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  • Writer's pictureKaren Caswell

Middle Leadership Musings

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion for ACEL Queensland's Pivotal People network, led by Liz Benson. The topic for the session was ‘Middle Leadership in Australia: Where to Next?’ I was honoured to be asked to be a panel member, although I did feel the need to clarify that I wasn’t a middle leader (more of the why behind that below). After being assured that it wasn't a mistake and they did in fact want to include me, I eagerly agreed.

Leading up to the event, and particularly on the night as I sat and listened to the credentials of the other panel members being read, I had a loud companion on my shoulder named Imposter Syndrome, who kept repeating in my ear that I didn’t really belong there. I resolutely ignored this negative self-talk, joined the panel at the front and the discussion got underway.

Martina Traminer and Rachel Scott were my fellow panel members, and Olivia Ross was the panel host who facilitated the conversation around the following questions:

· Can you tell us about how you have you identified/found your next steps in middle leadership to ensure your ongoing personal evolution?

· Where/how have you found supports – supports for ideas, supports to keep your spark?

· What are some of the barriers that you’ve encountered and moved through/overcome?

· If you were to give one piece of advice/idea to other middle leaders/aspirant leaders on leading innovatively – what would it be?

· What’s your personal next step?

Whilst the conversation was guided by these questions, it also evolved organically as the we responded to each other, built on other’s discussion points and elaborated on answers. I learnt a lot listening to the perspectives, knowledge and experiences of Martina and Rachel, and am grateful for the opportunity to share a part of my story. I hope it helps others who also may not be on a traditional, straight forward leadership path.

Prior to the panel, I had written the post below, and whilst it doesn't perfectly align to the questions, there were certainly aspects I used to answer the questions.

A title. A position. A label on a badge. That’s what I thought signified a leader.

So that’s what I sought. That’s where I put my energy. Until I realised that this pursuit was making me feel unhappy, resentful and like a failure. So, I stopped (admittedly, after quite a few years) and consciously chose a different path.

My leadership journey is really a story of personal discovery and growth. It required me to change my beliefs and my mindset. To be honest, I know that in the years I was pursuing a promotional position I was a little too focused on the title that would go along with it. I don’t think I ever truly believed that I could lead without one – or more accurately, no one would see me as a leader without one. And of course they wouldn’t - as I didn’t see myself as a leader without one! The interesting thing is, I think I’ve been more of a leader since I realised I didn’t need one, than in all the years prior when I was trying to attain a leadership ‘title’.

I think of this time as moving from depression and disillusionment to discovery. The path I was travelling wasn’t working for me, so I had to forge a new one, both metaphorically and literally. How did I do that?

⁃ I took ownership of my professional learning - I read books, connected with educators around the world via Twitter and developed a professional learning network outside of my school.

⁃ I began a blog - writing is a way for me to process the thoughts and emotions (rather than them continually swirling around in my head), so my posts are mostly reflective. I found by being vulnerable and sharing, I’m not only able to connect with others, but my stories resonate and help them feel they are not alone.

⁃ I participated in, then started my own Twitter chat.

⁃ I began a podcast.

⁃ I sought out mentors to guide me and worked alongside them.

⁃ I engaged in coaching, sought feedback and used it to help me learn and grow.

At school, my own needs drove me to work on connecting with my cohort colleagues, then connecting us as a whole - I worked in a large school, so there were on average six of us. I shared my passions, ideas, and beliefs…and my struggles. We developed a shared vision and collaborated to enact it. We became the most cohesive and successful team in the school at not only meeting the needs of our students, but those of each other as well.

And all these experiences have helped my learn and grow in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Opportunities to speak at conferences, contribute to books and even be on this panel would not have been available.

The change in mindset, new perspectives, and confidence I’ve developed have helped me see myself as a leader, and in turn, my actions have become those of a leader…even if I still don’t have a title, a position, or a name on a badge. So don’t ask me about how to get those!

“Leadership is an action, not a position.” Donald McGannon

Over five years ACEL Queensland's Pivotal People has engaged over 400 middle leaders in high quality, low cost, timely and relevant professional learning for middle leaders across all sectors in Queensland. Their mission is to change professional learning for middle leaders - providing opportunities to grow as a leader outside their school/system and broaden their network. Liz Benson started ACELQ Pivotal People to fill a gap in her professional learning, and is pleased that in doing so, has provided PD that allows teachers to grow and explore further pathways (Steven Kolber). I encourage you to join the network and attend their events.


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