Friday 16 March 2018

School Leaders, Crisis Management and Putting Out Fires - what can be done?

In a recent DfE (2018) report senior leaders described their role as ‘akin to ‘crisis’ management much of the time:’ (p21).  My intention is this post is to help senior leaders develop and implement a set of principles which can help prevent most crises and reduce the time senior leaders spend ‘fire-fighting’.  To help do this I am going to draw up work of Bohn (2000) who identifies a set of circumstances when ‘fire-fighting’ has become chronic within an organisation.  Bohn then goes on to provide a model of fire-fighting  and suggests three methods for reducing the amount of firefighting within an organisation.

Are you working in an organisation where ‘fire-fighting’ has become the norm?

Bohn suggests that you are working in an organisation where ‘fire-fighting’ has become the norm if you are the victim of three of the following elements
  • There is not enough time to solve problems
  • Solutions are incomplete
  • Problems recur and cascade
  • Urgency supersedes importance
  • Many problems become crises
  • Performance drops 

Before looking at how to prevent ‘fires’ I’m going to look at a simple model which shows the effects of fire-fighting syndrome.

The effects of fire-fighting syndrome - amended form Bohn 

The consequence of this model is that firms/schools are trying to solve more problems than they have resources to deal with.  Sometimes this leads to minor problems being put to one side or it can consume an organisation’s (school) resources and lead to some of the organisation’s (school’s) best problem leaving through say frustration and burn out. 
How to  prevent fires?

Bohn argues that instead of putting a place ‘quick fixes’ leaders and managers should focus on three specific and systematic methods.

Add temporary problem solvers
If possible draft in resources (people) to try and address the issue

Shut down operations
Can an activity be shut down to give time to fix the problem
Perform triage
Admit that some problems won’t be solved for a while and commit resources to those that are important and can be solved
Change design strategies
Try and come up with generic approaches to new development can be used in multiple circumstances and types of issues 

Solve classes of problems
Look for groups that can be solved together – rather than individual diverse problems

Use learning lines
When running ‘pilot’ projects don’t set up special groups with additional resources, try and implement within a normal situation

Develop more problem solvers
Get more people involved in solving problems
Don’t tolerate patching
Leaders must focus and support real permanent solutions rather than look for the quick fix

Don’t push to meet deadlines at all costs
Can you be flexible on deadlines -measure projects by looking at outstanding issues and problems

Don’t reward fire-fighting
Identify and support those colleagues who are good at preventing fires and engage in long-term problem solving.  Don’t give prominence to those colleagues who are constantly putting out fires

And finally

Although it's never easy to move from a fire-fighting mode to an approach which is more proactive - it's only ever going to get done if leaders begin to prioritise resources to address underlying issues - rather than constantly responding with a quick-fix.  Although school leaders may not be able to choose the external or internal pressures that create crises, school leaders can choose how they are going to respond and whether these problems are resolved or just swept under the carpet.


Bohn, R. (2000). Stop Fighting Fires. Harvard Business Review. 78. 4. 82-91.

DfE. (2018). Exploring Teacher Workload: Qualitative Research Report: March 2018. London. Department for Education

Sunday 11 March 2018

Expert leadership, headteachers and multi-academy trusts

In this week’s post I will examine whether the chief executive officers of multi-academy trusts should previously been the headteacher of a school.   To help do this I’m going to use the work Goodall (2016) and Goodall and Bäker (2015) on how expert leadership and technical competence has been shown in many settings to be connected with better organisational performance.  I’ll then go onto amend Goodall and Baker’s model of expert leadership for use in schools and multi-academy trusts.   Finally, I’ll consider the implications of the model for the appointment of chief executives of multi-academy trusts.

Expert leadership and organisational performance - evidence from hospitals and universities

Goodall (2016) identifies a number of settings – hospitals and universities – where studies have shown that there is a correlation between the ‘expert knowledge’ of the leader and organisational performance.  For example, in hospitals the presence of a physician chief executive as opposed to a professional manager was associated with 25% higher quality scores.  Although interestingly nurse leaders as chief executives were statistically indistinguishable from professional managers.  In universities research also suggests that the most respected scholars lead the best universities with the quality of the research quality of those universities improving in subsequent years.

As such, these and other studies indicate there is a strong relationship between a leader’s knowledge and expertise in its’ core business activity.  In this next section, I will explore Goodall and Baker’s theory of expert leadership which seeks to explain why expert leadership may be linked with improved organisational performance

A theory of expert leadership

Figure 1 illustrates Good and Baker’s theory of expert leadership and how expert leaders transfer their influence. In particular how ‘experts’ compared to 'generalists' influence organisational performance by decision-making and the signalling of their expertise to internal and external stakeholders.
Decisions and actions

Goodall notes that there are three aspects of the model which potentially explain the performance difference between 'expert leaders' and professional managers.

