTs and NQTs who think they’re going to revoutionise teaching of Maths – only to discover that the daily grind is more classroom management and less about the myraid ways of teaching Loci. That said, don’t stifle radiators – they’re good people to have on side – a collection of radiators in a department is the engine room, the group that pushes the department forward. By pairing radiators up with drains (matching expertise with coaching needs) the rest of the team tends to follow, either by switching them on to what’s right or simple begrudging compliance (which is not an ideal situation but it’s better than outright defiance).

How do you discover what the strengths of your team are? Simple. Watch them in action!

Many teachers are quite frightened – and fairly enough in some cases – about the prospect of their peers or leaders observing them. But unless you actually see what goes on in classrooms it’s unlikely you’ll have a fair idea of what is truly happening in terms of practice.

It’s important, therefore, that from the very beginning you get into your teachers’ classrooms and see what’s taking place – and be very forthright and honest about your intentions. You’ll be surprised how many doors open. Don’t take a notepad/tablet computer in there and start scribbling down thoughts – get involved! Note taking where you’re supposed to be supportive is a quick way of indicating to staff (whether you are or not) that you’re casting judgement. Summarise what’s happened after the lesson.

Then, go through what you think makes a great lesson – and put names of your staff against these criteria – those who are experts in that field, and those who aren’t. Then get some peer coaching happening, collaborative planning, team teaching, whatever.

The reality is that a team plays to its strengths through the actions of the people in the team. A leader can lead by example, offer support, observe, coach, however they feel is right to get the best out of the team – but the staff involved actually have to do it.

Where does the motivation to act in terms of doing what is asked come from? You. The leader, and the relationships you have with your staff.

Autocrat, democrat, laissez-faire, laid-back, formal – your style doesn’t matter. It’s how you interact with your staff and how you make them feel about the role they play. Dan Pink, one of the foremost researchers in motivation talks about three roots of motivation:

Autonomy – give staff direction over what their role involves.

Mastery – give them chance to get better – don’t constantly judge.

Purpose – give them opportunity to see the ‘bigger picture’, ‘higher power’, ‘greater cause’.

The last one, for me, is the biggest aspect. If a member of staff cannot see nor appreciate the point of their job, then they see it as pointless. If they see their job as pointless, then they’re not likely to if effectively. The other two elements underpin this.

Essential Reading:

Dan Carnegie – How To Win Friends And Influence People. No, seriously.

Dan Pink – Drive. Where the trifecta of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose and their impact of motivation came into public view. There’s even a section on Education.

The NCETM, for me is often forgotten but never surpassed. The Excellence in Mathematics Leadership project is all about reflection on you, your team, what your strengths are and how to move forward. It was the very first thing I read when I was first appointed as Head of Mathematics, and I still, five years later, go back to it termly. And so should you.

Steve Leinwand’s ‘Tilling The Soil’ presentation focuses on how Maths leaders should respond the introduction of the Common Core system in America – but it is packed with ways that leaders can spot and develop the strengths of its team and address the problems leaders face on a day-to-day basis. It needs a bit of ‘pruning’ to get to the points that matter in terms of leaders this side of the pond but it is a worthwhile read.

Finally, you may come across ‘toxic’ people who quite simply are black holes of optimism. has an excellent post on how to deal with such people to minimise their impact on you and your team. It’s a bit business-y but many things will strike a chord.


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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