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How to harness the power in school leadership 

First published in TES Magazine on 2nd March 2022.

The act of successful management in a school is ultimately the act of successfully leading all those around you.  

This is why the words “collaboration”, “partnership” and “relationship” are regularly cited.

It is not very often that we hear the words “power” and “influence” in relation to school leadership, as they can conjure up images of office tyrants or micro-managers that are the worst of the working world.

But, if we really think about the act of leading, we need to explore these concepts because they are inherent to leadership and cannot be avoided if we are to meaningfully, intentionally and ethically deliver for our staff and our schools.  

The truth about ‘power’ in school leadership

Let’s start, then, with a most uncomfortable idea: that of power.  

For me, I have historically associated this idea with the murky world of politics with its manipulation and game playing; an environment far from the authentic and ethical leadership I espouse. 

In my world, there is clearly no place for leveraging of power as we go about our vocational work of preparing future generations to be responsible global citizens.  

However, when it comes to being a great leader – or any leader, for that matter – I am wrong. Understanding and leveraging power for your core purpose is critical to leadership. In fact, you can’t lead without acquiring power and exercising influence.

It is an uncomfortable truth but leveraging power is the only means by which organisations and individuals can lead, can get things done. 

It is the individual’s ability to cause a change in the behaviour, beliefs, values or goals of others. We need to understand power and, critically, weave this understanding into all leadership development programmes – it’s leadership 101.  

And yet, we never talk about it.

Ways of thinking about power

There have been countless books written about management over the past 20 years or so.

But, for me, perhaps the most useful way to contextualise ideas around power and influence comes from almost 70 years ago: in 1959 French and Raven identified five forms of power in leadership, outlined below.

These were later categorised into two spheres of power (Lunenburg, 2012); positional (embodied in the position of the leader) or personal (embodied in the person of the leader):

  • Positional
    • Legitimate
    • Coercive
    • Reward
       
  • Personal
    • Expert
    • referent

For those who don’t feel they have the title of authority, the understanding of power is limited to the realm of “legitimate” power: their role title within an organisation gives them permission to direct others to carry out specific tasks within recognised duties. 

However, whilst there is a role for this type of power, it is extremely limited and has a narrow sphere of influence. 

This isn’t where the true power lies, and, as an early career teacher, it took me some time to realise this.

Equally, “coercive” power has limitations, too. The leader leverages the ability to hand out punishments, including reprimands, suspensions or dismissals. The threat of these organisational sanctions compels followers to conform to the leader.  

It can also be utilised individually through sarcasm and isolation.  

This may well get immediate responses but it will likely have a significant negative impact on discretionary effort – the bedrock of high-performing teams – as well as recruitment and retention, culture and school ethos, if applied universally. This is best avoided as a core strategy.

“Reward” is the flip side of coercion and can include both material and non-material rewards. 

Without getting on to the inflammatory discussion of performance-related pay in education, this aspect can be leveraged by anyone in any role; this is within your sphere of power.  

A comment about success, celebrating the impact of an initiative, recognising the individual, team or department can be the thing that makes the difference. 

This power needs to be leveraged authentically and appropriately, just as you would in a classroom.  

Your expertise is power

Now we get into the heady mix of personal power.

We all have the ability to leverage this – indeed, the role of personal power is where the real potential lies. 

This is empowering because it means that, no matter what role you have, you can influence and have impact – and it should not require permission to do so.

This is about taking your expertise and specialist knowledge and using it to influence – in a positive way – those around you. 

If you step back, this is actually something you and colleagues probably do every day, as every school relies on the expertise of its staff in all positions – from someone in HR to a subject expert in history to the caretaker. 

These people have power and influence from their specialist expert knowledge. This gives them the credentials to offer expert knowledge that leaders rely on and, in doing so, they have the power to impact significant developments and decisions about how we operate.

All staff in a school, whatever their role, should consider what specialism they bring and how to use this power.

This should give you confidence to share your expertise boldly and leverage this position and power for impact.  

It presents a significant opportunity to have power, and potentially influence, over your peers and your leaders within your field of expertise.

Winning friends and influencing people 

Finally, we come to “referent” power. This refers to the idea that how we act can win respect and admiration from followers. 

So when a leader is respected, positive relationships are formed and, from these, they can use influence and persuasion to motivate people.

Their ability to wield power and leverage change, to influence others, is strong. This type of power is not demarcated by title or role but by the relationships formed with others. 

Developing this aspect of positive network building across teams, departments and schools will stand you in good stead for the future, as well as giving you the opportunity to exert influence across the structures in your organisation.

For the most part, then, thinking about your “power” in a role and how you can use this to “influence” people should not be seen as a negative or something to shy away from.

In most instances, this power can be utilised to drive change and motivate, engage and inspire people. It can even be used to delegate decisions by giving space for the expertise – and therefore power – that all staff bring to a school.

Four tips to wield power wisely

For existing leaders – or those aspiring to the top – there are four things from this that I think are key for you to remember as your career progresses:

  1. Understand the positive importance of power in leadership.
  2. Know that title and permission do not necessarily equate to the power to make a difference.
  3. Realise your own strengths and expertise to drive significant change.
  4. Consciously and strategically leverage different forms of power for positive impact.

Understanding this and when and how to leverage each type of power will underpin your ultimate success – whatever your role may be.  

Power is intrinsically wedded to leadership and we need to know it ourselves. As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power, my dear – you just had to learn it for yourself.”

Liz Free is director and CEO of International School Rheintal, in Switzerland, an IB World School.

She is one of the speakers at the 2022 World Education Summit. Tes is the official media partner for the event. For more information or to book tickets, visit worldedsummit.com.

WES 2022 

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