Learning from positive and negative leadership role models

Chances are that over the course of your career in teaching, you will come into contact with a wide range of different leaders – Middle Leaders, Senior Leaders, heads, and perhaps Executive Principals and CEOs.  Inevitably, some will be stronger than others.  Some may inspire you by their positive example, and you will learn a good deal from watching them, and from working alongside them.

One of the things they should have been good at, if they were effective leaders, was spotting and nurturing the potential of others, supporting and constructively challenging others to achieve their professional best.  Perhaps the best leaders you can think of did this for you.  Perhaps they encouraged and motivated you to go on and achieve even more than they did.

If/when these leaders moved on, the team, or the school(s), they left behind them should have continued to develop, grow and strengthen.  The best leaders, in my experience, do not create a culture of dependency so that when they are no longer there, those they led collapse without their guidance and example.  All leaders need to consider the legacy they will one day leave behind them – whether this is within a department, a pastoral team, a school or a group of schools.  They need to build capacity so that others take up the baton and continue the race – the drive forward to improve the provision and offer the best possible education and care to the young people we all serve.

It may be that the most positive leader role-models you can think of were also fine people, with integrity, honesty, humility, energy, warmth and the ability to lift others.  They may have inspired others with their commitment, their capacity to work hard while still achieving a sustainable balance in their lives, and supporting others to do the same.  They may have had confident and secure judgement (though I suggest that is something they will have developed over time, with experience and sound underpinning principles).  They may have had the capacity to tackle the most difficult issues without losing heart, or hope.

Just one thing about inspiring leader role-models to watch out for.  Don’t let their example actually put you off because you believe you can never emulate what they have achieved.  I have heard people say, “I could never be a head because I couldn’t be like her/him.”  The point is, if course, that you have to do every job in a way which is true to who you are and your own vision and values.  You will have learnt considerably from positive examples, but you will never be them.  Be proud to be yourself.

And what of the negative role-models, the leaders who have demonstrated how NOT to lead, and how poor leadership can disempower, grind down and demoralise the members of their teams?

I would suggest that you may have learnt even more from them.  If you find yourself thinking, “I would never have done that/said that/treated that person in that way/made that decision”, you are, in fact, helping to formulate your vision of the leader you could one day be.  Even if you are working for a leader you respect, as you increasingly find yourself thinking about what action you might take were you in their role, you are developing your leadership understanding and beginning to hone your own leadership capacity.

My concern is that some people see poor leadership and it puts them off the prospect of becoming a leader themselves.  It can even drive them out of the profession completely.  If that happens, who will lead our teams and our schools?  If you care about education, and if you care about what the pupils, and your colleagues, experience, consider whether you could go on to make a better job of leadership yourself.  Could you inspire teachers, support staff and other leaders to make the most positive contribution and find fulfilment in their roles?  Working with and through the adults, could you, ultimately, improve the lives of more students than you could reach in the role of one individual teacher?

I hope you do experience many strong leaders in your career.  And, although I don’t wish negative examples on anyone, when you do encounter one I hope it encourages you to reflect on how leadership could and should be done, and perhaps fuels your desire to become a positive leader role model yourself.

Photo credit: John Berry

5 thoughts on “Learning from positive and negative leadership role models

  1. So many experience negative leadership and then distrust other leaders who they encounter during their careers. Positive leadership is something I aspire to provide. I know that I will make mistakes but blogs like this will provide me with the guidance I need to ensure I am the best leader of the whole school community that I can be.


  2. This piece really resonates with me. I completely agree that I’ve learned as much from those who lead negatively, using power to control and demean others, as I have from those leaders who I respect for their integrity and who encourage others to grow. I think it’s important to reflect and learn from watching others leading in a way you don’t agree with so that you can really understand what your own vision and leadership style is.
    Thank you for writing this, Jill.


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