Leadership Styles in Education | Case Study

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Did the leadership style of James Hawkes have a positive impact at Greenfield Primary School?  Did James Hawkes leadership strengths outweigh his weaknesses?

In 1998 Greenfield Primary School was served a notice to improve by the Department of Education. James Hawkes arrived to the school in 1999 as Headteacher. This case study will analyse his strengths and weaknesses of leadership and whether his leadership style had a positive impact on the school.

To set the scene, Greenfield Primary School had been through a torrid time. There had been a series of weak leaders and this had created a great deal of uncertainty at the school. Staff were despondent, many were considering leaving and a number were nearing retirement. Morale, expectations and output were low. Teaching was weak in many areas and results were decreasing year by year. The school was in a fragile, vulnerable position. When the Headteacher post was advertised, due to the sorry state of affairs, there was limited response. Any prospective candidates were soon put off by the obvious problems which were apparent as soon as they walked in.  James was different; he was prepared to take on the challenge. He sensed it was going to be tough and had the desire to make his mark; he made it clear he would be in it for the long haul and was determined to make the school successful. This desire and commitment turned out to be integral to his leadership style.

James had been successful in previous positions and had a natural need to achieve.  McClelland (1961) researched the need for personal achievement and how this originated from the traits of early man. He believed that achievement led to wanting more achievement. ‘Common-sense psychology might suggest that the more a man eats, the more he wants to eat, in exactly the same sense that the more a man achieves, the more he must want to achieve. (McClelland, 1961, p37).  James aspired to achieve success in this new role.

To some observers James was a natural leader. They thought he had the qualities and characteristics of a leader. James had been in leadership positions previously.  He presented as confident, determined, intelligent and decisive. This poses the question that perhaps leadership qualities were in James’ genes? The Theory of Trait leadership identifies personality traits that are linked to successful leadership. ‘Leaders are distinguished by the traits or attributes they display, such as integrity and trustworthiness’ (Van Vugt and Ahuja, 2010, p24). Trait Theory assumes that leaders are born and not made and that individuals who make good leaders have the necessary combination of traits.  Stogdill (1974) suggested that Trait Theory was inaccurate and went on to identify the traits and skills critical to successful leadership. Stogdill believed that a successful leader’s characteristics must be relevant to the demands of the situation. He argued that an individual does not become an effective leader just because he or she has certain traits. James certainly had many natural traits that would undoubtedly support his leadership role and these were advantageous, however this did not mean he would necessarily be successful.

James inherited a complex group of colleagues to work with, who had been subjected to a succession of weak leadership. Van Vugt and Ahuja (2010) argue that humans have an innate ability to follow. They argue that it is human’s default setting. They describe that early man made very quick decisions on whom to follow and that this was linked to survival. They identified that ‘followership’ is engrained in the human psyche and that there was basic understanding that it was safer to be in group. Those individuals that were inclined to go it alone had less chance of survival. Van Vugt and Ahuja (2010) hypothesise that people are

more likely to follow a leader when they (a) believe group unity is under threat, (b) don’t know what to do or think, and (c) aspire to a leadership position. Many stakeholders at the school were desperate for an effective leader. A lack of direction and strong leadership had been features at the school for too long and were recognised as being at the core of the problems. 

Although James had led before, this was a new, unknown environment. The situation in this school was very different to that of his previous workplaces (education settings and non- educational settings). Research shows that successful leadership has irrefutable links with the current situation. ‘What is required by the leader will always be influenced by the situation’. (Coffee and Jones, 2006, p11).  A style of leadership that works in one situation does not necessarily work in another.  Coffee and Jones (2006) also argue that ‘situation sensing’ is central to successful leadership. It was imperative that James was able to understand the current situation at the school as well as being able to adapt and adjust as situations changed.

As soon as James started at the school he scheduled meetings with all stakeholders. He wanted to find out what made staff ‘tick’ and if they were likely to work with him or if they could be barriers to improvement. It was also an opportunity for stakeholders to communicate where they felt the school was. In his role as leader this was an integral starting point to building his understanding of the school. This is the key to the success of any leader, it is so important to know your audience. Buck (2018, p21) identified ‘asking first’ as a very important habit.  ‘If you want to understand yourself and your context better, you need to ask questions of yourself, others and your context.’ (Buck, 2018, p264). Covey (2006) also agrees that to ‘Listen First’ is imperative to successful leadership.

