Empowering Leaders Interview Series: Prof Erica McWilliam – Leadership Challenges


In our Empowering Leaders Interview Series, you will hear from each one of the outstanding speakers we have lined up for the exclusive Empowering Leaders Masterclass on May 26 & 27 on the many different perspectives you need to become a strong leader.

In this interview, Prof Erica McWilliam delves into the challenges facing school leaders and gives us a taster of the ‘attentional economy’ she’ll be addressing during the masterclass.

What do you think some of the big challenges are facing school leaders?

Today’s VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex & ambiguous) work culture challenges all leaders and managers, but particularly those with responsibility for the health and safety of minors. Risk minimization sucks up huge amounts of time and energy in schools, time and energy that distract from the work of optimising the learning culture. If learning is about taking risks, and child custody is about protecting against risk, then school leaders can expect to find themselves straddling contrary imperatives almost on a daily basis. Added to this mix are the contrary demands of vertical line management roles and the sort of horizontal leadership needed to sustain robust learning networks. No slick or easy answers!

Within all this, the big imperative for leading learning is towards creating a space for innovation and personalisation of education within a larger policy framework that increasingly seeks to standardise.  A related challenge involves the need to help teachers understand and accept more responsibility for the impact of their classroom practices on student engagement and learning.

When it comes to leadership, what SHOULD educators pay attention to?

Leadership is a term that is thrown like a blanket across a number of disparate roles in a school. However, I do think that Bill Martin’s work is useful for thinking about this question, because it can be ‘translated’ depending on the role (principal or deputy or faculty head or lead teacher).

He says that there are 5 things educational leaders need to pay attention to. They are, in order of importance: Vision (what do we stand for?), then Mental Models (What image of an effective teacher/leader/student etc?), then Systematic Organisation (Do structures serve to optimise the vision?), after which come Behaviours and Events. Martin argues that effective leaders spend 85% of their time concerned with the first 3, and only 15% concerned with the last 2. Very hard to do. Even with the best of intentions, capable leaders still find themselves constantly reacting to behaviours and events that are thrown up by the VUCA culture and the daily life of schools.

Are there specific qualities needed to move into higher leadership roles?

Trustworthiness as well as trust-giving. Curious, intentional, determined. Leaders need to be able to model these qualities as well as support their development in others.

Everyone is so busy these days, how do you suggest people find time to nurture their own leadership qualities?

Yes, people are busy but not always productive. It is important to make a distinction between problems to be solved and conditions within which we need to manage ourselves and others in the service of learning. Time poverty is a condition of our times, not a problem we can solve. Leaders need to acknowledge that and work within it as players not pawns in the educational game. I will be exploring some of the ways we can do this in the Masterclass.

Give us a taster of the ‘attentional economy’ that you’ll be exploring in your session…

I use research done by one principal of a large girls’ school, who mapped her ‘attentional economy’ over a period of 6 weeks. She was concerned about her inability to give attention to the learning culture of the school, and so created a pie chart to see where all her time/attention was going, and to decide where and how to make an intervention. We will use this pie chart in the Masterclass as a ‘for instance’ of a leader’s attentional economy, while acknowledging that not all leaders have the same demands, nor the same autonomy, as a principal.

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