Leadership approaches, support and ideas from Bristol Brunel Academy

Part One: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

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Part One: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership


“You can get to Good by pointing and telling, but to get to outstanding you require wide ownership for improvement.”

 “You have to tighten up to be good. You loosen to become outstanding.” (Dougill et al. 2011 – Getting to the next level…)

So…how do you sustain improvement through wide ownership…so that the system self-improves…and a legacy of achievement and wide community impact is secured?

leadership words2

(Click to enlarge our leadership words) The collection of words represent a range of thoughts and prompts around developing an approach to distributed leadership  and encapsulate a number of the guiding principles that we use at Bristol Brunel Academy. In truth you set and gather a view of how to lead and develop leadership within an Academy, apply the approach and be amazed at the potential released within the staff. It quickly becomes evident that to consider returning to a top-down, command and control, leader-follower model of leadership (the default model of public sector leadership) would be significantly retrogressive. I accept this where Academies are in a category that Command and Control is absolutely the only approach to drive and compel change quickly; Michael Barber would describe this as necessary to shift from awful to adequate – useful but no cause for celebration.

In this first blog on our leadership approach we intend to develop and record the influences that have shaped the leadership approach at Brunel. Early in our journey the work of Seth Godin provided an early challenge. His Tribes and Linchpin books provide excellent descriptions of developing individuals to bring Art to work, to be creative and develop into a linchpin that link and connect widely (Gladwell would describe these as people as Connectors – Tipping Point). This question became our leadership challenge…


Godin has much to contribute to leadership within education: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Godin, Tribes) Increasingly important within our leadership is the need to connect staff often, meaning that boring meeting structures become central to enabling a learning community to connect. “Leaders lead when they take positions, when they connect with their tribes, and when they help the tribe to connect with itself.” (Godin, Tribes) Malcolm Gladwell has identified 150 as an ideal group/tribe size – for connecting people around an idea and for the community to feel that they know and feel a part of the movement. Interesting to consider 150 in term of staff size, year group size, Academy chain size. Our final input from Godin is great, “Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” What is particularly powerful at Brunel is the idea that all leaders “Lead through others.” Why? because it builds capacity to depth within the organisation and it is exactly that capacity that is required to move through good to outstanding. Command and control will not do it – are we asking the right questions/have the right criteria about what outstanding leadership in schools should be?

So we know that we need to distribute our leadership, and that if we expect a lot and trust the people we work with, we can allow them to bring Art to work, own and sustain improvement and release their potential to secure a legacy. It is also important that Academy structures facilitate connectivity and that leaders “lead through others.” So at Brunel we talk about leaders having a1.8 influence. An example: if you take an Assistant Principal and tell them to ‘do’ Assessment and Reporting and that is what they do, any development in that area is limited to their energy, ability and desire; they instigate 1/2/3 projects each year that involve them in the ‘doing’; or if you are the timetabler who locks themselves away for 3 months; or you manage curriculum, but simply tell people what they can and can’t do; or you’re in charge of behaviour, but spend everyday firefighting issues; or you’re a Vice Principal who self evaluates and spends the year observing and running reviews, coercing staff involvement without input – then your impact is 1.0. However, if leading through others is the ethos and the expectation is that as a leader you should havean influence of 1.8 growing to 2.3…2.5 requiring a strategic approach and the ability to trust others to deliver across a wide area, then we begin to facilitate change and see sustainable improvement.


By having trust and giving ownership for change our influence increases. Do this and capacity grows; staff suddenly have vertical opportunity and influence to lead the Academy and have wider influence. You push the decision making to the action, creating leader: leader relationships (more in a later blog).The system is not reliant on the energy, knowledge, ability or desire of an individual to flog their 1.0 influence. This is about increasing and developing linchpins and connectors within schools whose influence through others releases potential and secures improvement. The difference between making a small bang and a big bang. In this model you see your success through others….which leads us to the importance of conversation over to-do-lists, building trust and humility, but that is also for later.

Dr Dan Nicholls



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