Taking leadership in your stride

Transcript of interview with Madonna King and Dr Sue Irvine.

Introduction: At QUT we believe that teachers do more than build understanding. They build confidence, resilience, they help students to make sense of the real world and the faster technology changes, the more important teachers become. If you feel the same way, this podcast is for you. Welcome to PodClass.

[Children laughing and a school bell rings]

Every step that you take forward you’re actually changing a child’s life, you are taking people with you.

This idea of the silent classroom is also a little bit of a myth and could be getting in the way.

They have very little time to just take a breath, sit down and think. Where do I want to go, what do I want to do with my career?

It's amazing how many fresh ideas you can have when you can ask your question of the entire world.

I have given it all I have got, I am exhausted and I need a break. I think that is part of it.

Sometimes when first year, we think goodness how are we going to make a teacher out of you? But then you see them in fourth year and you think gosh they are better than I am. [Multiple voices laugh]

Madonna: What make a good leader? How transferable are those skills and why this is so important for those who lead our classrooms are teacher. My guest Dr. Sue Irvine, Sue welcome.

Sue: Thank you.

Madonna: Now your title is a mouthful. Associate Professor, School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Course Coordinator, Master of Education at QUT. How do you see yourself?

Sue: Well some people say I’m a teacher.

Madonna: A teacher of Masters students?

Sue: Yes.

Madonna: You studied early childhood teaching here, but you have taught across the ages, as well as being a CEO of a child care centre?

Sue: Yes.

Madonna: Worked in State Government and indeed worked with teachers across all levels. So what do you think makes a good leader?

Sue: Goodness. It’s a lot of books that have been written about that, but I guess from my perspective and to distill it, it would be probably be about care and about influence. I think that good leaders really care about what they are doing and they see ways to make that better and then it's about being able to influence others to come along for the ride and to make things better.

Madonna: Has our definition of a leader changed? Because I can’t imagine five years ago we wouldn’t have necessarily said a good leader is someone who cares.

Sue: Yes, yeah, look I think it has, I think traditionally we have a very hierarchal perhaps masculine view of what leadership is and often that’s associated with leaderships positions. Having a particular positon, a particular title and more contemporary views are looking at leadership in a much broader way thinking about you know, leadership principles and practices in all aspects of teaching.

Madonna: But why bother with having those attributes of being a leader if you are not going to be a leader or aspire to be one?

Sue: Well I would argue that teachers are leaders. In whatever area they are working in. In education you have a teacher who goes into an early childhood setting or into a classroom and is leading a group of children in learning. So by definition teachers are leaders.

Madonna: You have differentiated between the attributes of a leader and the position of a leader, but any leader needs those attributes. Do followers need those attributes?

Sue: Well I don’t always see such a distinction between leaders and followers. A lot of the literature would say that good leaders are also good followers and that followers can actually become good leaders, if they are actually able to observe leadership in practice.

Madonna: Because I was going to ask you, or suggest that there weren’t many leadership opportunities in schools because you can go to the course coordinator and the deputy principal and the principal. But what you are saying is the better leader you are in front of the class, the better you at the job and perhaps the better learning for the students.

Sue: Look I think to be daring, I’m going to say yes. I think that the fundamentals of good leadership are very similar. Obviously the knowledge and the context changes and because of that there might be varying emphasis put on different traits and different attributes. But yeah I think fundamentality it’s about care and it’s about influence and having the knowledge and skills to be able to exercise that as well.

Madonna: Do you need to know that you mighten be the brightest person in the room?

Sue: Absolutely, good leaders know that and good leaders then look for people who can value add to their own knowledge and skills.

Madonna: Is it a trait or traits that are born or learned?

Sue: The age old question. Look, I think it's probably a no brainer that certain genetic traits and certain personal traits lend themselves to leadership and so it may be easier for some people because of their personal qualities and traits to take on particular leadership roles.

Madonna: Like you're a listener for example?

Sue: Yes or that you are able to get up and articulate your vision and you are able to talk with groups of people and you are able to think strategically and move things forward. So all of these sorts of things are based on some genetic abilities obviously, but I also think it’s about environment and experience and I think more so about environment and experience and within that context then it’s about your opportunity to build your leadership knowledge and skills through training and through ongoing learning.

