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  • Writer's pictureMark Raymond

Leadership Development at St Michael's Grammar, Melbourne

by Mark Raymond

This case study features extensive application of the ontological methodology in an educational setting - St Michael’s Grammar, a leading co-educational Anglican school in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Faye Lambert, Deputy Head at St. Michael’s is a participant in the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching. Dr. Lambert has extensively applied her ontological learning from the Graduate Diploma in a leadership program at the school, with excellent results. Part of this article draws on an Occasional Paper on the development of deep level capacity in schools written by Dr. Lambert for the Centre for Strategic Education (2007).


St Michael’s Grammar is a leading co-educational Anglican school based in Melbourne. There are around 1300 students and 180 staff at St. Michael’s. Since 2006, the school has undertaken a comprehensive learning and leadership program. This multi-tiered program has been delivered to all existing teaching and non-teaching staff, new staff and those in positions of leadership. They are currently developing a program for parents of students doing Year 10 in 2010 and for the Board of Directors. The program, called “Black Feather”, was designed by Dr Lambert working with the Organisational Development Manager, Meredith Carrington, and the Head of the Junior School, Annabelle Knight. A key assumption underlying the program is that the school needs outstanding teachers and support staff to deliver outstanding results for the students.

The program drew on research conducted at St Michael’s and outside the school on the factors that affect staff engagement in the school and their sense of identification with the school. The most important factor identified at St Michael’s – for teachers and support staff – was professional autonomy and the trust that goes with this. The second key factor for teachers was linked to their sense of purpose and for support staff, it was about open communication and support from the school’s leaders and teachers. The program also factored in significant research outside the school on educational change programs. The research suggests that “deep level capacity building” is critical to achieve sustainable change.

Deep Level Capacity Building and Trust

A key theme running through all aspects of deep capacity building is that relationship-building, based on trust, is fundamental. The arguments for this might seem obvious, but are worth elaborating on. They include:

  • Innovation, which is vital for deep level capacity building, involves an element of risk taking. Brain research tells us that creating a safe and high trust emotional climate is critical for a person’s ability to think, take risks and learn.

  • Distributed leadership, which is also a key foundation of deep level capacity building, only occurs where people are trusted to work autonomously and believe they are trusted by others to learn and innovate.

  • The ability of leaders to generate high levels of engagement and sense of purpose is underpinned by trust.

The Program at St Michael’s

The program at St Michael’s was designed to foster an integrated and holistic approach to capacity building, by focussing on key elements such as social and intellectual capital, values coherence, sense of deep purpose and distributed leadership. An underlying objective of the program was to create opportunities for participants to build relationships with each other based on trust, as the means to higher levels of engagement, productivity, innovation, and ultimately better outcomes for students. As Dr Lambert contends, trust is an abstract concept and difficult to measure, but powerful when it exists and deserving of much attention.

I would like to elaborate on the third program, the program for teachers in leadership positions, as this was the program that included a number of components from Newfield’s methodologies.

A key reason for the development of the leadership program was to provide support to teachers in leadership positions on learning what it means to be a leader and how to go about it. Historically, teachers who have been promoted to leadership positions are outstanding teachers with limited training in leading and managing people. This is what the program sought to address. The program begins with three and a half day residential which has been delivered twice with around 25 participants in each cohort.

Some of the key elements of the program included:

  • Giving feedback - a framework and way of thinking about, and delivering, positive and constructive feedback. As with professionals in a range of industries, receiving regular feedback is critical to the performance and motivation of staff and the level of trust they place in the leaders at the school. These conversations are not often easy, especially for staff at the school who have recently moved into leadership positions. The objective was for staff to be more confident and competent in having these conversations.

  • The role of language – in thoughts and in conversations - in generating a positive mindset and in having productive conversations. This involved participants becoming more attuned to their “self-talk” and in applying “linguistic acts”, which are specific ways in which words and conversations generate specific outcomes in organisations. The linguistic acts include:

    1. Making effective requests of each other. Making effective requests is a critical competency and requests are the only way that people in organisations can enlist the support of others to get work done.

    2. Making offers of support to others as a way of getting work done.

    3. Negotiating commitments (to get work done) in response to requests from others in a way that results in clarity about who will do what by when.

    4. Generating and sharing assessments (or opinions). The staff at St Michael’s are no different to anyone else - they are constantly making and sharing opinions, as a key part of making decisions and taking action. The program covered a simple approach to substantiating opinions, as the means for making more objective decisions and taking effective action.

