Every educational leader, regardless of position, has to wrestle with the powerful temptation to intervene or to meddle in the business of those whom they manage. The logic is fairly simple – “I’m being paid to manage and to be accountable for the work of others – so it’s reasonable that I take action in order to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.” Maybe it’s something to do with the Scottish work ethic that we feel there’s a need, in the inimitable words of Billy Connolly, to “dae sumthin”.
It’s perhaps one of the most addictive elements of management – “I can fix this” – as the manager learns to solve the problem through direct action. Unfortunately the hidden cost of such behaviour is that it helps to create a dependency culture as everyone comes to know that any problem belongs to the manager – and that the manager will “sort it”.
The ironic consequence of such a relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the manager complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with being a professional; and the managed complain that the manager is always interfering with solutions, policies and structures which run directly counter to their ability to do their job.
Yet to challenge such orthodoxy is much more difficult than one might imagine. The pressure to conform to the traditional role of the manager is almost overwhelming. Not to take action, is to be seen to be indecisive, lazy, cowardly, unimaginative or simply not being up to the job. In a similar vein the manager’s own boss has expectations about effective management behaviour and in many cases is expecting the manager to come up with a plan of action that is, most probably proactive, innovative and definitive. It’s this latter adjective which is the most telling in terms of the relationship between the manager and the managed. The definition of the word “definitive” in this sense is “final and unable to be questioned or altered”. In a sense this form of manager’s plan is the Holy Grail, that is something that can be passed on to others and is implemented without question.
Of course, things are never as simple as that for as we know others must carry out the manager’s plan and there exists “many a slip twixt lip and cup”, especially if the “managed” do not fully subscribe to the manager’s solution. It’s into this educational Middle-earth that the manager’s initiatives and centralised plans are launched only to be subverted, modified or ignored. And so it goes on with managers having to conform to their role by taking action, to which they are probably addicted anyway, and the managed expecting the action, criticising if no action is taken, but being free to criticise the action as they have played no part in it’s development.
So how might we help managers escape from the tyranny of the need to always “dae sumthin” in the face of a perceived problem? Perhaps a starting point might be for local authorities to shift from being action focused, i.e. we will implement, act, do; to becoming outcome focused and supporting and enabling the schools to work out the most appropriate action for themselves. The reality is that what works well in one school is not necessarily the best solution in another school. Yet the pressure to work out the universal solution and to implement it across an entire council is difficult to resist – particularly for those of us who have been addicted to taking action throughout our careers. That’s not to say that local authorities should never seek to implement an action across all schools but at the very least there should be a loop where we ask ourselves if our preferred course of action empowers or disempowers our colleagues in schools.
Nevertheless, Scottish education does appear to be thirled to the idea of “daen things”. It would be a brave person who wouldn’t back a highly technical, carefully managed and comprehensive plan to implement a course of action across every school in an authority, against a strategy which placed the decision about what type of action to take in the hands of the individual school.