Leadership approaches, support and ideas from Bristol Brunel Academy

Part Two: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

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Part Two: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

“The first rule of Leadership is that it is shared.” (Brighouse)

The previous blog considered the importance of leading through others to have personal impact of at least 1.8. There was also consideration of the importance of structure and connectivity within a distributed leadership approach that enable vertical influence and opportunity. The following diagram provides our summary of our leadership influences; taken together they provide the principles of the Brunel approach to Leadership, and are the focus of this series of blogs. (click to enlarge)


In this second part we explore the importance of setting clear destinations for the organisation and why, in a distributed, leader-leader system, this creates the space and ability for staff to find their way toward each destination. Such ownership allows change and strategic improvement to be owned at a greater depth within the organisation; increasing the sustainability and consistency of new approaches. Tim Brighouse was partly responsible for us considering the Destination model for our Academy improvement planning. His sense that schools are on journeys and that the best schools ask where they want to be and take small steps on a journey toward that goal is a compelling approach. It is surprising how the use of Destinations has supported not just the vision and ambition, but also enabled and provided the space to distribute leadership and release potential at Brunel.


Whilst Destinations show vision and ambition, importantly they provide the space to distribute leadership and release potential because they do not describe how or what is to be achieved; it starts with the end in mind (Covey), allows the construction of stories (powerful human motivator) and charts our journey. As we will consider in the next blog this opens the How and the What areas of the Sinek golden circle to depth in an organisation. It is the enforcement of the How (you do things like this) and What (you do that) linked to a witch-hunt, high stakes accountability that compromises Command and Control, top-down and leader-follower organisationsPeople do not do what you tell them to do (or at best they do for a short time and without passion); there is no intrinsic motivation. But the idea of Destinations in this context actually emerged from the Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch”; this is an excellent book – very insightful on supporting change through motivating appropriately and levelling up. The following ideas are extremely relevant to our approach of leadership, with our use of Destinations coming from their discussion on how organisations should point to the destination. It is true that a simple list of words, like those presented below (whilst they link to talk of aspects required for change) is often all that is required to prompt powerful reflection on leadership and leading change. We particularly like the power of Point to the direction – Follow the bright spots – Grow your people – Build Habits. In four statements we have a philosophy of leadership that travels and builds capacity and ownership for improvement.


John West-Burnham describes the importance of describing preferred futures.

Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe. – In the 1970s Shell developed an approach that required identification of preferred scenarios…that are essentially descriptions of a preferred future.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)

Our preferred futures and stories of the future; our Destinations are: (click to enlarge)


Having five destinations does not secure improvement on their own. It is the delivery, the leadership ethos and the structure that enables the journey, owned by many that triggers the owenership and improvement component to our model of leadership. The Destination (Delivery) Groups lead our journeys. led by a VP or AP who lead through others (1.8…2.3). Each group has 6-8 members taken from across the Academy, a Councillor (Governor), at least one Head of Year and Curriculum Leader, and meet fortnightly. This is a great opportunity for any staff to gain strategic experience and influence beyond their area: to make a whole-academy difference and realise their ability and influence. Taken together over 30 members of staff lead toward our strategic destinations. The remit of each Destination (Delivery) Group:

  • Own and work toward the Destination
  • Have c. 10 levers (actions) that will be delivered within 50 and 100 day cycles. Two and a bit of which exist in any one year…toward a 250 days. The levers are those that have impact (20:80 and Tipping Point sought – Gladwell)
  • The group leads through others and supports innovation around each of the levers, at the same time driving ever-greater consistency – communicated and secured across the Academy (through the group and not SLT)
  • The Group evidences improvement and uses data to confirm and show impact.
  • Progress is communicated to Staff Briefings, Curriculum Leaders, Year Team and SLT meetings.

The benefits of this distribution and ownership are amazingly numerous and powerful; we keep finding unexpected, unintended impact. The destination sets direction, expectation and ambition without stating How and What to achieve the destination; this is owned at depth through each Delivery Group (>30 staff involved), regular connectivity of individuals (and their knowledge and thoughts) who are often closer to the action and better able to understand and simplify complexity, improvement and new approaches are owned and communicated through the middle and to depth, enabling change to be owned and sustained. Even better, the groups build consistency whilst being freed to innovate around these key levers with anyone in the organisation – proper distributed leadership. Every individual works closely with at least one other individual working in these groups, easing communication and ability to influence change. The Academy works equally toward all areas of improvement, not reliant on the energy or ability of the senior leaders in an organisation. Momentum and pace is achieved through 50 and 100 days plans and the collective desire to (compete) deliver a greater impact than other Delivery groups (units? Barber). This creates the following structure (see diagram below) with the dots representing individuals, D1.1 a key lever and the bars at the top taken from the diagram above. Again the power of this visual representation is important for improvement (as is the need to present on A3 paper!) – people read and engage with well-presented A3 and struggle to engage in stapled A4 handouts (great way to bury good ideas!)


Before departing from part two of our influences, the Heaths also highlight the importance of “bright spots” and share a great example around Jerry Sternin and how, through finding bright spots within villages, where children were unexpectedly bigger than other children, he enabled sharing of feeding approaches that reduced malnutrition rates – growing bright spots to have a disproportionate impact. At Brunel we know that within the Academy there are very good/outstanding practices and approaches, and that where we find these “positive deviant practices” we connect it, share it and give it high profile – a key part of the work of the Delivery groups. This levels staff-up around leveraging approaches. Where these “bright spots are shared across the staff there is peer-learning and reflection, and adoption. This happens in a way that SLT will always struggle to achieve, because people do not do what they are told. This is a key element of our distribution at Brunel where CPD, teaching briefings, delivery groups, middle leader meetings etc. connect staff and enable sharing of practice around the bright spots and accelerate toward our destinations by balancing innovation around shared bright spots that generate a consistency of approach that leverage improvement.


If this part is about vision, setting the destinations and finding the structures to liberate individuals through bright spots, part three of this blog looks at the role of Simon Sinek, who has dramatically influenced our thinking and approach – supporting how we work and our principles of engagement within this structure. “Poor leaders push us towards the goal. Great leaders guide us through the journey.” (Simon Sinek) It is amazing how linked these authors are on what drives great leadership in organisations; unfortunately it usually contrasts with the default, first instinct view of leadership in schools and across education.

Dr Dan Nicholls



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