Madonna: Sue, we hear this term accidental leader, is that a recipe for disaster?

Sue: No, not necessarily. I mean it can be but it can also be a really important opportunity. We all rise to the occasions or we try to rise to the occasion, so I think sometimes that's quite common in education and I think that can be the makings of leaders, who perhaps wouldn’t have had the confidence to put their hand up, but actually find themselves in leadership roles. I do think though it’s important that those accidental leaders are supported in what they do, so the is issue can be that we have a person who is thrown into a leadership role and that’s fine then they can do a lot to support themselves. But those around them also need to build the support to help them to be successful in that role.

Madonna: Sometimes I wonder if those people might surprise themselves.

Sue: I’m sure that they do, I’m sure that they do and providing they have time in the busy roles of leaders to reflect on what they are doing and how things are working, they'll learn from that experience and be able to take that forward.

Madonna: Can you look out into that classroom early on and know who will make a good leader?

Sue: No, I don’t think, I don't think so because I think that leadership is such a multifaceted thing that you can’t judge on the surface.

Madonna: So what do you judge on?

Sue: Well I think you judge on action and you judge on engagement and I think that the people who really can make an informed judgment about somebody’s leadership capacity are the people who are working with that leader. Who see them on a day-to-day basis and see them through the highs and the lows of work.

Madonna: So in the last year of your course, could you point to the best leaders in the class?

Sue: I would have a fair inclining yes.

Madonna: And what would stand out about them?

Sue: For me, I think it would be that they were reflective and critical thinkers and I would have seen that in our engagements, whether they are online students or whether they are on campus students. Certainly I would have had a sense of that in the written work that they had submitted. They would have worked really hard to build their knowledge and they would have stretched themselves, perhaps taken some risks and I think, for me it’s really again it’s that care, it's about being passionate, it's about making a difference in the area that you are working and so I would have a sense of that.

Madonna: Is there an age where you can be a good leader?

Sue: No, I think children can be good leaders and I think that classroom teachers have a role in building leadership in our youngest citizens as well. By modelling it to start with, by showing caring and ethical leadership in their work with children and with families.

Madonna: Is there a differentiation between early career teachers and very experienced teachers in their ability to lead?

Sue: No it's not an age thing, I think it's really all about having a vision, having a desire to make a difference in a particular area and being able to think about that from a broader or longer term perspective and strategically then being able to take over people towers that vision. So that could be your class or your group of children in the early childhood context. It could be working either families in those context or it could be working with colleagues.

Madonna: For a teacher listening, how might they improve their leadership skills in the classroom?

Sue: Well firstly they need to recognise those skills and recognise that in fact that’s what they are doing because I don’t think that teachers working in early childhood services in schools necessarily think of themselves in this way. So recognising that to begin and then thinking about how that plays out in their day-to-day work. You know, it's interesting because if you go back I think it’s to the Greek definition of pedagogy, it’s actually about leading the child in their learning. Now that was a very formal context and the idea was you had a hundred children in front of you and you lead everyone at the same time through the same lesson. But if we think about good pedagogy now, it mirrors good leadership. We are working with individuals, we are identifying strengths of children and interests of children and we are working together to get the best out of our time together and out of children’s learning.

Madonna: Are we putting enough effort in schools, into providing teachers with the toolbox to improve their leadership?

Sue: I think, that's a really interesting question my sense is that we are doing well in that area again linking to positional leadership roles. So my sense from my own experience in designing and delivering professional development opportunities around leadership from educators and teachers, is that we are looking at existing leaders and aspiring leaders and links to those leadership roles. So a tick there, but I don’t think we are perhaps doing that well enough, thinking about leadership in that broad capacity is a really desirable skill.

Madonna: Is self-belief part of leadership?

Sue: I think so,

Madonna: And a lot of teachers may not have requisite self-belief?

Sue: I think so and again I think it depends on what your image of leadership is, is your only image of leadership a male principal and is that the measure for you or do you see leadership in other ways? Do you see the opportunity to you know, lead a new way of you know, working on playground duty or do you see a leadership in a new way of engaging with parents in the early childhood service? Because do you really think that’s important.

Madonna: That’s, they are really good examples. What are some other concrete examples of what a teacher might do that would show their leadership capability?

