‘Leading People’ – Harvard Business School Course

Earlier this month I completed the Harvard Business School Course, Leading People, which in my role as a school leader, was highly useful.  I share here my key takeaways from this course:


Teachers’ Work Environment

What is good for teachers’ work environment is good for students’ learning environment.

In schools that teachers rate favourably as work environments, students are more successful.

For teachers to work well, they need to be included in addressing their school’s challenges.  Meaningful and lasting improvement is contingent on teachers feeling part of the decision-making process.

Take on the attitude: “It’s never a good idea if it’s just my idea.”

Set up systems for teachers’ voices to be heard.

Make it a point for teachers’ voices to be heard at every step, especially if it’s something that is to be implemented in classrooms.

Ultimately, teachers must feel the agents of change, not objects of change.  


Leadership Approaches



  • Present teachers with a plan
  • Calls for teachers’ ideas
  • Believe teachers will comply or “buy in”
  • Engage with teachers’ plan for improvement
  • Commit to implementing plan stogether

Devise ways to actively engage teachers as partners.

Strive to promote an interdependent school – where teacher collaboration is encouraged and planned for.


Teachers work environment



Leaders as Architects

 A leader is an architect of the school, designing and implementing targeted interventions to close the school’s gaps.  They do so by carefully aligning all of the school’s building blocks: vision, systems, structures, capabilities and culture.

Ultimately, it is your choice when to make decisions alone and when to include other peoples’ thoughts, ideas and suggestions.

While it is appropriate for leaders to make decisions alone sometimes, they need to make sure they have carefully considered the issues of whether to include others in the process.




Some considerations to include:

  • Is team commitment to the decision important?
  • Do you have enough information to make the decision on your own?
  • Is the problem well-structured?
  • If you make the decision yourself, would the team support it?


The demands of the job of being a leader are simply too great to make all the decisions yourself.

Leaders can delegate decision-making by allowing another individual or group to make decisions within specified guidelines.

Another option is for a leader to make a decision after getting advice from others.

Finally, you may choose to facilitate a joint decision using collaborative problem-solving, diagnosis and action planning.  This approach emphasises working towards consensus among team members.  In joint decision-making, the decision is not made until the leader and team members can support it – even if the decision is not everyone’s first choice.

Join-decision making is the right approach in some situations, especially when you need everyone to come together to share information in order to reach the best solution.  

However, a joint decision is inefficient when the leader already has all the information he needs to make a decision.

If a team cannot reach a consensus on a decision, they can become deadlocked.  In such cases, it is the responsibility of the leader to make a consultative or autonomous decision.

Studies suggest joint decision-making works well when you need both the input AND the support of the team AND when you as the leader are laying the groundwork for the process.


Contingency Approach to School Leadership

To be an effective school leader, you must take a contingency approach to school leadership.

As a contingent leader, you choose from a broad toolkit of leadership strategies and effectively apply the appropriate strategy given the context or situation.

Ultimately, the trick is to be tight on ends and loose on means.


Distributed Leadership


Distributed leadership is about recognising that everyone can exercise leadership in his or own.  

It requires high levels of trust along with clear parameters and guidance.

Without systems and structure to scaffold the work of distributed leadership, counting on this form of leadership to naturally function well is risky.

When distributed leadership works well:

  1. Individuals feel accountable for their leadership actions.
  2. New leadership roles are created and shared.  
  3. Collaborative teamwork is the modus operandi.
  4. Interdependent work is recognised and highly valued.  


The Authority Matrix: Four levels of team self-management


Setting overall direction

  • Establishing collective objectives & goals

Designing the team & its organisational context

  • Structuring tasks & deciding who will be involved

Monitoring & managing work & progress

  • Collecting & interpreting data 

Executing the team task

  •  Accomplishing the work itself


One of the major jobs of a school leader is to get others to lead and contribute to doing their best work.  In this case, for example, established systems and structures should be in place so that teachers can manage their own classroom behaviour issues.  


