Scaling The Ladder

The mark of a good leader


So, this is going to be the year the Chinese usher in the Water Dragon. I can almost feel its snort already.

The Chinese say it is a good year to get married, have a baby or start a business. It is a year of luck!

For the weekend of 28th and 29th January, I already have invitations to four weddings!

“Wow”, I thought, “people are really taking the dragon year seriously!”

In Eastern philosophy, dragons are honoured and respected.

People born in the dragon year are supposed to be self-assured, resourceful, adaptable and yet, generous.

Whether you are born a “dragon” or not, the qualities attributed to this creature are best put to the test when you are a leader at school.

I am often asked, particularly by young teachers, what is the best way to organise and lead effectively and efficiently.

From my experience, let me share with you the three factors that will make a crucial difference.


If you are the head, be it of a subject panel or a committee, you must provide clear direction which is the first factor.

When you set objectives and tasks for group members, give them a clear outline of the work expected of them.

They will include the dates by which you expect the tasks to be completed, documentation details and even, samples and examples.

I remember once that I had a young teacher to whom I had delegated the responsibility of organising a Science poster competition for the annual Science and Mathematics week.

One look at her face and I knew that although she was a university graduate, she was on shaky ground.

While other heads usually leave young teachers to their own devices, I sat down with her and briskly highlighted the salient points she needed to know, in order to conduct the whole exercise properly.

I was very specific – providing details of what she was expected to do – the what, where, when and how of it.

Once she was given the know-how, not only did she do a fantastic job, she soon shaped out to be a very dynamic performer.

If people under you lack clarity of purpose and action, or drive, energy and enthusiasm – your direction, or lack of it, is partly to blame.

In my experience, one of the best ways to get things done is to keep tabs. This is the second factor, one which allows the team to deal with the task or tasks given.

By constantly checking and observing what my team members were doing, particularly those who were still new, I knew of how they were managing and their rate of progress.

I was also able to spot mistakes early and intervene quickly with the right suggestions before it was too late.

I used to frequently keep tabs by using my own style of one-to-one social interaction.

Sometimes the session was a mere five minutes, sometimes a good half an hour. But, these “let me see how-you-are-doing” sessions had an added bonus.

Not only did I come to know the teachers on my team on a personal level, I also discovered what their particular strengths and weaknesses were.

With young teachers, I became aware of issues I might never have known if I had chosen to conduct formal meetings with a large group of them.

When I met them personally, they were more willing to open up to me about their problems, anxieties and fears.

Through my direct discourse with them, I gleaned both their professional struggles and their positive attributes.

With older teachers, a simple two-minute session of good old whining might occur before I brought the topic round to the job at hand. But, work they did and work they would if I helped them iron out minor difficulties and irritations.

“To each his own” became my “motto” of working around the fact that different teachers thought and worked differently to reach set goals. My own goal?

Give them the flexibility to do so! If a particular teacher didn’t come up to par, I would step in to coach, advise or sometimes, even do part of the job or get a team member to help!

A young teacher whom I had mentored years ago told me that I had left a lasting impression on her .

She said, “The quality I appreciated the most about you was that you were and still are approachable.

“You stood apart from the rest because I could always talk to you. When I had a question or a problem, I wasn’t afraid to broach the subject with you.

“You would listen objectively and then, you would offer advice that was useful and timely.”

That young teacher who is now a lecturer at a college recently said that the current head of department is not at all approachable.

“I find myself always at a loss as to how to bring up issues with her. In the end, I just keep things to myself. But, this is not good because by the time things get done, she is unhappy with the end result and it’s too late!” she said.

Being Involved

The point that I am trying to make is that if you wish to lead well, you must be must be available, involved and concerned.

Let me tell you a simple case in point. I was once rather annoyed with a young teacher who kept delaying the work she was supposed to do for our panel.

Influenced by what another colleague had said about her, I allowed myself to stand apart and be judgmental.

One day, however, I woke up to the fact that I was not doing the right thing by her.

The way I was behaving towards her was based on what someone had said and not on facts.

I didn’t know her very well, yet I had allowed myself to form a poor opinion of her.

Stopping by at the place where she sat in the staff-room, I dragged up a chair and began talking with her.

I made sure I didn’t talk about work. Instead I talked about her life, her family and her children.

It turned out that she had a baby who had been sick for months. For days, she had not been able to have a proper night’s sleep!

The minute I heard this, I was filled with understanding. It was no wonder that her work had suffered.

I realised then that there were certain facts that I needed to know as a leader. It is “people” who make up organisations, and also people work for people and not for organisations.

Dr. Stephen Covey, an author well known for the self-help book The 7 habits of Highly Effective People himself puts it, his maxim “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is one of the most difficult ones to follow in real life.

But, if a leader follows through, the dividends are huge and rewarding.

The human side of management comes from you and if you believe in it, like I do, you’ll be a fantastic, effective and an efficient “dragon” at work!

Happy Chinese New Year.

Extracted from the Teacher Talk column.