CLIFF POWYS AIMM could never be accused of neglecting the bigger picture. The principal at Glenella State School in Mackay believes that strong leadership in schools has the power to not only improve a student’s fortunes, but also transform communities, maybe even change the world.
“Every school is different, but leadership from the top down should have a flow-on effect,” says Powys, winner of Queensland’s AIM Emerging Leader of the Year last October.
“It’s all about making sure kids get better outcomes, but the end result is hopefully improving the whole of society.”
The days of school principals functioning in the background, simply carrying out government regulations, doling out the discipline and avoiding mistakes are long gone. In 2017, Powys says that principals must develop, motivate and instruct a team effectively with a particular focus on teaching and learning.
“If you’re not able to engage, enthuse and inspire your staff, you’re fighting an uphill battle,” he says. “We have a very flat leadership structure at Glenella and I’m always asking for input. The true expert is the teacher.”
A growing body of evidence supports the notion that teachers and leaders are the two most significant school-based factors in improving student achievement. School leadership is second only to the influence of teachers in the classroom in regard to positive student outcomes, according to a number of studies this century. A widely referenced 2006 British paper (Leithwood and colleagues) concludes, “as far as we are aware, there is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership.”
Despite the clear importance of leadership in our schools, Powys was the education sector’s sole candidate in AIM’s national finals in the Emerging Leaders category. This didn’t bother the Queenslander. He was happy to just be a part of the conversation.
“I don’t know who nominated me – if it was a member of staff or anyone else – but I’m very grateful,” AIM Member Powys says.
Emerging Leader award-winners must demonstrate strong leadership and management potential, skilfully deal with internal and external stakeholders, significantly impact their company or business, be capable of articulating a clear vision and show a commitment to personal development.
Notwithstanding his suitability for the gong, the school principal is well aware that an awards ceremony is not an educator’s natural habitat. “You have to have a strong moral purpose around why you want to work in schools. It’s pretty demanding on your time, your cognitive ability and your personal life,” he says, pausing momentarily. “Awards aren’t why I do what I do.”
Powys was successful at state level before competing nationally, pitted against entrepreneurs, chief executives, human resources professionals and an Indigenous community leader. The eventual winner was Paul Mead AFAIM, a sports consultant from Northern Territory.
“It was quite a mix of people and it was quite overwhelming,” Powys says. “Leadership in education can be very specific but one thing seems to cut across all industries: it’s all about the team and building a team.”
This can be tricky when 34-year-old Powys is managing older staff. “Some of them have been teaching for as long as I’ve been alive,” he says, with a laugh.
“When change is coming, I make sure I’ve done the research, and then I have a plan backed up by knowledge. I may be the youngest in some teams, but wisdom is a product of knowledge, not just experience.”
Powys is also a product of his environment: a childhood partly spent in South Africa under the apartheid regime has shaped his thoughts on life and leadership. His family escaped the country and settled on Queensland’s Gold Coast when he was nine.
“In South Africa, we went to an Indian school. We all looked the same, we all talked the same, we all had similar names and a similar culture. I was young, so I just accepted it as my reality, but we all knew that it was wrong. Is it fair that my father couldn’t get promoted past a certain level at his company because of the colour of his skin?”
Although Powys says his parents could offer a better insight into the day-to-day restrictions associated with apartheid, he recalls having to enter through a different door at takeaway restaurants and rushing on childhood road trips when curfew was approaching. The day before the family flew to Australia, a policeman ordered them off a “whites only” beach.
“Coming to Australia when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were talking strongly about equity spoke directly to my dad. That speaks to me, too. I believe if you’re good enough and able enough, you’ll get the reward,” he says. “I believe in the meritocracy. From an immigrant’s perspective, if you want to make something of your life, you can still do that in Australia. We came here with a clear purpose, we didn’t just sit and wait for something to happen. In terms of all the racism talk that’s around, I recognise that I’m different, but I’m not recognised because I’m different.”
In the meantime, Powys is content to further his career at Glenella State School, proud that enrolments have increased every year since he arrived there in 2014, but his experiences with AIM and the Award has energised him professionally with the knowledge that a whole range of industries could benefit from his particular skill set.
“I was following a linear path, but there’s more than one way to reach a level of success, knowledge base and self-efficacy. Leadership in a school, as complex and diverse and demanding as it can be, is actually transferable into a lot of different contexts, especially to do with staff and personal development,” he says.
“I love working in schools, and I love improving kids and making a difference, but it’s certainly opened up my eyes to the opportunities out there.”
LEADERSHIP IN 60 SECONDS
“When I was at university, I was a hotel security guard on the Gold Coast. That taught me a lot about the power of words and reading body language. Even now, dealing with kids and parents, it helps me read people.”
LEADER YOU ADMIRE?
“My dad. He works as a director in procurement for a travel company with a team of people around him. As a leader of our family, I admire his courage
WHAT KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT?
“That’s an easy one; it’s whether or not I’m fulfilling my potential. If I could’ve done better or know that I missed an opportunity, I’m tossing and turning all night!”