Collaboration in Teams

The goal with teams is to make sure they feel internally accountable as well as engaged with the work.

When you have too many people, you have a group – and not a team.

Working interdependently is difficult and leaders need to be ready to see tensions as normal.


Facilitating collaboration:

  • Emphasise a shared goal.
  • Display curiosity about what others think.
  • Establish process guidelines that everyone agrees to follow.

Teams ultimately have a “collective responsibility” to promote student wellbeing and learning.

What gets monitored gets done.

  • Reminding everyone of norms is important.  You can do this by typing the norms into the header or footer of the agenda template. 

At the end of the meeting assess what worked well and what you would like to change.

Treat the meeting agenda like a lesson plan, preparing in advance assignments for each team member to complete, e.g. asking them to come prepared with a learning resource or activity they would like to discuss.

Leaders play a vital role in cultivating collaboration.

The most effective leaders see their teams as agents of change not objects of change.

Trust is an essential ingredient to any organisation.  Trust forms the basis of all relationships and is earned through actions and interactions.

A leader can demonstrate trust by showing competency, benevolence and integrity.

Leaders earn trust by following through on tasks and initiatives.

Trust makes it possible for people to speak up more often and for the leader to give tough feedback.

When done well, building trust will invite staff to learn and work together.

Trust is foundational for changing belief and practices.


Cognitive Frames

People all have what are called ‘cognitive frames’, seeing reality in a certain way, which is shaped by background expertise.

Cognitive frames are inevitable.

The problem is that people can interpret their cognitive frames as reality rather than a subjective interpretation of reality.

Leaders can help by deliberately reframing a situation.

The good news is that when members of an organisation share a cognitive frame it creates shared meaning, it focuses attention and it motivates action.

Leaders can deliberately frame an issue to help their staff work together, in a productive and learning-oriented way.

Reframing-replacing spontaneous interpretations with more accurate and enabling ones.

The leader has to applaud and celebrate vigilance and learning.

The leader must deliberately reframe deviations improvement opportunities.

Frame problems as valuable input to improvements.  

Shifting peoples’ frames determines how effectively we achieve desired results.

Any time you have a problem that lacks an obvious solution you have to consciously and formally move into the learning frame.

Leaders must be skilful and discerning in deciding which frame to use.

Leaders must float consciously from and between a learning frame and an executive frame.

An execution frame works well when the tasks are completely routine, and the coordination entirely programmed.

A learning frame works well when the work will involve solving new or long-standing complex unsolved problems.


Four Iterative Steps of Learning Frames

  • Enrollment – emphasise the important contribution each teacher brings to the table.  Teachers feel a shared responsibility.  
  • Preparation – teachers come together to learn as a team.
  • Trail – implementing the intervention and collecting data.  
  • Reflection – teachers coming together again.  


Reinforce a learning frame:

  • Be explicit – we are all learning.
  • Model the interpersonal behaviours and collaborative behaviours – e.g. asking questions, showing respect for others’ ideas, actively listening.
  • Explain behaviour in practical terms – e.g. please let me know if you see a mistake or opportunity.


The most critical strategy to fostering acceptance of a learning frame is to practice it openly yourself with your staff.

Be open with others about what you are trying to achieve, allowing them to understand, give feedback and experiment.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Beliefs of psychological safety:

  • Encourages speaking up
  • Supports productive conflict

The ‘Learning Zone’ is where optimal performance is achieved – people collaborate and learn from one another here. 

Psychological safety also enables clarity of thought, mitigates failure and promotes innovation.

Tips for fostering psychological safety:

  • Be accessible and approachable
  • Acknowledge the limitations of your current knowledge
  • Invite participation
  • Highlight failures as learning opportunities
  • Hold people accountable

Signs that a workplace os psychologically safe

  • People feel respected and confront each other if there is an issue
  • People talk about mistakes and problems, not just successes
  • The workplace is conducive to humour and laughter


As a leader, it is critically important that you understand the operations taking place within your organisation and where they fall on the process-knowledge spectrum.

