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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Paul K Ainsworth

Leadership styles in multi-academy trusts

Headteachers in MATs may need to adapt their leadership style. Paul Ainsworth looks at different examples of leadership and how they can work together for the success of the MAT.

The growth of multi-academy trusts has made it imperative that headteachers work together rather than in isolation with their only goal to increase standards in their school. MATs have meant that heads also have to think about how they can support their partner schools.

As MATS have grown, colleagues who usually work at the top of a hierarchy are working in partnership with equals. For a new headteacher deciding which leadership style to utilise in such a scenario must be a considerable challenge.

Equally those colleagues who have been headteachers for considerable lengths of time may have to adapt their style for the MAT.

Headteachers recognise that they must be committed to trust improvement but still remain constantly anxious that their success is largely judged by the results and reputation of their home school.

Whether CEO of a large company, a sport manager or educational leader, one wants to be remembered for leading team success. In the past some headteachers (often branded as heroic leaders) did this through charisma and force of personality. In a MAT, heads have to find a different way of working.

They may hold clear views on how to work with colleagues within their own school’s management structure and a vision of the leadership styles that they wish to adopt as headteacher.

The heroic head teacher

In a trust, leaders must develop the capacity to contribute to the collective endeavour of the whole rather than just inspiring following in their own school.

Hero heads are thought to be competitive, inward looking and aggressive in pushing forward their own agenda. While it is always important for heads to represent their school in a wider group, they have to be aware of the tension between a competitive approach and the collaborative environment of a trust.

Does the heroic style of leadership only lead to power struggles and dissention amongst headteachers working in a MAT?

Heads who work successfully in MATs quickly realise that whilst in their own school they may be perceived as ‘the expert’ by their staff, this role does not continue when working in collaboration with other headteachers, albeit ones with different levels of experience or in different school contexts.

There is dichotomy between being ‘in charge’ in one’s home school and being a facilitator of change in a trust. One head once eloquently explained to me ‘Some heads dominate and people’s eyes roll and they get fed up…whereas there are others who speak [less frequently] but when they say something it’s spot on, it’s insightful and everyone listens. I think headteachers sometimes need to learn when to be quiet.’

So what style of leadership should you adopt in a MAT?

Collaborative working

Many trusts have found that schools that can have the biggest positive impact are those who on paper least needed to join.

For MATs to be truly successful there is a requirement for leaders to identify opportunities which could benefit the trust. One way of describing this is as entrepreneurial leadership. These are people who recognise the right timing, identify the appropriate people to work with and then seize the window of opportunity.

The motivation for starting any collaborative project needs to be clear, whether financial in terms of economies or more importantly raising outcomes. The leader needs to identify both the project and the potential rewards it offers to all concerned. If the rewards appear financial, the most skilled leaders should be determined to link them to school improvement.

Many trusts have found that schools that can have the biggest positive impact are those who on paper least needed to join. While schools that are already deemed to be successful have less motivation for involving other schools they may have more capacity to improve a MAT overall.

Struggling schools may be very open to the notion of collaboration as a means of finding additional leadership capacity, direction or funding for their improvement.

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Decisive leadership

Once a viable opportunity and partners within the trust have been identified, decisive leadership should ensure that a focused start is made. This is just as important if a headteacher is working alongside fellow headteachers as when leading an initiative in their own school.

Perhaps from a simplistic point of view this is precisely the time that a ‘heroic head’ is needed to set the wheels of the collaboration in motion. An individual with clear sight, self-belief and determination to start the process of collaboration and who is decisive enough to not be discouraged by the risks of the project failing. It maybe that the chief executive or executive head takes on this role.

A decisive style of leadership is likely to lead to most initial success and should be seen as transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership can be broken down further.

  • Idealised influence
  • Inspirational motivation
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Individualised consideration

Idealised influence means acting as a strong role model that others wish to follow. A head may demonstrate their commitment to the trust to such an extent that other colleagues recognise this and want to become a part of the success that is being signalled.

Inspirational motivation is where a leader communicates their high expectations to others. Expression of shared enthusiasm and a belief in the benefits of the trust are infectious and mixed with intelligence and a clear commitment helps establish a shared vision.

Intellectual stimulation is where the leader uses creative and innovative ideas to challenge the beliefs of others. Strong leaders will often have worked out what they wanted from the meeting and the real skill is then managing the group so that they find the solutions themselves.

Individualised consideration describes the leader who provides a supportive climate and listens carefully. Whilst some differences and disagreements may develop within the trust, the aim is one of reaching a critical mass of advocates, which then creates a tipping point into partnership ethos and culture. 

Being a decisive collaborative leader is key to working in a trust but this needs to be blended with high levels of emotional intelligence, strong principles, good listening skills and strategically voiced contributions to meetings.

Leadership in a partnership

It would appear that heroic leadership by its common definition (ruling by the authority of hierarchical status) is unlikely to be conducive to working within a trust. This is not to suggest that strongly opinionated or charismatic leaders are unsuited to collaborative working. Instead heroic leaders need to adopt a different leadership style that is more suited to partnership work.

Leaders in a trust recognise the difference between being expected by staff to take on the role of the ‘ultimate leader’ in their home school, and working collaboratively with other heads around the MAT table.

In some partnerships, a head has taken the role of chair as executive head or CEO and were clearly the initiator of the partnership, yet over time and as the trust grows such leaders see themselves as ‘facilitators of change’ and their role much more consultative than heroic.

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