    5. Declarations – A key act for leaders in making decisions on a range of things to do with the school and their roles and in clearly communicating these.

  • A powerful framework for effective listening, so that conversations with teachers and students are had in a way that leaders are fully present and attentive and skilled at asking questions that get to the core of issues. Effective listening and asking questions is a core skill for teachers in leadership positions as a way of understanding, engaging and inspiring their staff.

  • Critical self-reflection on personal characteristics that block learning and innovation, called “enemies of learning”. This involved participants reviewing a list of common “enemies of learning” and reflecting on their own “enemies of learning” as a way of getting a deeper level of awareness of how they might be habitually preventing their own growth and the growth of others without realising it.

  • Making and managing commitments, a framework for people who work together to get work done. This framework explored the conversational components in getting work done, which is common sense but often easy to overlook in organisations, resulting in lost productivity and loss of trust. The framework included key conversations mentioned above, such as making effective requests, negotiating requests, holding each other accountable and key responsibilities of the requestor and person undertaking the work.

  • An explanation of what is trust, how to assess it and how to generate it. This included practical self-reflection exercises for participants to assess levels of trust in their important relationships at school, as well as commit to actions to increase it.

  • A number of light physical activities, on the basis that intellectual learning can be applied more readily when it has been also experienced physically by participants. Other elements of the program included identifying and understanding personal strengths, strategies for managing personal energy as the means for high performance, and developing a calm and nimble mind for effective decision making and action. A participant manual provided an outline of key concepts, activities and language used throughout the program and a point of reference once they had returned to the workplace.

Leadership Development Program Outcomes

The contribution of the Newfield Institute’s material is readily apparent in participant reflections on the program: “ I have begun to critically evaluate the conversations I choose, or rather choose not to have. …I was also not aware that the reason sometimes I felt frustrated with colleagues was because I was not making effective requests. I didn’t realise how negatively these two issues were impacting on my working relationships or happiness at work’.

Various frameworks used in the course of the program received the following ratings of usefulness from participants:

  • The Feedback Model - 70% of participants thought that this contributed to their leadership development by “ a lot” or “a great deal”.

  • The Enemies of Learning - 65% of participants rated this as getting “a lot” out of or “a great deal” out of, in terms how this would benefit the school.

  • Making and Managing Commitments - 95% of participants rated this as getting “a lot” out of or “a great deal” out of, in terms how this would benefit the school.

  • Trust - 90% of participants rated this as getting “a lot” out of or “a great deal” out of, in terms how this would benefit the school.

The program also achieved the following anecdotal outcomes:

  • An increase in the number of conversations to provide feedback, fundamental to improvements in the classroom and in the workplace.

  • Stronger relationships between members of staff, resulting in higher levels of engagement and enjoyment in their work, and staff seeking out the perspectives of others more often.

  • Staff working together more effectively by making more effective requests and managing commitments more effectively. A greater level of self-understanding amongst staff – both of their strengths and their habitual ways of thinking - which is critical for enjoying their role, ongoing learning, risk taking and being able to take different perspectives on issues.

  • Staff are listening to each other more, resulting in issues being resolved more quickly and higher levels of trust and understanding.

Lessons Learnt

Participants rated the program very highly, with 80% indicating that it would contribute “a lot” or “a great deal” to their becoming a more effective leader. The reasons for success of the program were varied, but it is worth noting some of the things that St Michael’s believed played an important role:

  • The program was meticulously planned in the context of key research on change processes in schools and on research conducted at St Michael’s.

  • The program was supported by everyone at the school including the Head of the School and the Board. The Head of the School was an integral member of the program’s facilitation team, along with the other four members of the Executive team.

  • The program was sponsored by a senior member of the school leadership team who had the authority to make decisions and who was listened to by other members of the school’s leadership team.

  • The program was delivered by internal staff in senior roles, demonstrating many of the collaboration-related principles in action.

  • The program content was rigorously grounded in a range of disciplines (including Newfield’s methodologies) and was highly practical.

  • The program provided a ‘safe holding place’ allowing people to take risks in the interests of learning. It was a mix of both challenge and fun.

The residential component of the program is only the beginning. Follow-up sessions will soon include work on the critical role that moods and emotions play in decision making and action, including a moods framework which allows people to identify and manage their moods.

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