The specific things that leaders do

I recently spent a few months supporting a school in Portsmouth as it joined our group of schools. This return to hands-on school leadership presented me with a few situations that I hadn’t encountered for a while, such as holding a meeting with a parent and child to address persistently poor behaviour which could no longer be tolerated by the school. It’s a meeting with a clear purpose: the behaviour of the pupil needs to change.


On an early morning train to Portsmouth I happened to be accompanied by one of our Regional Directors. She’s an experienced headteacher so I sought her advice for the meeting that awaited me at the school. She suggested:

  • Speak to the parent on their own first – make it clear what the problem is and what you need the parent to do.
  • Invite the pupil to join the meeting when, and only when, you have secured the support of the parent.
  • Once the pupil joins the meeting, present a united front – “I’ve explained to your mother/father what the problem is; s/he is aware of how serious this is.”
  • Be crystal clear with the pupil about the behaviour that is causing concern, why it cannot be tolerated, and what s/he needs to do instead. Check that they understand this.
  • Agree on the next steps: e.g. “you’ll return to your lessons from Period 2 but for today only I’ll need you to spend break times with your head of year. I’ll pop in to one of your lessons today and I expect to see you working hard.”

None of this is rocket science and I’m sure that people with more experience of these meetings than me follow a structure like this without even realising it. But this experience reminded me that leadership is as much about the specific things that leaders do as the lofty ideals and the glossy mission statements, and that there is good practice relating to these specific things that we can codify and share. Even if established leaders do this stuff implicitly, by making it explicit we can catalyse the development of new leaders.

I was reminded of this when I read this thoughtful post in which a serving head argues that “Too many leadership programmes focus on ‘leadership’ over domain knowledge”. The head continues, “The problem for schools comes, I would argue, when leaders are more interested in notions of leadership over and above what they are leading on.”

Similarly, this article in the Harvard Business Review makes the case that successful leadership is less about generic competencies and more about perfecting a core set of daily routines:

“Leaders want to get better in the here-and-now, not to be judged against a competency map or be sold an abstract theory about what leadership should look like. If you want to become a great leader, become a student of your context — understand your organization’s social system — and mind your routines. Leadership development is more about application than theory.”

The HBR post continues: “As we pursued our work at BHP Billiton, six routines (for example, how leaders spent their time in the field, in one-on-one meetings, and in cross team meetings) were identified which, when executed well, appeared to differentiate the highest-performing supervisors from average performing ones (the routines we discovered are context-specific to BHP Billiton; the routines that are right for you depend on your organization).”

The 6 core routines for school leaders might include:

  • Managing a meeting
  • Taking an assembly
  • Doing a learning walk
  • Holding a developmental conversation with a teacher
  • Holding a difficult conversation with a pupil/parent
  • Line managing a senior/middle leader.

Doug Lemov improved our understanding of teaching by codifying the specific things that effective teachers do. By making the implicit, explicit, he established a shared language that thousands of schools have adopted to develop their teachers.

Perhaps it’s time we do the same for school leadership?





4 thoughts on “The specific things that leaders do

  1. This in itself is quite interesting….but essentially it is a mechanistic approach to leadership, especially in the school context. The more you think about this concept of ‘core routines’, the more it seems to be an anti-intellectual stance to the complexities of the demands of school leadership; are we really reducible to routines? Surely this will only take us so far? As Iris Dean, my tutor way back in 1981 at Middlesborough Polytechnic insisted, ‘There’s nothing more practical than good theory’, so I would counsel all those involved in school leadership development (including myself), to continue to consider ‘leadership’ behaviours, skills, theories in the widest sense. Sure, we all need to get through the working day, but…….there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?


  2. I found this really interesting Steve, especially as I do quite a lot of leadership development work (at all levels) in this post-headship phase of my life.

    Reflecting on what I do, I realise I don’t focus on routines, but I don’t push leadership theory either. I tend to concentrate on underpinning values and principles which do, I hope, support the development of routines which are appropriate to the specific context leaders may find themselves in. So we might talk about managing challenging conversations and look at the fundamental principles involved – such as how we can work towards a win/win outcome for both parties. But I wouldn’t suggest there is a clear protocol for every eventuality: do this, then this, then this… The routines have to suit the context/situation/relationships etc etc, but that doesn’t mean that consideration of good practice (and why it’s good practice) can’t be helpful. The example you cite here is, I think, exactly that.

    I do need to give this some more, thought, though – could what I cover in leadership development sessions be of even more use to the aspiring and serving leaders I’m working with?

    Hope you have a good summer, and hope to meet at some stage for a catch-up!


    • Hi Jill great to hear from you and thanks for the comment. I wonder if we could think of leadership development in three ways: (a) Core values/principles, as you suggest (b) identifying the things that you will have do to quite often and working out a good way of doing these, e.g. tough conversations, to use your example and (c) daily habits and routines so that leaders can provide clarity and support in their daily work. Hope our paths cross again soon – have a great summer!


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