Knowledge-based strategy This can be conceived as being directly influences by expert leadership - as the knowledge gained through the experience of being a headteacher.  As such, strategic choices are likely to be informed by the need to be put the needs of the pupil first.  The priorities of the expert leader/headteacher are in all likelihood going to be different from the professional manager.  In addition, expert leaders are likely to have engaged deeply with colleagues, pupils, and parents, which will inform operational and strategic choices.

Manage the work environment for employees - Expert leaders/headteachers, will invariably have come up with 'through the ranks' and experienced the day to day working conditions of teachers.  They will all  understand teachers professional cultures and values far more deeply than non-experts and professional managers.  This means that working conditions - such as performance appraisal systems, goal-setting and support of teachers is far more likely to be associated with teacher well-being.  They will also have a greater understanding of performance indicators - be they formal and non-formal - which suggest changes in underlying performance.

Hiring behaviour - It becomes much easier to hire 'talent' if the expert leader has already met the standard set by the organisations.  All other things being equal outstanding expert leaders may be more likely to recruit other outstanding individuals.

Expertise as a signal

Goodall again notes three aspects of how expertise as a signal may directly or indirectly impact on organisational performance.

Signalling credibility to current employees - expert leaders and are more likely to command respect because of their track record of success as a headteacher and the business of teaching and learning.

Signals credibility and strategic priorities to potential employees - as the external reputation of the expert leader may be one of the few bits of information that a potential employee may be able to pick-up about the organisation

Credible to stakeholders - finally the board of a multi-academy trust may wish to appoint a noted expert as way of signalling to stakeholders and others

Some initial observations about the theory of expert leadership

First, measuring the impact of increases in expert leadership on organisational performance is a complex issue, which illustrated by the work of Simkins, Coldwell, et al. (2009) on the impact of leadership development programmes ( proxy for expert leadership)  on student outcomes  and who state:

  • outcomes are complex, difficult to specify in simple terms and may include unintended or unexpected consequences (both positive and negative) as well as intended ones …
  • the most important effects are indirect, occurring through the leaders’ influence on others who, in turn, can influence desired final school outcomes;
  • these effects do not occur instantaneously – it takes time for learning to become embedded in changed behaviour, for leaders’ influence processes to have effects on others, and for these changes to impact on teaching and learning and hence on pupil outcomes; p36
Second, if one of the main mechanisms expert leaders have on organisational is strategic choices, then this will require professional judgment.  However, as Duke (2018) notices very little attention has been paid to how and if educational leaders can be trained to develop the quality of their professional judgment.  This is an issue that I will turn to in future posts.

Third, it is important to be aware of the difference between the rhetoric and the reality of being credible to stakeholder.  Leaders may come across as being expert, may be able to argue persuasively and passionately for their vision and strategic priorities and convince stakeholders and others of the veracity of their views.  That said, there are plenty of examples to be had of so-called expert leaders wearing the emperor’s new clothes.  Where so called style and charisma has hidden deep and profound flaws in expert leadership.

Four, remember it's not enough be an expert leader it is essential to be a highly effective manager - who is able to do 'nuts and bolts' tasks associated with management.  Indeed, it maybe this 'professional'  competence which creates the conditions for the expert leaders to flourish.  It could be argued that schools themselves provide far too many examples of where headteacher expert leadership - without this basic managerial competence - has led to schools not fulfilling their potential.

Five, it is worth remembering that although leadership - as Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins (2008) is second only to classroom teaching as a school level influence on pupil learning - it accounts for a very small percentage of the difference in performance between schools - once pupil background is taken into account.

Six, whilst it may be appealing to believe that multi-academy trusts should be led by expert leaders – those who have a deep professional background in education such as headteachers – it’s only when long-term research has taken place – comparing the results obtained by expert leaders and professional managers that we will have any kind of substantive evidence-base with which to inform the appointment of chief executives of multi-academy trusts.  Up until then - it's probably best not to cherry-pick the evidence in accordance with our professional preferences.

And finally

In future posts I will continue to look at how leaders can directly influence employee motivation and well-being through the impact of perceptions of procedural and interactional justice.


Duke, D. L. (2018). Judgment and the Preparation of Educational Leaders. Journal of Research on Leadership Education. 0. 0. 1942775117752455.
Goodall, A. H. (2016). A Theory of Expert Leadership (Tel) in Psychiatry. Australasian Psychiatry. 24. 3. 231-234.
Goodall, A. H. and Bäker, A. (2015). A Theory Exploring How Expert Leaders Influence Performance in Knowledge-Intensive Organizations. In  Incentives and Performance.  Springer.
Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2008). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. School leadership and management, 28(1), 27-42. 

Simkins, T., Coldwell, M., Close, P. and Morgan, A. (2009). Outcomes of in-School Leadership Development Work: A Study of Three Ncsl Programmes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 37. 1. 29-50.