The Art of Leading a Department: Leading By Example

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

Mahatma Gandhi

The Art of Leading a Department series continues apace. So far we’ve looked at the nice things – love of your subject, and playing to the strengths of your team.

So you’ve demonstrated your passion for Maths and teaching it, and you know how your team is made up and what makes it tick. But we all come across people who think ‘well this is all lovely, but what about x, y, z…’ – throwing up obstacles in your path to excellence.

In order to overcome this, you’ve got to lead by example, something that is perhaps the hardest job we as leaders have to do.

In one of the greatest T.V. shows of all time, The Wire, Tommy Carcetti starts out as a well-meaning, passionate councillor wanting to make a difference to communities in Baltimore. In a (rather profane) meeting with a political mentor after Carcetti’s appointment as Mayor of Baltimore, Carcetti is warned of the need to deal with tough decisions in every facet of his role. Harsh and brutal as this sounds, it’s exactly what a Head of Maths faces every day.

I often hear people saying that leading by example is the easiest thing. But as I said in the very first post of this series, being a Head of Mathematics is the hardest job in the business. The number of variables that one has to directly control in this role is, for me, incomparable in any other position in school. The bigger the department and the greater number of years in its care (11-18 rather than 11-16 for example) makes it even more challenging.

Add to the fact that unlike in many other businesses you’re a leader who still does the same job as the person at the bottom of the ladder as the core of your day-to-day role, and those variables multiply even further (actually this is lost on a lot of people right at the top of the tree, who think that middle managers have a greatly reduced timetable – mine’s better than it was as my last school, where I was head of department and expected to teach 24 out of 30 lessons a week – but it’s quickly filled up with what can only be described as ‘drudge’).

I remember in the first department that I was leader of, a particularly ‘old school’ teacher said to me “the thing is, we’ll listen to you because you’re at the coalface, and you don’t ask us to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself’. She was talking about the keys to leading by example; authenticity (being at the coalface) and integrity (not asking anything of anyone that you wouldn’t do yourself).

Let’s look at authenticity and integrity in more detail.

Authenticity for me means being true to one’s self. I’ve talked before about the ‘career teacher’, the teacher who ticks all the boxes superficially but deep down is only in it because it’s a job. The latest financial incentives that the government has put in front of graduates to entice them into the profession has already started to attract even more of this sort, according to colleagues across the teaching spectrum. These types are not being authentic. I came into the job because I wanted to make a difference to students who grew up in environments similar to my childhood – I’m doing that and will always do so.

Integrity is demonstrating a consistency of approach in everything that you do, having strong moral principles but also where you don’t manage to maintain such a standard, being honest about it. Maintaining your integrity is incredibly hard to do as a leader of Maths (or English, for that matter), not because there are immoral temptations to lead you astray (!) but because there are so many things to do that keeping everything ticking over at a high standard is a challenge for anyone. However, if you don’t do what all teachers, at any level, should do, then no matter what you have in front of you, it screams a lack of integrity in your actions as a leader.

Ultimately therefore these qualities can only be judged through people’s actions. Quite often, the best (or worst) environment to demonstrate these qualities for when times are hard. For example, I read a recent article on the questions that high-profile businessmen think will make the difference for leaders. One by a hotel chain executive was:

How will you motivate the dishwashers?

The answer – “If they are overloaded I would roll up my sleeves and start washing right alongside them.” In other words, when times get hard for your team, it’s your role to take up the slack. Put all of the strategy to one side and get stuck in. That’s leading by example, right there. You’re demonstrating authenticity by being right in the action and integrity by being there when your team need you.

If you don’t demonstrate authenticity or integrity, nor are honest about it, then you will lose your team, I promise you that. I’m not saying, however, that it’s OK to not show these qualities as long as you’re open about it (e.g. saying “I’m only here for the money” will not win you many fans). What I’m saying is strive to always lead by example first and foremost, and then take the flak when things slip, but as soon as possible, get back up to speed.

Remember that ultimately as a leader you are a role model as much as the decision maker. There are leaders who seem to think sheer force of personality makes the difference but that only gets you so far. In my early career I was tagged with being an ‘ideas man’ because I was very creative but lacking the motivation to do the grunt work to see things through. That has changed (I hope!), but only because I was reflective in my practice and spotted where I was letting things slide. You as a leader need to constantly look back and say – am I being fair to my team?

As I keep saying, this job is hard. But if you don’t plan your lessons, teach well, motivate your students, mark books and continue to strive for improvement… why should you expect your team to do the same?

Here’s some further reading for you on this:

Ross Morrison McGill on Developing Yourself and Others

Steven Covey’s The 8th Habit is a lengthy tome but has a great section on the importance of authenticity and integrity.

The NCSL has a legacy course called the Behaviour Toolkit, all about promoting a positive culture in your team.’s 10 Things That Likeable People Do Consistently has some ‘quick wins’ in the field of getting people on side through your example.


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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