Leadership approaches, support and ideas from Bristol Brunel Academy

Part Three: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

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Part Three: Leadership influences | The Brunel approach to Leadership

All organisations Start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year.”  Simon Sinek


Simon Sinek has been very influential in our approach to leadership at Brunel (the 20min TED talk is excellent). His golden circle has framed our approach, language and strategic focus. How can a set of simple circles have such a pervasive influence? Sinek identifies that human motivation is emotionally linked, meaning that when people start with why (the moral purpose) this secures early emotional buy in. This buy-in secures interest and enables greater success of a sale, proposal or to secure change. Apple uses why well – they have grown an Apple identity “think differently” around the why, the lifestyle and that is why it is compelling. At Brunel we start from the WHY – it is linked to our Destinations. Here are examples of our WHYs.

Destination Two – the WHY: Teaching is the most important aspect of the Academy; it is what makes teachers professionals and what unlocks incredible futures for students. Teachers have amazing moral purpose which, allied with increasing autonomy and an unshakable desire to achieve mastery, create experiences that will enable a generation to feel more success. Through teaching we release the potential of young people to follow their dreams. There can be no better profession than Teaching.

Destination One – the WHY: After the quality of teaching, leadership has the biggest influence on the success of schools. By improving leadership, colleagues become more effective and have a greater influence on the life chances of students. Through the leadership of high performing teams, individuals create opportunities for others to be more successful and to take more responsibility. Leadership increases the capacity of the Academy to become outstanding, thereby increasing the opportunities of all students and staff to be more successful.

Too many Academies start with the WHAT – they write a homework policy in SLT and dispatch it below – starting with ‘what’ staff need to do – remember people do not do what they are told. As Sinek says, “people do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It is the WHY that has driven our improvement journey – it is securing the WHY first that generates the wide emotional buy-in; it sets the importance of what the Academy is for and our place within it – our moral purpose; it exploits the human instinct to want to do purposeful and meaningful work that enables the power of the WHY. Our Teaching Destination (Delivery Team) cannot failed to be compelled to drive toward the destination against this background,


“It is those that start with WHY that have the ability to inspire those around them.” Simon Sinek

Academies need to cement and secure the WHY before the HOW we do things and WHAT specifically happens. The SLT at Brunel understand their place in the Golden Circle. It is not for them to determine the WHAT ( why would we have the arrogance to know exactly what is required?);  as leaders we do not have the time to be quite so operational. That is the beauty of the circles – they provide a structure and exemplification of the difference between being strategic and operational in Academy improvement.

Senior Leaders should secure the WHY – it is not that  they own it, but that with the wider view they secure the moral purpose of an organisation, the key to secure emotional buy-in and build the purpose to improve.

At Brunel we have added a fourth circle that runs around the middle of HOW. Who owns the HOW? Who is best placed to understand how best to do things? How best to secure impact? Where schools are in categories that require redirection or quick improvement, the proportion of HOW owned by the leadership may extend into the WHAT to direct organisations – Chip and Dan Heath would describe this as ‘scripting the moves.’ At Brunel our philosophy is that leaders own part of the HOW (the fourth circle) in helping to set direction and destinations, but that a good proportion of the HOW needs to be owned by middle leaders and at depth in the whole organisation. It is this distribution of the ownership of the HOW that secures wider ownership and sustains change, by those closest to the action. The WHAT specifically happens in the classroom, in departments and in all areas; it is for others to decide – they are the experts in their area. This is not directionless or risky, it is quite the reverse; the strength and power of our Destinations direct toward our preferred futures – we can let go and trust others to secure our improvement – a journey that becomes increasingly owned at depth in the organisation. Leaders that let go of the WHAT (operational aspects) and increasing amounts of HOW release potential, build trust and the capacity to improve. If the leader-owned HOW is evidenced, distilled and evolves, we free professionals across Academies to innovate, share and develop around the key levers for improvement.

Three words, WHY, HOW and WHAT, that have changed the way we talk, act and seek change enabling strategic leadership and empowering others to own and sustain improvement. We recognise when we are strategic (WHY and half the HOW), when we are being operational (other half of the HOW and the WHAT), when to let go, to trust and to realise when we are not the best to decide. When SLT meetings slip into the WHAT we immediately recognise it, because we have the language and model to recognise how we lead. This forces us to think differently and to lead through others…and we are back to the previous blog that challenges us to have an influence of 1.8…2.3. In top-down, leader:follower or command-and-control organisations the ownership of the HOW and WHAT stifles sustained and owned change and often shows a complete absence of the WHY – or the wrong why (compliance and threat). The title of Sinek’s book “Start with Why” is spot on and has been a significant and guiding aspect of our journey this year. (Next blog: David Marquet, Leader:Leader organisations and the importance of language.)

“Make it about them, not you.” (Simon Sinek)

Dr Dan Nicholls



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