These discussions provided an invaluable insight into where the stakeholders were.  It was clear which staff were disillusioned and not in the least interested in yet another new leader. There were those who were keen to move forward and those who were indifferent. It helped James identify their strengths and weaknesses. From this research, the knowledge he had gained from other sources, coupled with his own principles and values he very quickly developed a long term vision and strategy. ‘Only by doing this are you in a position to identify what you need to make your priorities for action. And only then can you decide on how you will implement these priorities: your leadership approach’ (Buck, 2018, p264).

Goleman (2000) is in agreement and highlights that seeing the big picture is integral to strong leadership. This enables leaders to plan and strategise effectively.  It also means one can create a strong, more stable culture because implementation is properly thought through and not rushed.  Kotter (1996) also argues that vision is central to success. He felt without a strong vision, success was impossible. ‘Without an appropriate vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing, incompatible, and time –consuming paradox that go in the wrong direction or nowhere at all (Kotter, 1996, p4). James’ vision was pivotal to his success.

James very quickly articulated his vision to all stakeholders, ensuring that he met with the Senior Leadership Team and Governors first. It was evident to all stakeholders that he had key principles and beliefs. He made it very clear that he would stand up for these beliefs whatever was thrown at him. Kouzes and Pozner (2002) highlight this as integral to a leader’s success. They point out finding one’s voice is absolutely critical to becoming an authentic leader. James was very driven and had a set of very clear values. They highlight how important values are in terms of keeping leaders motivated and focussed. Kouzes and Posner (2002) also refer to the research they carried out regarding asking thousands of people to list historical leaders they admired. The overwhelming response was that these leaders all had an ‘unwavering commitment to a set of clear values’ (Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p45).  James also demonstrated during these early days that he was able to undertake the three stages of self-expression. Kouzes and Posner (2002). These are looking out, looking in and moving on. These skills helped James with the next step of sharing his vision.

James made it clear that for the school to move on, a shared vision was essential. ‘Recognition of shared values provide people with a common language’ Kouzes and Posner (2002, p45). Buck (2018) is in agreement. ‘You can have a great group of staff that are really motivated, but if they aren’t pulling together in pursuit of a set of shared goals and with a shared strategy, you won’t’ achieve much. (Buck, 2018, p118). James had the necessary skills to articulate this vision and worked hard to ensure he had enough colleagues supporting him.

It was clear to all stakeholders from early on that James was going to make changes.  James had the courage to confront the truth. Leahy (2012) highlights this as imperative. He emphasises that not confronting the truth and letting a weak situation continue is disastrous. James wasn’t prepared to wait, to take too much time to ‘settle’ in. He knew that the school needed to move forward to improve; change was needed sooner rather than later, to retain the staff that were effective and to plug the steady flow of pupils that were leaving. James understood that making changes so soon was risky behaviour. He knew from experience that people do not like change. Buck (2018) highlights the importance of taking risks. Unfortunately, due to the turmoil the school had been in, colleagues had previously experienced ineffective attempts at change. They felt that this might be a repeat and this led to negativity. ‘They become suspicious of the motives of those pushing for transformation; they worry that major change is not possible without carnage; they fear that the boss is a monster.’ (Kotter, 1996, p17). 

James was also aware that change would take time and that he would need a great deal of stamina. Myatt (2016) points out that there are no quick solutions and that improvement takes time. James was acutely aware of this and often referred to the ‘journey’ the school was on. ‘There is no such thing as a quick fix, especially not in education. It is slow painstaking work.’ (Myatt, 2016, p62). Making changes requires courage and conviction. It also requires there to be an understanding of how others feel about change. Kotter (1996) also makes a similar point that that the main error leaders make when trying to change organisations is to plough ahead without the commitment of fellow managers and employees. For change to be successful there has to be a substantial number of stakeholders involved. He argues that these people have ‘a commitment to improve performance as a team’ (Kotter, 1996, p7). James could not make successful changes without a team of people believing in his vision and who were committed to the cause.

