Intuitive Leadership

Intuitive leadershipDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 702KB)

  • Stop trying to know everything about schools.
  • Access the untapped ideas in your leadership team.
  • Listen to your intuition and change without recklessness.
  • Focus more on need and purpose than obligation and compliance.
  • Expect and embrace criticism as the price for being intuitive.

Most experienced leaders are comfortable with the notion that effective leadership is far more complex than implementing well-worn programs or knowing the most about what other effective schools are doing. However, the work of school leadership is often viewed in this way by those we lead. This is something to work on.

“Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”
– Jonas Salk

I believe that there is immense untapped capacity within our school leadership teams which is ignored because of persistent and outdated beliefs about what school leadership is and what school leaders should do. Underpinning these beliefs are some abiding assumptions about educational institutions that need to be challenged. First, the knowledge trap.

Many, many years ago the role of the teacher was to know a lot, to be the font of all knowledge. Of course, this was in an age where the base of knowledge, and the resultant curriculum developments, were reasonably finite. We knew the jobs we were preparing young people for and knew quite well the skills and proficiencies they would need to be employable within them. The curriculum was therefore quite narrow and specific, and we were decades away from being responsible for the prevention of bullying, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, driver awareness, drone design, coding, nutritional awareness, social skilling and even swimming.

Knowledge was the teacher’s domain. Teachers knew things. They were asked to spell words at dinner parties, and most of them even tried. They were viewed as knowledge experts. School leaders were the knowledge experts of the knowledge experts and the job was geared largely around knowing what good schools should do. It was a simpler time!

And then, in around 1990, the internet happened. This effectively shattered knowledge as a domain in which it was possible to assume expertise. Suddenly, everyone became a knowledge expert and Google became the immediate reference point for knowledge that had previously been the school’s.

We can no longer strive to be experts in what it takes to successfully run a school. So what will our expertise be?

Our challenge is the tapping of that latent pool of experience and creativity about what contextually applies in the diverse context of Australian schools. It’s not about knowledge acquisition any more, it’s about the application and contextualising of that knowledge.

This is intuitive leadership. Intuition can be defined as the application of wisdom to challenge default positions, customs and traditions. This style of leadership is about:

  • effecting change with intent and without recklessness.
  • embracing disruption without discarding valuable practice.
  • discriminating between useful bodies of knowledge and those that are a mere distraction.
  • focusing more on need and purpose and less on obligation and compliance.

By manifesting this intention for intuitive leadership in our work, others can see it and be inspired by it. Intuitive leadership can easily be compartmentalised and chunked  into accessible and actionable components. It is not overwhelming or embarked on as a whole. You can approach it by determining to do one intuitive thing tomorrow.

As principal of a very disadvantaged school where attendance was a constant struggle, we had battled and committed resources to our worst attending students, for little gain. We knew that there are often insurmountable factors for schools to overcome in the lives of students who attend less than two days per week. But what about those attending in the 40-60% range? Why weren’t they coming more? What was their excuse?

By breaking the tradition of targeting the tail of our data we began to focus on the area where the most growth and the most return on investment was possible. We were creative and bold about strategy selection. The result – a school whose attendance went above 90% for the first time in 35 years.

There are those who like to criticise the intuitive leader. Criticism is the price we pay for change. We’re easy targets for those who have made assumptions about our knowledge or expertise. That is reasonable. Our determination can simply be to accept the criticism as feedback and to respond only in accordance with that feedback’s quality and relevance.

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