Sue: Well I think that there is two ways that that can happen. I think obviously it can happen from a self-initiated perspective, so seeing something that you think could be done better and instead of being one of those people who sits on the sides saying "Someone should do something about that". Being the change you want to see. So really trying to think of a way that you could step up and make a difference in that particular context.

Madonna: Putting your hand up to make the change.

Sue: And obviously for that to work in an organisation you need to negotiate that. There are every few opportunities where you can just step up and do and everything flows smoothly and there is a beautiful rainbow at the end. So seeing that opportunity negotiating that with others in your work context, particularly with designated leaders in your work context and thinking about ways that you might approach that. And effectively the leader that doesn’t just do that by them because at the end of the day they have just made a change which suits them, they have got no idea whether it is going to suit everybody else. So effectively they bring on board others, consult with others, listen carefully to the views and expertise of others and then negotiate an improved solution.

Madonna: All of those things require a person to be good at communication.

Sue: Absolutely.

Madonna: Our teachers as you say are naturally good listeners and communicate to their class. Are they good at communicating beyond that?

Sue: I think they are. I think that teachers spend a lot of time in their pre-service education building the interpersonal and communication skills to work with a wide and diverse group of people and that’s you know, diversity in terms of children that they are working with, the families, that we know how important it is that teachers engage with families in whatever education setting they are in. And the fact that teachers are working in teams, so pre-service courses now spend a lot of time thinking about you know, leadership and effectively teamwork. So I think they come out well equipped for that and I think that they have opportunity to strengthen that knowledge and skills within their work setting. So I think they do have that, but perhaps it comes back you what you suggested before about self-belief.

Madonna: Is making a mistake or making mistakes part of the journey to good leadership?

Sue: Absolutely.

Madonna: What mistake have you made that helped?

Sue: I have made a number of mistakes. I think probably, it’s not a mistake but it’s a learning I guess from what could have been a mistake. In that when I first went into a positional leadership role, I had been a classroom teacher and I’d worked predominantly in pre-schools and the early years of schools within state education systems and my husband and I moved to Victoria and I ended up applying for the role of a centre director of a parent-managed childcare service. And I got that particular role and I walked in and I didn’t get the very warm reception from the staff I was expecting, I had one particular staff member who had her hands on her hips and basically said "So who are you and what do you know about leading an early childhood centre?"

Madonna: Did they have a point?

Sue: Well they did, they actually had a point because didn’t know an awful lot about that, I had good intent and I had some very early knowledge. But I really didn’t have a lot of context and probably didn’t have a lot of leadership knowledge at that stage.

Madonna: But you were caring.

Sue: I was caring.

Madonna: You could influence people. So didn’t that mean by your own definition you would have made a good leader?

Sue: Yeah, well I cared about what I was doing, I was really motivated to be there I wasn’t accidentally there, I had applied for the job and I really wanted to be there. Interesting, when I got there I was one of those, sink or swim sorts of analogies because about a week after I started in that job, I discovered that we were very close to being bankrupt and needed to negotiated some funding from the government at the time. So it was a sink or swim analogy and fortunately I was able to ladled back up to the surface.

Madonna: And was another area of that you being able to influence those you were leading of your authenticity, of your credibility, of your authority?

Sue: Yeah, I’d like to think so, I think, I took my teacher knowledge and skills and qualities in there. I tried really hard to get to know individual staff, to build relationships with them, to really consult and listen to them and I think that put me in good stead and certainly there was some tough times and I learned on the fly. But the centre is still operating, so did like to think that I had a hand in that.

Madonna: Do men or women make better leaders naturally?

Sue: Look there is literature on that and there is some literature to suggest that there are differences in styles and approaches, based on gender.

Madonna: That can be the headline, who’s the better leader?

Sue: Well there is a sense that in terms of contemporary leadership theory, that females can sometimes be better equipped. In terms of caring, in terms of building warm and reciprocal relationships, in terms of trying to break to break down that hierarchical structure, to have more collaborative leadership.

Madonna: They don’t put their hand up as much, do they?

Sue: No.

Madonna: How do we fix that?

Sue: Well, I think that we need not be trying to help everybody see their leadership potential and to see that it’s not about, Gandhi says it’s not about muscles. So again it’s that image what is your image of leadership? Its not about muscle and authority, it’s really about being able to build relationships and influence people and women are good at that often. Not always though and so I don’t like to draw that very definitive line there.

