In my reasonably long and varied career in education, I have encountered many master tacticians who were able to take the human elements of a new team and then transform their work through clear roles and vision, whilst creating a culture of additional commitment and buy-in, to achieve outstanding performance and outcomes.
In my role as Executive Headteacher with the Harris Federation, I have been privileged enough to see the work of others at first hand and to take on challenges myself that have required getting more out of the teams I have led, without always being able to add new resource capacity or energy. That has needed me to change the motivation, ownership and drive of the members of my team, often being people I inherited and would not necessarily have chosen to put together to make the perfect team that would have worked for my own style of headship. One of the Principals I grew and trained myself, Katie Hanley, who leads at Harris Primary Academy Mayflower, has turned the mentor/mentee relationship on its head in recent years as the climate and culture she has nurtured at Mayflower has astounded me and the staff’s choice to go the extra mile is what guarantees the consistent excellence evident every day. I have had to refocus and evaluate what I can achieve with my own teams having seen the quality of what she has created and the way her vision permeates her academy.
It has taken a long journey for me to fully realise how to best connect with, motivate, and extract the maximum drive from my leaders. Initially in my first headship roles between 2000 and 2007 I was successful with a “my way or the high way” style of school leadership and overcame any bumps with good interpersonal relationships. I didn’t create sustainable legacies though and often found that when I stepped away my successor would struggle.
Toby Salt, once CEO of Ormiston Academy Trust and now CEO of AQA, as a fellow headteacher and close friend, back in the early part of the new century, explained to me once over dinner, that he believed strongly in the power of providing handwritten notes of praise and birthday cards for his staff. I was cynical about the value of his approach and the time and effort involved, but he argued it was one of the key elements to ensure his staff all received a direct and visual message to remind them that he saw them all as individuals and noticed their extra efforts in school. In this way the personal connection, balanced with a clear understanding of their role and Toby’s exacting expectations gave a framework for success.
I watched Toby transform a very challenging special school in Chichester, whilst creating capacity for one of the UK’s first federations and when he progressed to NCSL and Ormiston, the personal touch was still evident even in organisations where he led 100’s and 1000’s of staff. It reflected that Toby’s perception, returning to our dinner conversation, was so right, in that what it represented was the knowledge that leadership requires a personal connection and for each staff member to feel an investment with the Headteacher/ Senior Leader/ CEO is essential to guarantee that staff would go the extra mile and would want to meet his high expectations. Tim Brighouse, who I had the good fortune to serve a short while with as a Governing Council member of NCSL, when leading education in Birmingham, also recognised the importance of his vision and personal identity, when he committed to calling into each of his schools regularly, thereby ensuring they felt motivated to achieve with and for him as well as feeling pride in his affirmation and personal knowledge of them.
As a child growing up in Birmingham, I was passionate about football and my local team Birmingham City. The time I grew up, in the 1970’s was a period of characters in football and it was a manager from another team who I came to admire most and who captured my imagination later in as a headteacher and educational leader.
Brian Clough was a manager who first came to prominence when he led an unfashionable Derby County team out of the old 2nd Division, into the top league where they became English champions. Clough’s own playing career (he had been an exceptional striker) was ended abruptly by a knee injury at the age of 27. Clough was from a working class northern background and had a great sense of humour. He later in life developed a functioning dependency upon alcohol and this exaggerated his personality extremes, where he could switch from incredibly kind and considerate to cruel and hard in the same breath. In 1975, after a short period of failure at Leeds and Brighton, Clough became manager of Nottingham Forest, who at that time were struggling to climb from the bottom of Division 2. With pretty much the same team he inherited, Clough led Forest to the top league and repeating his triumph at Derby, he won the Division 1 title. What was unique about Clough’s time at Forest, was not just that he had repeated the feat, of taking an unfashionable team from a small city to the English title, but that uniquely he went on to lead Forest to win the European Cup (Now the Champions League) in two consecutive years, 1979 and 1980.
What made Clough special to the point where he could motivate ordinary players to be part of the best team in England when less than two years earlier they had been struggling to avoid slipping into the third tier of the league? Why was he able to to do this twice in a short period of time and what did he do to achieve that when the modern day agreed principle suggests buying your way to the top and a surgeon’s ruthless methodology of reshaping a team is the only way to turn failure into success. Reflecting on this as a school leader has given me great knowledge that really shapes my work today… and at its heart is the concept of ‘discretionary effort’ which Andy Buck crystallised so clearly in “Leadership Matters”.
So what did Clough do and why was it do successful? I believe he had 5 key leadership behaviours which created a culture and climate where his players could overperform consistently.
Clough was clear about his vision for the game and the way it needed to be played. Each player was reminded that Clough’s teams played with the ball on the ground, they passed and ran at opponents and didn’t “hoof” the ball forward. Clough famously said “If God had meant football to be played in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there!” This ensured everyone playing for Clough knew the vision. Equally he didn’t tolerate dissent or violent conduct. Rarely did his players ever get too big for their boots or end up being suspended. Even when Trevor Francis (my childhood hero and the first million pound player) joined Clough, he was clearly told how he would play and adapt when he fitted into the team, who at that point were already league champions.
The vision and clarity in core values are elements I have used as a headteacher, as Clough’s teams knew what it meant to play for Forest. I am passionate about my teams knowing what working at our academy means, and what I expect. I ensure our vision is underpinned by core values which gives a blueprint for everyone and acts as a starter for any difficult conversation.