James demonstrated a transformational leadership style. Transformational leadership has origins in research from 1978 when James MacGregor Burns, often recognised as the founder of modern leadership theory, described a transformational leader as one who “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower.” (Burns, 1978, p4)  James worked hard to gain the trust of his colleagues. As time went on, the majority of staff wanted to see improvement; there were colleagues that were fiercely loyal to the school and wanted it to be successful. Transformational leadership is strongly related to the commitment of colleagues, leading change and improving confidence. It focuses on how stakeholders can be motivated, managed and directed. Transformational leadership is based on the requirements of others, rather than the requirements of the leader.  James had a desire to achieve, but firmly believed that any success would be dependent on how skilfully he could shape stakeholders.

Goleman (2000) through research identified six leadership styles that executives used. These are all linked to different elements of emotional intelligence. These are: coercive – do what I tell you, authoritative – come with me, affiliative – people come first, democratic – what do you think? Pacesetting- do as I do, now and coaching- try this (Goleman, 2000, p11). Goleman believed that four out of the six had a positive effect, with coercive and pacesetting having a negative effect.

In the early days, some colleagues may have described James’s leadership style as coercive and this could have been seen as a negative attribute. ‘The coercive style should be used only with extreme caution in the few situations when it is absolutely imperative, such as during a turnaround’ (Goleman, p16, 2000). They thought he was demanding and unreasonable due to the high level of change he pursued at the beginning of his leadership.  James felt that some ‘difficult’ colleagues did require this approach and it was those who struggled to accept a new leader. His coercive style in this instance was to ensure compliance from colleagues to do what he expected.  However, overall James’s leadership approach, particularly at this stage, was predominantly an authoritative style. He wanted to make the school successful and for everyone to feel a part of that journey. He sensed that many colleagues were keen to see improvement due to the insecurity of the school. ‘This style works especially well when a business is adrift’. (Goleman, 2000, p21). As time went on James began to use a mix of leadership styles, moving between them when necessary.

An obvious strength of James’s leadership style was that he never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. He modelled his own values through the way he behaved. He led by example, he worked hard and was totally committed. ‘Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behaviours they expect from others. ‘Leaders model the way.’(Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p14)

James was very well read and up to date with current thinking and educational initiatives. At the heart of James’s beliefs was his passion for teaching and learning He made it clear that teaching and learning were his priority. In his mind, this was more important than anything else and he was prepared to model this as much as possible. This was his first crusade. He made his expectations clear from the very beginning. He believed that through raising expectations of teaching and learning, results would improve which in turn would transform the success of the school. James regularly taught lessons and modelled good practice. He was involved in planning and assessment and when he had taught lessons, he marked the children’s work to the highest standard. He took responsibility for areas of the curriculum that staff found difficult and would teach those lessons regularly. He was a constant presence around the school taking part in the day to day by doing playground duty, helping at lunch time and running a club. He never tired of supporting colleagues and was prepared to relieve them of some of their workload, if he felt it was necessary. This feature of James’s leadership demonstrated integrity and earned him credibility. ‘Many wise company bosses make a point of walking in employee’s shoes’ (Myatt, 2016, p39).

Predictably, some colleagues were still resistant. They didn’t want to make changes, or have to work harder or differently. When they voiced this James very quickly asserted his authority (using a coercive style). He was pleasant, but firm and made it clear that he would not be deterred.  Myatt (2016, p61) refers to the honesty and authenticity with which leaders

carry out their work and how this relates to the extent to which they get involved in essential, core tasks. One long serving, fairly senior member of the teaching staff continued to make life difficult for James and encouraged others to do the same.  James continued to work closely with this colleague in a variety of ways; teaching her class, inviting her to observe him, modelling his approach and marking her books. Eventually over time, through high expectations, he won the battle but it took a lot of energy and commitment. Ultimately it was this consistent approach that was the turning point with those more resistant colleagues. James was extremely skilled in not taking negative behaviour personally; he demonstrated excellent resilience in this area. He commanded respect, but did not spend time worrying if he was liked or not. This was evident and also encouraged the other staff to be more resilient themselves. Along with high expectations, this approach meant that eventually colleagues realised he was in it for the longer term. No matter how hard they made it for him, no matter how many times he was knocked down he would always dust himself off and carry on. Eventually those staff had to decide – were they with him or not?

