The Art of Relationships-Led Leadership


This blog comes from the author of A Manifesto for Excellence in Schools and CEO of Inspire Partnership, Rob Carpenter (@carpenter_rob)

My first headship, at Bannockburn Primary School in Plumstead in 2003, saw me make more mistakes than I care to mention. It was also the period of my steepest growth and most valuable learning—starting with the headship interview.

As part of the process, I was asked to lead an assembly and attempted to deliver the ‘long spoons’ story—Google it if you haven’t used it before, it’s a good one—just don’t do what I did! On this occasion, it resulted in 250 pupils scrambling for sweets across the hall, all health and safety protocols abandoned as Governors watched in shock, clip-boards to hand.

Remarkably, they still appointed me—something which I will be forever grateful! The first two years in post were a bit of a mess, to be honest, but they set me up to understand the power of relational leadership. Having taught through the introduction of the literacy and maths hours, I was obsessed with national strategy implementation—the flat-pack-furniture-approach to school improvement.

This involved measuring anything that moved and lessons were timed to the minute. Teachers were judged and graded, depending on how slickly they could manipulate a counting stick or wave number fans around.

Staff meetings were instructional—the milkman delivery method of training, rather than a design model. As for recruitment, I appointed teachers like football managers sign new players: SLEs, advanced skills teachers and expert professionals were all on my shopping list. Star signings were unveiled to parents, staff and Governors with great fanfare. To my cost, I learned this doesn’t always make a cohesive team. I had unwittingly created a school culture crammed with Galácticos who didn’t want to play together!

These were expert teachers who preferred to teach with doors closed and who had a similar mindset towards learning. It taught me that it is better to have a school full of open-to-learning novices than closed-to-learning gurus!

Why Relationships are Key


Over the next ten years, I slowly learned that school improvement is about much more than strategy. Schools are complex, adaptive organisations, bound by relationships at every level. Bannockburn Primary School became a centre of excellence not by mandating change, but because we grew to become network and story-focused. By networked, I mean the way in which collaboration between teachers, schools and across the system defined our work.

On multiple levels, staff developed agency to make a bigger difference and worked closely in teams to support each other. Planning lessons became intrinsically social and organic. Ideas for lessons grew from putting children’s needs before what was in the schemes of work the government produced.

By 2011, the school expanded its roll by another 2 forms of entry, we became the focal point for the community, began supporting other schools and opened our doors to share best practice. By giving away our best school improvement ideas, it forced us to create new ones. Staff recruitment concentrated more on mindset rather than talent, which enabled us to strengthen relational leadership, building strong teams who worked for each other.

Storytelling Schools

This then allowed us to tell a powerful story of improvement. Stories in leadership are important: they have the potential to bind people together, connecting beliefs with action, engaging people emotionally, necessitating inter-dependence.

The most sustainable school improvement occurs when everyone sees themselves as investors, owners and creators of change—a very different approach to the national strategy days of instruction.

Storytelling schools create a values-led approach to the organisation of learning, including:

1. Recognising that learning communities are created when we concentrate on people’s gifts rather than deficiencies

2. Engaging all community members in the process of a common vision for learning

3. Understanding that success depends on everybody achieving

4. Knowing that sustained improvement is achieved only when learning communities are given the power and permission to act

5. Realising that lasting success is gained by harnessing social capital.

This matters even more because education attaches such high status to measurement of outcomes, which can stop us from focusing on what is harder to measure but which matters just as much. High-stakes accountability has resulted in schools learning that survival depends on maintaining good results, sometimes at a cost.

We have been suckered into a pre-occupation with cognitive development—linear, sequential, easier to measure—than more abstract, but equally important, concepts like self-regulation, motivation and collaboration.

Education reform has been framed around accountability and test outcomes, leading many schools to game the system in order to maintain a cognitive illusion of success. It has encouraged us to view pupils as objects to be counted—we ask what can pupils do for us instead of questioning what we can do for our pupils. It has been used to self-justify and reinforce political preference, reducing pupils to the outcome of a test.

Schools obsess with data reporting for external accountability. By contrast, Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code defines the combination of psychological safety, an openness to making mistakes and a shared commitment to organisational success as the optimal environment where everyone thrives. This necessitates that schools pay as much attention to staff behaviours, attributes and the quality of relationships as they do performance outcomes. See below:

Combined, these behaviours create belonging and increase trust. We learn to appreciate that success is a shared process, dependent on the work of the team, rather than on the individual. We also develop a more powerful understanding that delivering change is often not a linear or a simple transaction, but is bound by interaction.

It is our circle of influence which determines whether we get more things right than wrong. In other words, if we spend more time nurturing ‘culture’ rather than measuring success through the narrow lens of harsh accountability, we are far more likely to create an environment where everyone achieves.

Indeed, that is exactly what was highlighted by the 2017 Inspiring Teaching report. They compared other studies about the link between inspirational teaching and its effect on learning. Teachers who participated in the study demonstrated several key components including:

– Use of praise for effort

– Demonstrating warmth and empathy

– Showing respect for students

In effect, it is the climate and culture created in classrooms which determine outcomes for young people, as much as the subject knowledge or quality of differentiation.