Clough would have been a great manager to play for. He always believed he was the best and that his teams would win. Famously he said “I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest manager in the world but I’m in the top one.”
Players were injected with Clough’s self belief and rarely were they focused on the opposition’s strengths, with Clough always being centred on what was expected of his own players rather than the opposition.
Between 1978 and 1980 Forest went out believing they could beat anyone and the players, nearly all of whom had played in 1976 when the club struggled, took on his confidence and as results went their way began to believe they were truly the best team in Europe.
As school leaders this is essential. I have worked hard with all my senior leaders to ensure they understand how important it is for the staff to see them as calm and in control. Creating a climate of safe challenge is essential if staff are to test, extend and stretch themselves and for that to happen we as leaders need some of Clough’s confidence.
Clough knew what he did well and where he wasn’t as strong he had a totally reliable second in command, Peter Taylor, who led on tactics, coaching and player recruitment. Taylor was entrusted with the areas he had shown he was stronger than Clough at, and that’s what made their partnership so enduring and successful. Likewise each of Clough’s players knew exactly what they were employed to do. Clough transformed the careers of two Scottish players. Kenny Burns was a high-scoring striker who left Birmingham to join Clough at Forest. Clough and Taylor had recognised Burn’s aggression, ball skills and heading ability but when he started his first training session was told he would now be a central defender rather than goal scorer. Imagine a player today accepting this but Burns became the best central defender in Europe for three years as he had all the skills required to operate at a world class level in Clough’s simple defensive system. He had never shone to this standard as a striker. The discipline Clough insisted upon, also transformed Burn’s career. John Robertson was a heavy smoking and overweight player who Clough inherited at Forest. He quickly identified Robertson’s pace and crossing ability and then protected Robertson’s training schedule and ensured he was free on the pitch to focus solely on attacking down the left. Robertson became a central part of Forest’s success indeed scoring the winning goal in the 1980 European cup final. He also kept smoking and was still quite heavy at that time!
Working for the past five years as an Executive Headteacher with the Harris Federation, led by Sir Dan Moynihan, I have been supported and encouraged to use the freedoms available to me, to shape roles and responsibilities that truly deliver the best provision and outcomes for all pupils. I often reflect on Clough’s belief that it is “players who win matches – not tactics” and think about shaping roles that get the very best out of the staff I have. Quite often it is best as Clough did, to take time to create the role the organisation needs and then match the qualities of the individual to the role.
I believe this is the key element of Clough’s ability to create discretionary effort, and where he truly excelled.
Clough was unpredictable and used this to his advantage. Duncan Hamilton, a journalist from the Nottingham Post, remembers Clough once banning him from the ground forever for a negative report early in Clough’s time at Forest. Later the next day Hamilton got a call at work from Clough asking him where he was and inviting him in. “I was banned by you yesterday from the club” said Hamilton. “Oh I didn’t mean that” said Clough, offering Hamilton both champagne and a good quote! Hamilton said it was at times hard to work with Clough but that his human approach kept you connected and ensured you wanted to be part of his success.
Clough also knew the minds of each of his players. In the 2017 film about Clough’s team “I believe in Miracles” Martin O’Neill talks about Clough constantly praising one player, who was proud and quite insecure, which motivated him well. In contrast O’Neill who was always striving to impress Clough rarely got praise even when he scored twice. Clough knew that O’Neill played out of his skin seeking affirmation from him and he kept O’Neill in a state of anxiety as he knew played best that way.
This certainly contrasts with the institutionalised methods of management I learnt early in my career. Today I coach daily with my staff both as teachers and leaders and I expect my leadership team to do the same. Once we understand our staff we can apply Clough’s techniques to win the hearts and minds of our key players. I also utilise elements of Toby Salt’s personal touch (written notes/ thank you awards) to achieve this as this provides the human connection that sometimes can be hard to sustain when other pressures draw your time away.
The final element where Clough excelled and where we can learn is in ensuring that as leaders we listen to dissent, taking on board what we need to hear and ignoring anything that we believe distracts or weakens the team.
Clough was once asked (link to the clip below) to explain how he dealt with dissent and in doing this he balanced humour with a real challenge of leadership.
“Well, I ask him which way he thinks it should be done. We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right all along.”
While this is a real classic of a quote from Clough and reveals so much about his intelligence, humour and charm, it also gives a very real message which is applicable to school leaders. If there is dissent (and in any truly effective change process this is essential) Then it is so much better to acknowledge it and either adapt, or as in Clough’s case make sure it is clear that you are all in a journey and it needs to be everyone and there is no leeway. The acknowledgement and address ensures discontent doesn’t grow and allows your team to see what direction of travel the bus is on, so they know to either hop firmly on-board or leave at the first available stop.
This article is only a short summary and just about touches on the enigma that was Brian Clough. I have delivered a presentation on the themes enclosed at conferences and with my leadership team and am always amazed that whatever the challenges I face during my time as a school and academy leader I can always relate to Clough and his approach in pursuit of excellence.
The closest I got to the man was as a student in the late 80s when I travelled from Coventry where I studied at Warwick, to watch a match at the City Ground, with two friends. As we waited outside the stadium, having got there early to see the arrival of Chelsea, who my friends supported, we heard cheers and saw Clough walk past waving. He was past his very best and separated by now from his friend Peter Taylor, but he still had an aura of magic. That is the ingredient many of us in schools may feel we lack, but by using his defining elements maybe, just maybe we can get there!
Andy Buck’s Model of his theory of Discretionary Effort
Brian Clough with the European Cup at Nottingham Forest