Charting the Chair’s Leadership Character

25 Aug

I           Introduction

The position of a chair of governors is one of not a little power; it is also filled with daunting responsibilities which are time-consuming.  While it may be seductive to have the power for which we humans often craves, the responsibilities assumed by chairs can be off-putting to members of a governing body, especially when such vacancies arise.

The training course being run for chairs and prospective chairs by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) focuses on six important aspects:

  1. Effective Governance
  2. Building the Team
  3. Relationship with the Headteacher
  4. Improving the School
  5. Leading the Business

I would posit that it is not possible for chairs to ensure that all six aspects are managed effectively unless they have the right kind of relationships with the other members – and not just the Headteacher.   Theo Wubbels, professor of education at Utrecht University, has developed a relationships matrix for teachers and students based on the model of human consciousness developed by the psychologist, Timothy Leary.  The matrix places the position of teachers on ranges between dominance and submission, opposition and co-operation.   Where a teacher positions her/himself indicates her/his relationship with the pupils/students.  This matrix may be helpfully used for working out the default relationship position that the chair has with the other members of the governing body.

For the purpose of this article, I will concentrate on the leadership that a chair exercises at meetings with a view to ensuring that they are effective.

II          Dominance versus Submission

Dominant chairs control meetings with considerable clarity, purpose and direction. They know what they want, how to get from where they are to where they wish to be and give explicit explanations on what they expect the rest of the governors to do.

This is all very good and positive.  However, there is a flip side.   Such chairs lose sight of the needs and wishes of their fellow governors.   They may finish their meetings in very good time, but there is little or no discussion of the issues, minimal contributions from them and a loss of opportunity in the use of the talents that governors can bring to bear on the schools they govern.

In my neck of the woods, I am aware of one governing body where the chair and headteacher/principal determine precisely how the meetings are run. The other governors – many of them extremely talented and some pretty vocal in other forums – are meek and mild.  They make minimal contribution.  The school is a good one but could benefit so much more if the governors were involved actively.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have chairs who are submissive and allow some fellow governors to rule the roost and dominate meetings to the chagrin of those who are able to make valuable contributions but have given up.   Meetings are allowed to drift into the late hours of night (or the small hours of the morning) and little if anything is achieved in terms of outcomes.   Such chairs are nervous, easily intimidated and constantly move into the submissive mode.

III        Co-operation versus Opposition

The second axis has at one end co-operation and the other, opposition.   Chairs partial to co-operation are keen to accept all points of views. They wobble when it comes to moving to a decisive position and advancing their schools.  They are, without doubt, inclusive.  However, in adopting this mode, they inadvertently end up alienating all and/or allow a few dominant governors to move them in particular directions which may not be in their schools’ best interests.

On the other hand, chairs that are oppositional tend to be intolerant, irritable and aggressive.   They view criticisms of opinions as personal attacks and – like the overly co-operative ones – alienate the other members of their governing bodies.

IV        Finding the balance

Finding the balance between dominance and submission and co-operation and opposition on all occasions is challenging.  However, where chairs endeavour to mix and match these four aspects depending on situations, they are likely to have better functioning governing bodies.

Good chairs who have adopted the right approach are able to notice what happens, lead, organise, take responsibility but also do so with understanding and friendliness.  They take account of other governors’ views – inspiring confidence and trust.

Such chairs establish norms in collaboration with the others.  They set high standards for themselves and others and walk their talk.   In concert with fellow governors, they decide, act and follow through with the clear expectations from the governors to whom tasks that are delegated are carried out effectively.  They are, most important of, assertive but not aggressive.

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