Over time, James identified who he thought were his key players in terms of moving the school forward. One of his strengths was to spot potential in members of staff who had previously been overlooked or were young and experienced. These members of staff responded positively to his attention and were willing to step forward. This ability to talent spot was central to his success. Kouzes and Posner (2002) identified that exemplary leaders increase courage and confidence in others. James was able to encourage colleagues to build self- belief and to feel empowered.

James was also good at saying thank you to colleagues and tried to take time to get to know them.  ‘Noticing is one of the most powerful things that thoughtful leaders do’ (Myatt, 2016, p30). Myatt (2016) also points out that recognising the small achievements is just as important as the large ones.   Covey (2008), (cited in Buck, 2018, p153) is in agreement with Myatt ‘They respect the dignity of all staff members no matter what their role in school. Taking time to have a conversation with the caretaker who has a bad back is just important as comforting the Deputy’.

James was not scared to admit he was wrong or accept the consequences if he had made a mistake. If he had made an error, he made a point of identifying what the learning point was and what he would do next time. He analysed how the situation could differ and how he could avoid making the same mistake again. Myatt (2016) identifies this as an important trait for top leaders. Covey (2008) also highlights how making mistakes ultimately leads to improvement. This was strength and an approach that meant that those around him were more comfortable with making mistakes and were willing to take risks.

It is clear to see that James’s style of leadership encompassed a number of positive attributes. He had a range of strengths, but as with any leader there were areas of weakness. Every leader will have areas of weakness to work on. There were areas of James’s leadership style that were not so effective. This meant the journey the school was on took some wrong turns, experienced some bumps and setbacks along the way. It is worth considering how detrimental these weaknesses were to the success of the school. 

James lacked some interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Goleman (1996) researched emotional intelligence and argued that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ. He identified five key areas; knowing one’s emotions, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognising emotions in others  and handling relationships.  He argued that emotional intelligence offers an added edge.

James was emotionally intelligent in some areas. He was aware of his own emotions and was able to manage them. He was highly motivated and was able to handle relationships. An area of relative weakness, however, was that he couldn’t always read others’ emotions or moods. He could upset his biggest followers by not being able to gauge how they were feeling. On many occasions he would push people a little too far without realising. This could be in a situation where a colleague was working hard, doing a good job, but was only just managing. James would miss the cues that this person was on the edge and was on the verge of drowning. He wouldn’t detect the signs. He would perhaps give them one more task to do or ask why certain tasks were uncompleted which would push colleagues to their tipping point. ‘Recognising emotions in others is the fundamental people skill. People who are empathetic are more attuned to the subtle social signals that indicate what others need or want’. (Goleman, 1996, p43).

This sometimes resulted in upset and conflict. However, as individuals got to know him, they realised that it wasn’t intentional, but when they were already working beyond their capacity, in difficult circumstances, it became too overwhelming.  Over time and due to colleagues’ deepening faith in James, they were more aware of this weakness and became better at signalling this to him. They learnt to be more up front and assertive in these situations so that James was more likely to read the social cue. Of course, there were times when dealing with difficult colleagues that this lack of skill was useful. He didn’t notice the uncomfortable body language or someone’s face starting to flush red. He kept going regardless.

Daniel Goleman (2000) identified ‘The Pacesetting Style’ as one of the six basic leadership styles.  ‘The leader sets extremely high performance standards and exemplifies them himself.’  (Goleman, 2000, p35). James set high standards for himself and others, he did at times have a pace setting style and this was often detrimental. His drive to improve the school meant that at times colleagues felt overwhelmed. He had more energy and determination than most. His output was high, he was always on the go and even the most committed staff members could not always keep up. James often expected those around him to have similar energy levels and drive. ‘Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops’ (Goleman, 2000, p36). There were also occasions when he would sense that staff were overloaded and would end up taking over as a way to help. This often had a negative impact and would lower the morale of colleagues and could lead to increased frustration.

