Oceanova Insights

Inverting the Pyramid

From hero to servant.


During the industrial revolution, hierarchies in the workplace were the norm. At that time, organisations and businesses depended on the completion of repetitive tasks in the most efficient way possible.

To that end, factories, mills, mines, and other organisations followed a top-down approach to leadership, in which those at the top gathered information, made decisions, and controlled power. Those at the bottom – the “staff” – were rewarded for conformity and unquestioning obedience.

It could be argued that a great number of the schools in our system still operate in this way. Continuous overarching pressure and new initiatives from central government, Ofsted, possibly even MAT leadership create a culture where the path of least resistance for school leaders is to follow a task management approach to getting things done. This, in turn, creates a climate of suffocating compliance within staff teams that stifles creativity, morale and discretionary effort amongst our highly qualified and talented teaching workforce.

In the wider economy, an organisational and spiritual awakening is taking place. As the nation’s workforce becomes more millennial, more and more people are seeking deeper meaning in their work beyond financial rewards and status. The desire to make a difference, to support a worthwhile vision, and to leave the planet better than we found it all contribute to this new urge. This could be good news for the teaching profession, with its inherently strong sense of social responsibility, which has struggled to compete for talent over the past two decades.

The millennials are also sending a loud and clear message to employers that directive, hierarchical leadership doesn’t cut it anymore. Whom we choose to follow, how we lead, and how we come together to address the accelerating change are also shifting.

All organisations must pay attention to these transitions, because of the radical reduction in the number of workers currently available for jobs and the movement into our working ranks of a new generation of employees with totally different values and expectations. Schools are not an exception. If our industry is to continue attracting and retaining top talent, the old ways of recruiting, rewarding, and leading won’t get us there.

At Oceanova, this is what we call talent management. Much of our work is helping schools to develop and integrate operational processes to improve outcomes for their talent, but in truth very little progress can be made until the senior leadership of the school undergoes an awakening of its own.

Now, in the most innovative and forward-thinking organisations, the pyramid of power has been turned on its head and leaders are focused on supporting the frontline service delivery rather than the previous leadership model of command and control. In inverting that pyramid, these organisations are practicing servant leadership.

The results of this transformation unleash the fearless, worldly, tech-savvy creativity of the millennial generation and create greater levels of autonomy, responsibility and discretionary effort amongst all staff. Team members feel more valued, supported and impactful. Leaders feel less pressure, more popular and better supported to achieve their strategic objectives.