Leadership Tips #1

Following on from the blogpost about Team GB Cycling, here are some more thoughts from the team leader Sir Dave Brailsford which I have attempted to tweak and make relevant for a school context.

1.       Do the simple things excellently.

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi was quoted as saying that “excellence is achieved by the mastery of the fundamentals.” Some fifty years on, this principle remains true. Brailsford is often quoted that the 2010 Tour de France team concentrated on the “peas rather than the steak.” He explains this by saying that his team spent hours focussing on all of the really clever touches (the peas) and missed really working on the basics of performance (the steak). The results were a poor, and led to a humiliating return from the race. So many teams fail to really focus on doing the basics better than the competition.

In your school, are the basics embedded, reviewed, refined, modelled, celebrated as part of a continuous cycle of improvement? As a new teacher, where would I find the details of what your basics are: do I need to read your mind; are they covered through induction; will it form part of the first wave of coaching; is there a checklist I can use to help; who can I see that models it well; how will I know I have been successful?

In your school, is what you are doing the right thing… is it making a positive difference? I know from personal experience that it is easy to get sucked into tasks and meetings that make no difference to staff or children. How much of your diary each week is blocked out so that you can get into classes and see what is happening? How often each week do you spend time talking to pupils? Are your meetings focused on progress towards your identified improvement targets, or are they consumed with day to day management trivia? 

2.       Optimise talent with a dynamic, fun and challenging culture.

David Walsh (of the Sunday Times) talked of how he had seen Sir Clive Woodward’s 2003 rugby team at close hand. He had also spent time with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams but had never seen a team work with the quality and professionalism anywhere in the world that he witnessed when living with Team Sky. Brailsford explained that it is “incredible what you can do with the right people” when you optimise your talent in a dynamic, challenging, fun and energetic culture. He is adamant that people create the culture and selection is, therefore, essential to that process. Get the right people on the bus, in the words of Jim Collins in Good to Great, and your culture will be formed.

Are there opportunities built into your week/timetable that allow staff to get together and have fun? Are there challenges in the staff meetings when looking at new initiatives? Do you invest in meaningful team building opportunities? Would I hear any laughter in your school? Do leaders bounce down the corridors, smiling and greeting people cheerfully – who is making the weather in your school?

Everyone in your school will say they are a professional. But do you have a common understanding of what that means? Is it written into a professional standards charter so that you all know what you have signed up to and are prepared to be held accountable to it? Is it a set of standards and expectations that are mentioned at interview so that candidates know what they are signing up to… and it should be signing up to an inspirational professional statement, not a long list of ‘do this… do that’.

3.       Behavioural change only comes when either the suffering or reward is great enough.

This is a key part of Brailsford’s message. He is steadfast in the opinion that change can only happen from within. You can’t force change on an individual, they have to drive that attitude and it will generally only come when either the suffering is great enough or the reward big enough. As with many elite performers, Brailsford is driven by the terror of losing rather than the joy of winning. In his own words, he “doesn’t do losing well.” A desire to avoid the suffering of losing, the “humiliation and incredible embarrassment” he felt in 2010, helped him to change his behaviour.

What will motivate your staff?


At Broadford – in 2011 – staff were motivated to improve by the desire to improve from the dire place they had been in during the inspection that led to Special Measures in 2010. As we moved forward with our vision, staff signed up to the desire to be ‘the best school on the Hill’, having been the worst for the previous 6 years. Gradually we honed this into a goal to ensure that our school did all it could to limit the impact of socio economic factors.   


Staff found the ‘Whale Done’ approach a great way to increase recognition for the job they, or members of their team were doing. Postcards are given out weekly by Team Leads and the Headteacher. They are then shared on the weekly blog and their acts of kindness, or above and beyond celebrated by our community.


We have worked with partner organisations to create great opportunities for staff: presenting at the BETT show for Google; speaking at EYFS conferences; leading workshops for Year Group Leads; taking part in Peer Reviews; videoing their practice to feature on the Read Write Inc website; entering the TES awards… what opportunities are you providing that would make your school stand out, and help develop staff?


For some teachers – who are new to the school –  the idea of being observed weekly/fortnightly can be quite intimidating. However once it is established that the sessions are teacher led, last for 15mins, generate bitesize next steps (led by the teacher) and lead to regular supportive conversations around developing and strengthening practice they are SOLD! It means that they can see rapid gains in their practice; feel motivated by the time given by SLT; are in charge of their own development. Marry this with professional reading libraries; joint reading groups; a long term CPD strategy and entitlement and staff will be motivated by all the ways that the school tries to develop them as professionals.

4.       Give ownership and appeal to the mature side of the team.

Another feature espoused by Brailsford is ownership. Appeal to the mature side of the team.

