What is it that makes a good educational ICT leader? Here are a few thoughts on the matter taken from a blog post of mine published on 16th June 2008. The reference to the National Strategies is now dated, of course, but what do you think about the general points made?
I think the most important thing to bear in mind about leadership is a sort of truism: you can only be a leader if others are willing to follow. It comes down to a question of authority, which is actually different to power. Being appointed to a leadership position gives you some power, but it does not automatically give you authority.
What is the difference between power and authority? I think it can be summarised fairly simply, as follows:
Someone has power if, when they say, "Let X happen", others say, "We have to make X happen."
Someone has authority if, when they say, "Let X happen", others say, "We would like to make X happen."
So where does authority come from? The standard answer is that it comes from being an expert -- an authority -- in one's chosen field. Well, that no longer works, because educational ICT is so diverse that I think it's impossible for one person to be an expert in the entire field. So a big part of leadership is recognising the limits of one's expertise, and giving others their head in particular areas.
Interestingly, I just flicked open a little book I have called The Book of Leadership & Strategy: Lessons of the Chinese Masters, translated by Thomas Cleary, and this was the first paragraph I saw:
Those who reign by attainment of the Way may have no skills themselves, but they can indeed employ the skilled. If you do not attain the Way, even if you have many skills they are useless.
The "Way" is spiritual enlightenment, but I like to think that this is not a black and white thing, ie that one day you are unenlightened and the next day you are enlightened. In other words, I don't think that you can only become a good leader if you are fully enlightened. But I do think that you need wisdom to be able to lead effectively, and that feeling insecure, or egotistical, with the result that you think being a leader necessitates knowing everything, are states of mind that prevent one from being a good leader.
So does this mean that good leadership consists of letting everyone do their own thing? No, of course not: that would be anarchy. In my opinion, a good leader sets the vision and helps to set the goals. By "setting the vision", I mean setting the bottom line. When all is said and done, what is the reason that you and your team bother to go to work every day? Ultimately, it has to be because you have an idea of how you would like to make a difference to the young people in your charge. If it isn't, maybe you're in the wrong job.
When I was a Head of ICT in a secondary school, my vision for my department was deceptively simple: to help the students become more knowledgeable, confident and independent in the realm of educational ICT. As part of my vision, I had in mind an exciting scheme of work that would be centred on problem-solving rather than rote learning, and learning on a need-to-know basis rather than learning word processing in term 1, databases in term 2, and so on.
That set of beliefs established the parameters I was prepared to work within, so when a member of my team wanted the scheme of work to consist purely of skills, I said "no". Having established the ground rules, as it were, I then invited each member of my team to take responsibility for a particular area of the syllabus. That meant, devising the activities, creating the lesson plans and resources, and running in-service training for the rest of us. What that did, in effect, was to allow each one of them to become an expert in that area. And by deferring to a teacher's opinions in his or her area, the rest of us gave him/her authority in that area.
That approach worked really well. That was before the advent of the National Strategies in England, which does all that for you. Frankly, although I can appreciate the value of having everything handed to you on a plate, it seems to me that a very big danger is that leaders and teachers of educational ICT in schools will say, "Well, that's one thing we don't have to worry about".
If I were a Head of Department now, I would still adopt a similar approach to the one I just described. The main difference would be that I would not expect the members of my team to create all the resources and lesson plans from scratch in their area. But I would expect them to take the ones provided and customise them, perhaps by making them relevant to the local situation and the school itself.
I would also allow them to not use the materials provided if they thought they could do better themselves. They would have to convince me of that, but the point is I would be open to convincing. That highlights another characteristic of good leadership: being a good listener.