Are you SMT level 5 leaders?
Let’s hope so because you are in a good place if they are.
The idea of a level 5 leader is something developed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great.
Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation and its purpose, not themselves.
While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.
Collins details further qualities that level 5 leaders:
- a dogged, unwavering, ferocious resolve
- are fanatically driven with an incurable need to produce substantial results
- are more like plough horses than show horses
- apportion credit to events outside themselves when things go well
- take personal responsibility when things go badly
- set up successors for even greater success
- are hedgehogs
- are humble learners
The Hedgehog concept
The idea that level 5 leaders are ‘hedgehogs’ is an intriguing one and demands more explanation.
Collins believes that keeping things simple works because simplicity leads to greatness.
What’s this got to do with a hedgehog? Well, when confronted by a predator, the hedgehog’s instinct is to curl up into a protective ball. This response is simple and works as a response to any attack.
The hedgehog is therefore good at just one thing, rolling into a ball.
When it comes to a business, Collins suggests that companies should focus on doing one thing better than anyone else in the world and this then becomes the organisation’s “Hedgehog Concept”.
“The essence of a Hedgehog Concept is to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercising relentless discipline to say, ‘No thank you,’ to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test”
In other words, leaders need to keep the main thing the main thing and avoid the bandwagons, the edu-noise, the relentless stream of half-baked strategies and bungled initiatives so they can focus on what will help their school jump from good to outstanding.
At first glance, you might be wondering if this idea translates and slides over as well in a school environment as schools have to be good at lots of things not just ‘one big thing’.
However, it does work when we zoom in a bit more.
Schools can build a reputation for being the best at one thing and still be good at others things too.
So, if a school decides that it wants to be the best all-girls school in a district then that’s their hedgehog concept.
If a school decides to develop and be the best at sports then they should focus on their provision as being the best.
If you are a specialist school then you’ve already got your brand and mission sorted. If that’s you then is your school really the centre of excellence you want it to be? It’s no use being a STEM specialist school if one of your curriculum areas is lacking. The first aspect of the hedgehog concept is an honest appraisal of who we are and the situation we find ourselves in. Are specialist schools really as specialist as they say they are?
School leaders themselves as hedgehogs can focus on lots of areas such as behaviour, home-school links, CPD, assessment, remote provision and plenty more besides.
Every school should have an edge and a hedgehog that sets them apart from school next door and further afield. Leaders therefore have to think deeply about what truly sets their school apart in the marketplace.
Leaders need to find their hedgehog concept, their one big “thing” and it must be something that the school community can buy into and get excited about.
How using the ‘Hedgehog’ concept benefits schools
In order for schools to faithfully serve students over the long-term, they need to identify and commit to their Hedgehog Concept with a clarity of direction and purpose, self-imposed dedication and consistency.
Focusing on this single concept can guide key decisions, reject what does not align conceptually, and drive overall organisational success.
What does your school do better than any other school in the area?
The Hedgehog Concept isn’t just an organisational strategy either as it can also be applied to individuals and what we want to get better at personally and professionally. For school leaders this means selecting one specific professional development goal that you want to develop and hone such as:
- Developing your presence as a school leader
- Facilitating and leading productive meetings
- Building strong relationships with the wider school community
- Managing complaints
- Safeguarding and pupil wellbeing
- Supporting staff wellbeing
- Financial management
- Inclusion, equality and diversity
- Building trust and distributing leadership
- Challenge the educational status quo and innovate
The Hedgehog Concept is something we can all make part and parcel of our day-to-day just as long as we can protect ourselves from distractions, obstacles and pedagogical predators.
When explaining the Hedgehog Concept, Collins draws upon the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Fox philosophy: try whatever it takes to succeed
Hedgehog philosophy: focus on one guiding principle
“Hedgehogs see what is essential and ignore the rest.”
Like the hedgehog, school leaders with a singular focus are more likely to succeed and so it is especially important to have a clear vision they are prepared to fight for.
The hedgehog concept provides a practical framework for individual and organisational transformation.
Schools and their staff should work on doing one thing and one thing well rather than spreading resources around trying to do multiple things. It all comes down to asking what we are deeply passionate about and what can we be the best at?
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.