  • do not try to tell. Brailsford “rarely likes to be told how to do things” and wouldn’t react well to being shouted at.
  • focuses on respect – not shouting and being ready to prompt with questions rather than preach with dictatorial commands.
  • helps to provide the culture of trust and ownership so clearly prevalent in his teams.

How often do staff have a chance to voice their opinion about how the school is performing and could move forward?

  • is there a regular (annual) staff survey? Are the results shared with teams? Do leaders tackle the issues raised? Is everyone aware of how they can contribute to improving the areas for development?
  • do teams have regular (fortnightly) chances to check on progress (not pupil progress/assessment)? Are they looking at their role in aspects of the school improvement plan? Can everyone articulate how they are helping to make a difference? Are there team goals identified in the coaching program that everyone is working on? Are staff reading from the same professional book and sharing ideas?
  • when do SLT & Middle Leaders get to meet – in a scheduled, meaningful way – to work on what needs to be done next?
  • have you established a culture where the newest and youngest teachers have as much of a voice and are valued as much as those who are more experienced and have been there longer? Do ideas get genuinely discussed, or are there people who ‘shoot down’ challenges to the status quo?
  • is there an agreed ‘professional charter’ so that all staff are working to transparent and shared standards
  • are leaders acting as highly visible role models for those standards? Do staff feel confident to challenge if they are aware of standards being missed – in one school we tried to be open about challenging grammatical errors when speaking to ensure we were modelling language effectively for pupils. At Broadford & Mead leaders modelled walking the corridors, engaging with pupils, smiling and creating positive weather!

5.       Success can be corrosive and failure hugely motivational.

Few coaches manage to maintain their position at the summit. In the Premier League only two teams have managed back to back titles since 1992. In the HMCI Annual Report 2017, of the 141 Outstanding schools inspected, only 2 stayed as Outstanding. However Brailsford has specialised in maintaining a high standard of performance: London followed Beijing, Froome followed Wiggins. He has become a master of the monopoly.

Planning for success is, in his mind, essential. Too many schools, companies and people fall away when they reach the top. Their attitude changes as they gain the trappings of success and an arrogance is born that wasn’t there as they hungered to climb their Everest.

Are you open to consistently reviewing how all aspects of the school work: back office functions; job descriptions; policies; technology; approaches to maths; planning? Some schools found a recipe for success that led to an Outstanding grade in 2008… and they haven’t been inspected since. Has practice and understanding evolved in the last 10 years, or are they still doing the same? Is 10 year old practice still good enough – how do you know?

Does your school regularly go out and visit other settings in a systematic way? Are visits linked to your own Self Evaluation? What questions are you going to ask before you go? Do you let the school know so that they can prepare… or do you just show up and have a tour? What feedback is there when you get back to school? How will you implement any principles that you have identified… and what impact will you be looking for?

Are you brave enough to stop doing GOOD things so that you can do GREAT ones instead? There is a post from David Didau on this topic

Could you work with other schools to create a meaningful Peer Review programme that would support your self evaluation and improvement processes? We have worked with the Education Development Trust to establish one amongst a partnership of 8 schools – all from different areas of the Local Authority. It means there is an ongoing cycle of improvement and you get professional challenge and insight from colleagues with fresh eyes.

Do you put yourself forward to work with schools who need support? By partnering with another school you can benefit from refreshing your ideas or recognising great new ones in their practice. Partnering Mead & Broadford led to a complete review of how we address behaviour, use Google G Suite, approach writing and define leadership responsibilities… to the benefit of both schools.

Do you have the courage to roll out some ideas before they are fully formed? Some leaders are understandably reluctant to launch before they have dotted every i and cross every t. But that means that a lot of time can be lost. Apple don’t worry if the software isn’t perfect. iOS will roll out on phones… and then the updates follow. It allows for evolution, not revolution in practice: iOS 12, iOS 12.1, iOS 12.1.1… all incremental improvements that are identified as you begin to use and test the product/idea.

Are leaders humble and recognise the circumstances that have contributed to their success? At Broadford we were able to have rapid impact as funding was amazing. When the school went into Special Measures it triggered £100,000 in improvement funding. That was a huge factor. SEN progress was incredible for three years as there were some high performing autistic pupils who struggled to integrate but were amazing at Maths. Community links were easier to achieve due to a highly active and committed local Reverend who led lots of programmes. If you start to believe that it is all due to you… arrogance can set in and that is destructive. Equally there will be factors that mean that failure to reach targets isn’t your fault… don’t beat yourself up over factors that you can’t control. You can identify them, try to mitigate against them, but ultimately you only have the children 13% of the time. In an area of high deprivation the outside forces and many and powerful. It is possible to do the right things and still not get the win you expected – don’t take it personally, review, evaluate and move forward.

Success cannot be allowed to be corrosive. Failure is not terminal but a driver to drive forward and be used as motivation to succeed.


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