Another arguable weakness, linked to pacesetting, was that James often became involved in too many initiatives and tasks. This was linked to wanting to see rapid improvement and to raise expectations across the school. Leahy (2012,) highlights that this can be a weakness. Trying to achieve too much too soon will ultimately lead to ineffective leadership. ‘You have to accept there will be some trial and error. Because of this you must also avoid doing too much, all at once. Try pouring water down a pipe: too quick and you spill some, too little and you are there for ages’. (Leahy, p149, 2012). Leahy argues the importance of making sure a team is challenged and stretched, but not to the point to where staff lose confidence. James had to think about what was manageable over time and which tasks he could delegate as he had a tendency to take on too much himself. Buck (2018) is in agreement and points out that leaders often take too much on themselves and don’t always think enough about the delivery of strategy through other stakeholders. Myatt (2016) also points out that leaders need to delegate more and trust colleagues to take on tasks without being watched or stifled.

James wasn’t a natural finisher and was sometimes dis-organised.  This meant that some tasks were started, but not finished or even forgotten. This could become frustrating for those around him as colleagues spent time working on tasks that never came to fruition. It did, however, sometimes give the opportunity for other colleagues to step up to finish or to lead on tasks themselves. This also led to James delegating more to colleagues.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that James’s strengths in leadership did outweigh his weaknesses. His style of leadership led the school to be in a more successful place. His strength in leadership enabled him to create an environment that was successful academically as well as a happy cohesive place to work. James led the school out of Special Measures, through a number of inspections, to eventually becoming an Outstanding School. This was important as an external measure of what he had achieved. Importantly, James and his team had also transformed the school internally. This was now a school that parents and pupils wanted to be part of. The numbers of pupils on roll increased, colleagues were proud of the school and wanted to work there and recruitment became easier. The school became known as the school of choice in the area rather than the lesser option.

James undoubtedly had his weaknesses too, as does every leader. What was important that as his role developed, he became more aware of these and was able to identify where his Senior Leadership Team could plug the gaps. The Senior Leadership Team, over time knew where they needed to step up (e.g. to warn James when a member of staff was fragile) to complement James’ style.  Being aware of weaknesses also became important during recruitment; James and the Senior Leadership Team knew what qualities and skills they were looking for and built a well-equipped team.

Therefore, it can be argued that James’ leadership style did have a positive impact at Greenfield Primary School, but it is important to note that each leadership role is different. Research demonstrates that leadership is not an algorithm that can simply be followed.  Leadership roles require a range of styles and strengths to be used at different times. Every leader has their own strengths and weaknesses and effective leaders will progress and develop as their role continues. James demonstrated that he was able to adapt successfully as his role developed. Coffee and Jones (2006) refer to ‘inspirational tension’. They point out that leadership relies on being able to handle these tensions, for example: by being brave enough to show strengths and weaknesses and knowing when to intercept and when to leave situations alone. James demonstrated that on the whole he was effective at ‘situation sensing’ (Coffee and Jones, 2006, p25) and was able to identify the correct style for the correct situation. 

Buck (2018) refers to Goleman’s six leadership styles and agrees with Goffee and Jones (2006). He points out that for leaders to be successful; they must dip in and out of styles and use different styles as a role develops. He explains that styles that suit at the beginning of a role may not work as the demands and situations change. ‘The leadership habits that serve them well at the start of a journey failed to meet the necessary adjustments along the way. (Buck, 2018,  p257).

James demonstrated that he developed a range of leadership styles that he used flexibly over time. At the beginning of his leadership he very much led from the front. Many colleagues looked to him for direction, particularly after years of weaker leadership. During his leadership he developed, adapted and built a system that worked internally. ‘The most effective leaders shift leading in front of the team to leading the team from within’(Buck, 2018, p267).

Coffee and Jones (2006) also conclude that in their view there are no comprehensive leadership characteristics and what is effective for one leader will not necessarily be effective for another.  In this situation James’s leadership style proved to have a positive impact.

Greenfield Primary School had been on a journey and after several years of James’ leadership was unrecognisable from the school he had taken over many years before.

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