Book title: Liminal Leadership
Author: Stephen Tierney
Publication date: 2016
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Liminal Leadership: Building bridges across the chaos... because we're standing on the edge is a totally engaging read from start to finish. This book is compact but packed with really insightful information which has been masterfully scripted.
I chose to read this book because I follow Stephen on Twitter. I have always agreed with his tweets and wanted to hear more of what he has to say. Stephen writes about his journey through 30 years as an educator, from being an NQT to the chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. Stephen’s love of learning and his passion for education resonate on every page.
I quickly realised that we have been teaching for the same amount of time. As I read the book, I shared his professional journey through to leadership, and recognised the successes and failures he describes. In fact, my favourite parts of this book are the letters he writes to himself at various stages of his life and the advice he would have given himself.
There is a focus throughout the book on doing less to achieve more. He talks about remembering to spend time balancing life and work, spending quality time with your family and not trying to be a perfectionist – all things that resonate strongly with me.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Headteachers at any stage in leadership and senior/middle leaders would benefit from reading this book. Not only does it offer valuable guidance and think pieces in a number of key strategic areas, but it also promotes keeping things in perspective and taking time to reflect.
As a practising headteacher, Stephen discusses many of the things school leaders manage every day. Through his relaxed writing style, he makes sense of some tough situations, such as managing difficult staff, restructuring staff, the changing climate of school leadership and budgets. He gives a glimpse into a future of possibilities too, empowering the reader to take stock of what’s around them and be driven by their moral purpose. He is inspirational for his braveness in stating what many are afraid to.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
Stephen has a really relaxed writing style; for a ‘work’ book, Liminal Leadership is easy and engaging (I even read this in bed at the weekends with a coffee in hand).
The book is interspersed with cartoons depicting the text, for example, there is a sketch involving two people in an appraisal situation 1. ‘So, which aspect of your practice do you want to improve?’ 2. ‘Looking interested.’ 1. ‘Looking interested?’ 1. ‘Yes my eyes tend to glaze over in your assemblies. The students have noticed.’ There were moments of laughter when I cringed as I saw myself doing some of the things that Stephen suggests we don’t (it’s my eyes that glaze over at some teachers' assemblies). Much of the book is written with this sense of humour, which is balanced with highlighting incredibly serious and thoughtful messages about making education work for us rather than letting us work for the system.
Having short chapters, broken up into chunks makes this book easy to pick up and put down, without feeling that you have to get a section read at once. For busy people this works well, and chapters are sensibly titled, for example, ‘What makes an outstanding leader?’ or ‘Building your leadership team’ which makes it easy to use as a quick reference book.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Every chapter in this book is referenced, which does away with a long reference section at the end of the book that you then have to trail back and forth to find. Research is all current and much is from known and trusted researchers and authors, for example SSAT (UK) 2015, Thomsett, J. 2015, Heath D. & Heath C. 2010, Munby, S. & Fullan, M. 2016.
Stephen also references his own work, The school lead or school implementation system (2016), which is useful as it pulls together aspects that he has already written about in his newer research and practice.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
On a personal level, I have taken Stephen’s advice and I now leave school early (5pm) sometimes and spend much more time with my family at the weekend, rather than with my head buried in work.
Professionally, I learned that it is okay to be brave and make challenging decisions about change. I have learned to stand up for what I believe in and yes, I’ll take the blow if it comes, but I don’t think it will. For example, in my current school, it’s been hard to make some changes in the face of a ‘this is the way we do things’ culture and a strong leadership team. It has taken a while but I am working on simplifying things and have shared my lessons from the book and other sources with my team.
In the chapter ‘The Emerging Chaos’, Stephen writes that professionals are feeling that things are being done to them rather than by, or with, them. I have taken this mantra to ensure my senior leaders listen to the needs of the wider staff when making decisions.
In ‘Being Focused’ Stephen writes ‘doing less is better’. This reminded me of some training I had a number of years ago, while in the early days of headship. It was about doing ‘fewer things better’ and shaped the way I worked in my old school. My new school was under scrutiny, which has made me forget about doing fewer things better as there was so much to do all at once. I am now at the stage where, having read this, I thought that this must once more become my mantra – and, by and large, I am sticking to it.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
'Use your time wisely; don’t waste the time of others.'
This quote resonated strongly with me. I am trying really hard to manage my own work flow and my expectations of others. I haven’t got time to keep bothering people and I don’t want them bothering me about minutiae, so use professional judgement and, in the words of the wise, crack on.
7. Please add any additional comments.
Even my cat found it useful as somewhere to rest his weary paws which was approved of by the @leadinglearner himself!
— Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) 7 October 2017