Leading Leaders: Optimising Leadership in a MAT Setting

school leadership meeting

Though compulsion may have been removed, multi-academy trusts (MATs) are still the preferred model of the government for re-shaping the education landscape.  The National Schools Commissioner has defined a structure as to how MATs will be allowed to grow in the future. The term ‘system leader’ is now part of the lexicon of education leadership and indeed features prominently within the White Paper.  So whilst leading beyond a single institution has gained ground and becomes understood by NLEs, LLEs and Teaching Schools, the growth of MATs within a self-improving system present fresh challenges requiring a new understanding for leading leaders. This article suggests new forms of relationship engagement, for a MAT leader working with their school leaders will better equip everyone to drive forward school and system improvement.

The challenge for MAT leaders lie not only in the technical upskilling around structures of governance, financial decision-making and risk management but also in the less tangible but vital adaptive skills required to forge a high trust, high accountability structure for continuous improvement across a group of schools.  Effective leadership in a MAT places a premium on understanding how to lead leaders of individual institutions.  This will require a highly self aware CEO with the emotional intelligence to understand, appreciate and use the leadership styles of their individual school leaders.

Leaders understand the need to have a compelling vision and to articulate it to the expanding group; this is their directional strategy. Strategic direction at MAT level is then operationalised by individual Headteachers or Heads of School on a day-to-day basis.  The wise MAT CEO therefore spends time engaging all leaders in buying in to a shared vision.  What may be less well understood is that each CEO and Headteacher has his or her own leadership preferences and modus operandi, which creates the culture in their school for enacting the vision.  A MAT CEO that provides the opportunity and flexibility for a school leader’s individual leadership style is building capacity in its leaders.  Rather than being straightjacketed by a rigidly imposed system, leaders can flourish and the organisation as a whole can stay agile, able to deploy the different individual leader strengths effectively to support one another.

Take for example a growing MAT where the CEO promotes a high achievement culture emphasizing performance, innovation and striving for excellence.  One of the Headteachers who was part of the original small MAT has a leadership style that promotes rules and systems to help people achieve consistent results.  The MAT benefits where the CEO draws on the different strengths of the school leader for optimal effectiveness and vice versa.  The MAT expands taking on an underperforming school with a new leader who like the CEO has a default towards an achievement culture.  The highly self-aware MAT CEO will recognise that the leader whose preference is for rules and systems could be optimally deployed to support the newest addition to the MAT, where strong consistent systems need embedding.

In leading leaders, MAT CEOs would therefore benefit from an in-depth understanding of their own leadership preferences and that of their school leaders. This would allow all the leaders to understand how their unique mix affects team dynamics and group functioning.  Ideas and models from the business world and psychology can help us understand these personal preferences to meet the various challenges facing MATs and ultimately impacting positively on overall organisational efficacy.

MAT leaders that take time to understand the personal preferences of the individual leaders at play across the different institutions understand the need for what Steve Radcliffe calls building ‘big relationships.’  Leading leaders through mutual understanding and mutual respect of preferred ways of working builds trust.  Building trust in turn is a keystone for building capacity to grow together, innovate together and ultimately excel together.

Further Reading

Sir David Carter’s presentation, 4 Feb 2016,

Steve Radcliffe (2012) Leadership Plain and Simple, ISBN 978-0-273-77241-5

Stanley Truskie (2010) Leadership in High Performance Organisational Culture: Leading Transformational Change, ISBN 978-0-615-38218-0

View comments (1)
Paul Stone
19 Jun 2016 / 15:06

This a very interesting article which hints at the fact that within MATs we need to provide opportunities for heads to develop inter school leadership or extended opportunities where their talents can be maximized. The leadership of schools has and needs to change, there will be an expectation that leaders work between institutions and MATs need to provide these opportunities. many existing Heads will need to learn new skills.

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