Beyond a vision: What I’ve learnt this year

Two thirds of my careers in education have been spent as a leader of teams. For much of that time, my understanding of the required traits of “good leaderships” was poor (even now, reflecting on the words “traits” in the previous sentence, fills me with discomfort). My first thought would be that good leaders would always be visionary and be able to articulate that clear vision they have for the organisation in a way that was call to action for all staff. However, the more I learnt about leadership, mainly while on the job, the more I realised that overreliance on a vision can be incredibly damaging to the process of trying to drive improvement.

Why can a vision be damaging?

Vagueness: a vision can be so vague, it could be for any organisation, any department, or any school. For example, part of vision statement I have written before included:

“Every student should have access to an outstanding education, which leads to life changing experiences.”

How is this unique for my department, school or setting? Is this not the goal of all schools? Don’t we all get into education hoping to change the lives of the young people that we teach? By being so vague, some statements of a vision can leave themselves open for interpretation in many ways, which can lead to a different problem.

Misalignment: when a vision leads to misalignment between leaders and their staff, or even between leaders within a school, the direction of travel that is required for improvements to occur can be missing. An alignment of visions can be a positive force, however, misalignment will lead to staff focusing on their daily tasks and activities, rather than any development work that takes place. This is also linked to a vision lacking relevance.

Irrelevance: when a vision is not matched to the current working conditions it can be seen as irrelevant. Staff that are trying to work with the leadership team no longer see how the vision for the team is aligned to what can be achieved on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This often leads to staff not understanding why they have to do what they are being asked to do, or how what they are doing will lead to the improvement.

How can we avoid the damage that can be caused by a vision?

The why and the how: focus on sharing “the why and the how” to create an identity within your team. While a vision can purely be seen as a call to action, it can be exemplified into a more powerful tool by breaking down why we need to do what we aim to do, and how we plan to achieve these aims.

A clear why has the ability to be a large motivational pull; it allows motivational factors to be direct, focussed on the work, rather than indirect, focused on external factors. It can be helpful to consider staffs motives when completing work:

Motivational factors:Direct
Purposefulthe outcome of the work matching your purpose
Passionthe act of completing the work itself is the motive
Potentialthe opportunity that the work provides you with is the motive
Motivational factors:Indirect
Inertiathis is work you have always done, so will continue to do
Emotionalemotional pressure such as guilt drives the need to work
Economicwork is completed to gain rewards or avoid punishment

We want people to implement plans and initiatives as the motives are direct and related to the work they are doing. The role of our expertise as leaders is crucial here; we need to know, and be able to fluently and precisely articulate, why the work we are doing is so important and the impact it can have. By having rich expertise in the area they are leading, leaders can clearly communicate the why behind the direction of travel.

Sharing a clear and credibly why behind the work has been shown to have a huge impact on the standard of work produced. In 2013 researchers asked approximately 2,500 workers to analyse medical images for objects of interest. Two groups were created; one was told their work would be discarded, while the others were told they were looking for cancerous tumour cells. Payment was based on the number of images analysed. The group that was giving a meaning to their work, a clear why, spent more time on each image, being paid less, but provided work of higher quality. A clear why can help move people from indirect, economic motivates, to direct, purposeful motives.

A detailed how ensures that the path to achieving what is set out in the why is clear. For example, if implementing new curriculum plan the how would need to detail:

How are we going to implement the curriculum changes we have planned? What is the timeline? How does this tie in with other jobs outlined for the year? How are we ensuring that resources are not being squeeze? How are we going to check that the plans are on track? What are the milestones and how will we assess ourselves against them?

By leaders asking themselves these questions when designing and presenting plans, they put flesh on the bones of the why, identifying for staff the steps that are needed on the journey of improvement. It also allows staff to see the wood through the trees, especially when plans are being implemented in times of uncertainty.

Switching to “holding”: use your knowledge of your team to know when they need institutional and interpersonal holding, especially in times of uncertainty. Holding is a term in psychology, describing the process of interpreting and containing what is happening in a time of uncertainty. These could be times such as those we are in now, of national uncertainty, but they could also be times of local uncertainty, with changes in leadership of schools or drops in performance data.

In uncertain times a vague, misaligned, or irrelevant vision can be harmful. Even a clear “why” can make leading staff difficult to manage. Therefore, in times of uncertainty, it is important to focus on institutional holding by strengthening structures and exemplifying the culture of the organisation, and interpersonal holding where leaders model vulnerability, providing permission for staff to feel what they are feeling discussing openly and freely with staff how they will find their way through these times. Holding allows the why’s and how’s to be adapted, adjusted and refined together, as an organisation, lowering the anxiety that the uncertainty brings.

Why is knowledge important?

A large amount for an effective vision, underpinned by a clear why and how, is dependent on knowledge. Knowledge of the areas that we are leading, knowledge of how this looks in practice, knowledge of our teams and how they are feeling, and knowledge of ourselves and the conditions we need to move forward with plans. With a richer base of knowledge on which a vision is based, it evolves beyond a vision, and becomes the unwritten rules of an organisation guiding its improvement.

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