Execution-as-learning means operating in a way that allows organisations to learn as they go.

As a leader, in collaboration with your team, you can frame your organisation for learning.

That means:

  • Create a psychologically safe environment
  • Learn from failure
  • Execute through the iterative cycles of action and reflection


This cultivates the conditions for people to speak up, learn from each other and experiment safely.

Fostering understanding and conviction

Share our individual stories around experiences – this helps you get to know staff at a different level, to see shared aspirations, hopes and dreams.

From there you can springboard to implementing strategies as part of a shared vision.

As leaders, we often assume that others have the same information and context as we do.  The problem is that once we know something we find it hard to imagine not knowing it and therefore have problems sharing it with others.

By unpacking an important matter, e.g. race, and tapping into teachers’ personal experience with race, you can create a shared why behind the work.

For changes you want to implement, consider the why behind that change and how you would ensure others see the need for that improvement.

Listening and being inquisitive are important because, as a leader, it can be hard to learn the truth behind your organisation.

After listening it is important to take the critical step of taking action to show that you have listened.


Role Modelling


Role modelling is one of the most effective yet under-utilised tools for driving change.  

As a leader, your behaviour constantly has influence.



Espoused values

Enacted values

Values that are explicitly stated by a leader (e.g. ‘Each One Trust One’) Values that are exhibited by the leader and the employees


Summary of strategies:

  • Be explicit about goals and espouse values
  • Involve all stakeholders including students
  • Change behaviour, e.g. through poster competitions for students
  • Get everyone invested
  • Present raw data and have tough conversations
  • Find leaders to model the initiatives



Four Elements of Mindset & Behaviour Shifts



Fostering understanding & conviction




Developing talent & skills

Reinforcing with formal mechanisms




Managing communication is an important part of the leader’s role.  

Facts, context and details really matter (e.g. when racist language has been used, for example).


Managing a crisis

In a crisis, there is a tradeoff you make as a leader between waiting for all the information and acting on the information.

What might help in your decision making is to realise that uncertainty itself can also be communicated.  

Acknowledge to your audience that uncertainty is difficult, and that, as information comes in, you will communicate in a timely and transparent manner.  This will underscore your credibility as a communicator and leader.  

Best Practices for Communication During a Crisis:

  1. Identify the stake
  2. holders.  If it is appropriate, express regret or remorse.
  3. Create a SOCO:







This is the one message or action that you want your stakeholders to take away from your letter.

  1. Communicate completely and honestly.

Speaking up early and accurately empowers your community.  You gain control over the narrative by being honest and transparent.

Your role as a leader is to turn a collection of people into a collective.


Motivate People

One of the best ways to motivate people is by giving them psychic value.  This includes verbal recognition or more responsibility, which gets people excited about their work.

Self-care is particularly important as a leader.


Information-Rich Hiring  

A hiring process that ensures a rich exchange of information between the candidate and the school’s administrators and teachers.

It is important that the teacher population should be diverse to reflect the student population as this helps to dispel stereotypes.


  • Research from several fields – education, psychology, economics – has consistently shown the benefits of having a diverse workforce.  
  • Teacher teams are more successful in providing induction support for new teachers than conventional 1: 1 mentoring programs.  


Feedback for teachers

The ideal evaluation process is one that leads to “no surprises” between a school leader and a teacher when they need to meet for appraisal.  This is because course correction and honest feedback should be happening throughout the year.  This is only possible when school leaders are in teachers’ classrooms early and often, providing clear feedback and guidance.


Will Fastiggi
Will Fastiggi

Originally from England, Will is an Upper Primary Coordinator now living in Brazil. He is passionate about making the most of technology to enrich the education of students.

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