Madonna: You talk about versions of leadership, what are they?

Sue: Well different approaches like I guess you know, a lot has been written about leadership and different approaches. So from your hierarchical authorative sort of model, where the boss is the boss and I will tell you what you need to be doing and you don’t need to ask me why, it’s just because in asking you to do that.

Madonna: But isn’t that by your definition a failed version of leadership because it shows a lack of care and it’s unlikely to influence people?

Sue: Yes and that’s the reality, the reality is that you will build up fence of unhappiness there, probably some you know, apathy in terms of work and you will always, you will be pushing the elephant up the hill always because people will not be going with you. So yes, more contemporary views are around democratic approaches to leadership, collaborative approaches to leadership, participative approaches.

Madonna: What’s the best approach?

Sue: Well I think there are aspects of all of those. The researchers and theorists will draw lines around some of those things, but I think if you are looking at it from a practical perspective, if you are thinking about, you know, caring for people and, you know, looking after their well-being because if you don’t have staff who are well and engaged, then you are not going to be able to achieve what you want to achieve.

Madonna: What kind of leader are you?

Sue: I’d like to think that in a democratic and collaborative leader. I certainly work hard to embody that in everything that I do, whether its working with students at QUT, I do a lot of work in polices. So when I am working in policy and thinking about policy solutions, negotiating with those that the policy might affect.

Madonna: Who was a good leader in your life?

Sue: I have been really fortunate, I have had a number of good leaders. But probably one that comes to mind was a gentleman who was my director in the Department of Education when I was working in a policy context. And he just was very generous, in terms of sharing his leadership knowledge and skills. I was in a middle management, middle leadership and middle management perspective. Still very green in that area and I just watched him with awe and learned a great deal in terms of that. And one of the things I really like was he was really collaborative, really engaged us in making important decisions, which really added to my enjoyment of work, But he also was very quick to give credit, so whenever I did something or if I had put something into a particular policy context, he would make sure that others knew that. And leaders don’t always do that, some leaders hold onto everybody’s ideas and present the as their own.

Madonna: Our topic today is tapping into leadership, but you're saying that doesn’t necessarily meaning stepping up to leadership?

Sue: No and I think that’s a really, really important thing because working in an early childhood centre or a classroom with children, is just a really important role and I hate to think that teachers in that context think to gain a leadership role they have to step out of that. We want really skilled leaders in those positons working with children and families and being there.

Madonna: So we have talked about leadership for our teachers, but what about students? How do you rate leadership as a future life skill?

Sue: I think it’s probably one of the top of lists in actual fact because if we are looking ahead and we are thinking about the world of work and we are thinking about society. We want everyone to be able to step up and to exercise leadership as needed. Whether it’s in their personal relationships and in life, whether it’s within the community or whether it’s within the world of work.

Madonna: Does the system allow us to value that as much when we get a report card that says Maths, English, but there is no judgement about children’s ability to be a leader. They might be a terrific leader.

Sue: Yeah I think that’s a really good point and it’s something that we should think about. I don’t want to see leadership being a subject that is assessed in the same way though, I think I’d rather see it more as a disposition that we are wanting to nurture. And interestingly you actually see that in our very earliest curriculum, the early year’s framework.  We are looking at building children’s dispositions around social interactions, around creative and critical thinking, around collaboration and problem solving. They’re all leadership’s skills, so we are actually wanting to nature those form the very earliest age through to our high school leavers and then onwards in terms of university.

Madonna: How young can a child be before you can teach them those skills, can you do it in prep and early primary school?

Sue: Well I would actually say that children exhibit leadership without being taught. If you look at children playing, very young children, you will see children who observe a friend fall over and who go over to support that friend and assist that friend. You see children who perceive injustice and who will actually go and do something to address injustice. So I think it’s about noting that and building understanding of ethical leadership.

Madonna: Is there an irony there though because we really value our children graduating with good leadership skills, but we put all the focus on picking the high school for students, not so much the school where they’re going to learn those traits.

Sue: Yes I think that is an irony and I think we need to think about leadership as a life skill that’s important for intervals, but also important for the nation and think about how that transpires at every phase of education and in an ongoing sense.

Madonna: Dr. Sue Irvine, thank you.

Sue: Thank you.

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