The “Broadening Effect”


Their study findings were also fascinating in that what pupils, lesson observation outcomes and teachers expressed as essential ingredients to inspirational teaching synchronised unanimously. This includes:

– Positive relationships

– Good classroom / behaviour management

– Positive and supportive climate

When staff are collectively invested in each other’s successes, it has a powerful effect on how we think and feel about our own potential for growth and the trust we place in each other’s cultural capital.

This is what Shawn Achor describes as ‘the broadening effect.’ His phrase captures our human potential to see possibilities and potential both in ourselves and others, whereby increased levels of positive energy are achieved through striving for potential gains. It is a key theme of his book, The Happiness Advantage. In it he describes that happiness is defined not by yellow smiley emojis and rainbows, but by the positive emotions we create when achieving new goals.

Critically, the advantage comes from happiness—a mindset we cultivate in our schools by focusing on the right levels for impact on climate. The argument for happiness is this: When positive emotions broaden our scope for cognition and behaviour, they not only make us more creative, they help us build more intellectual and social and physical resources we can rely on in the future. Happiness gives us a chemical edge (the broadening effect).

Positive emotions flood the brain that not only make us feel good but dial up the learning centres of our brain to higher levels.They help us organise new information, keep that information in the brain longer and retrieve it faster.’

Developing Collaboration and Connectivity

Take Foxfield Primary School as an example. Thanks to my ‘useful learning mistakes’ at Bannockburn, when Foxfield was in placed in special measures, we managed to maintain drive and momentum to ensure rapid improvement, while at the same time, regulating how staff thought and felt during the turbulence.

There was clarity about what we cared most about—it was even defined by the language we used to evaluate successes. People were clear about the future which made it easier to engage others in a shared vision and deliver on promises to help the school improve. We introduced a wave of positive changes that supported collaboration and strengthened connectivity to both each other and the common cause to get out of an OFSTED category of inadequate. This included:

1. A staff dating wall so that teachers could post-it note what they could offer other teachers in leading school improvement and then what support they would like to receive in return. Staff then matched up what they could offer with the help that would improve their teaching.

2. Celebrating success displays to capture the impact of learning from both children and staff linked to our values and school improvement focus.

3. Sharing ‘good news postcards’ for children and staff. These were used to provide personal thanks and gratitude when discretionary effort was offered. Leadership team meetings started with a focus on culture and climate so we evaluated which people had been recognised for going the extra mile.

4. Leadership team meetings were opened up for staff to come along and pitch an idea for school improvement based on evidence and research they have conducted in their own classroom. Which in turn led to…

5. NQTs and recently qualified teachers developing peer-reviewed school self-evaluation whereby they would lead the formal monitoring processes, but report back to Governors and senior staff. This generated further discretionary effort and allowed staff to walk in each other’s shoes.

We need to champion a new kind of learning which focuses on teamwork, creativity and critical thinking. Rank position and league tables are inappropriate and often unreliable as a true measure of a school’s worth. They can be influenced by quite small differences in cohort scores, providing misleading information. A binary assessment model has done nothing to empower teachers to use their own judgement to identify pupils ’real next steps.

Across the globe, we are beginning to question whether assessment accountability has worked for all students and whether it has in fact become a barrier to meeting the inclusive needs of all pupils. Relationships-focused leaders lead with soul.

Like artists, they capture the small incidental moments which often pass unnoticed and build stories around these. The way pupils are welcomed into school, the phone call home to celebrate a learning milestone, the acknowledgement of a child’s resilience when struggling to learn a new concept. They don’t cut corners, they value the necessity of struggle and deliberately avoid the unethical practices of meddling in the dark arts of gaming results. For the artist, the journey of the craft displaces the final finished piece in significance.

In my years of working with School Leaders, I’ve learned that one of the most important skills any School Leader can have is the ability to effectively manage and nurture personalities and relationships within their school. This is because quite simply, when school relationships are positive – the outcomes tend to be more positive too.
Conversely, when relationships are strained or neglected, school teams can struggle to effectively work together and staff can find themselves increasingly becoming disconnected from what the school and their leaders are trying to achieve. In turn, leaders can find themselves spending a large amount of their time dealing with people management issues, rather than focussing on the more strategic aspects of the role.
Yet in spite of this, many leaders have not received significant training or opportunities to develop skills that could help them to deal with difficult conversations, identify how best to manage and maximise taff performance.
That’s why one of the key ways that we support School Leaders fulfil their vision is by offering a 4 Day Coaching Programme designed to provide Senior School Leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence to apply a range of coaching skills that can help improve the performance of those they lead and manage.
Our four-day coaching programme that will equip you with the skills for:
– Managing difficult conversations
– Understanding how to get the best out of individuals with challenging behaviours
– Understanding yourself better and knowing how to draw upon your strengths to get the best out of others
– Developing your relationship management skills by helping you understand how to identify and respond to different personality types
– Nurturing a Coaching Culture in your School so that you can support members of your team

Find out More



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