In New Zealand, the majority of schools are still led in a familiar top-down format that we have known since the last century. A positive is that a growing number of schools are shifting to a more appropriate 21st-century collaborative model. Thursday, 21st October 2021 became what economists call a natural experiment in the success and failure of those two existing leadership models in New Zealand schools. It started on the previous Wednesday afternoon when the government made a surprising announcement that senior students could return to school the following Tuesday while still under New Zealand Level Three COVID restrictions that would normally have the schools essentially closed. This sent the New Zealand education community into a dizzying panic, particularly as it seemed they were making this decision solely for the sake of end-of-year exams. Immediately the schools’ leadership cultures sprung into action. Watching all the chatter online in various New Zealand teaching circles, the media reports, and the chatter and concerns being expressed within my school and my wife’s, I could see two distinctly different stories being played out.
In simple terms, we saw success where there was a 21st-century collaborative leadership model to a complex problem, and stress, concern, and failure where there was a top-down 20th-century model applied.
Stories were played out very visibly and displayed not only the mindsets in school leaders but the very different human experiences that the two leadership models create.
How to fail: 20th-century style
In the old top-down model, some schools in New Zealand naturally made Thursday morning the moment for a senior leadership meeting. In this meeting, it was understood by the participants that they were paid to make the decisions and so between them decided how the school would react and what processes would be put in place including how the middle leaders, the teachers, and the community would be informed about those decisions.
This approach found immediate problems as it went down the hierarchy. The middle leaders met later that day and were informed of the decisions that the senior leaders had made at which point extra information, concerns, and questions were put forward to the senior leaders. The problem here was that these new ideas and concerns challenged the decisions that had already been made, and senior leaders were at pains to justify the decisions they apparently were paid to make in light of these new concerns.
When the middle leaders took the decisions to the teachers, even more scenarios, information, and concerns were raised, further challenging the decisions that had been made that morning.
The senior leaders, wanting to put on a brave face and justify their pay package, were reluctant to backtrack on the decisions they had made (after all that’s what they are paid for) and this led to a Friday of stress, concern, and anxiety about how this would play out on Tuesday.
How to succeed: 21st-century style
Exactly parallel to this scenario was a number of schools taking an opposite approach. In these schools, the leaders understood their role (and pay package) was to coordinate a collaborative approach to a complex problem requiring as much voice from all concerned as possible for decision-making. These collaborative schools started Thursday morning with a full staff meeting where all concerns, ideas, ramifications, and scenarios could be gathered. The extensive amount of information placed the senior leadership team in a much stronger position with which to make decisions. The middle leaders meeting later that day could then apply that information to their departments and structures and add further ramifications to the information pool. This leadership approach culminated in a much more successful decision-making Thursday afternoon meeting where senior leaders then drew up and enacted a plan that catered to more concerns and scenarios, was popular, and reduced stress and anxiety for both the next day and the coming week.
This 48-hour natural experiment parallels all of my own previous leadership successes and failures and should act as a simple important story for anyone leading a school in 2021.
I wonder which experience you’ve had in your school?