Leadership – what is it all about?

I have always been interested in educational leadership, ever since I first moved to a pastoral leadership role, internally promoted in my first school, and then on to be second in English, Head of English, Head of Sixth Form, Deputy Head and then Head.  Half way through my 30-year career I completed a Masters degree where I focussed on the leadership of creativity when I was Head of English; 15 years later I chose to research the transition from deputy to head in my doctorate.  I have read, thought, and talked a lot about leadership throughout my time in schools and during the nine years since I left headship and embarked on leadership consultancy.

I used to say that it was important to have the right temperament for leadership – that the skills you need can be developed over time, with experience and growing expertise, but that your temperament was key.  I used to say that in leadership, working to get relationships and communication right were the most important things.   I now still believe that establishing the most positive relationships and working to communicate effectively are crucial foundations for success, but I see that leadership success comes from the actions you take – what you do and what you choose not to do.  And although I still think that having the right temperament for leadership is important (and very much endorse John Dunford’s view that leaders need four Hs: hope, humanity. humility and humour), I can nevertheless see there are dangers in over-emphasising the power of personality, and that we mustn’t underestimate the significance of judgement, knowledge and understanding.

I read two reflections on leadership recently which made me thoughtful.  Tom Rees wrote a piece for Ambition Institute entitled ‘Helping leaders to keep getting better’, and Helena Marsh wrote an article for tes on ‘The secret of great leadership? Putting staff first’.

Tom suggests that the narrative of ‘transformational leadership’ is unhelpful.  He cites Connolly, James and Fertig (2017) and observes that “transformational leadership has been widely advocated in education and it is asserted that for schools to improve, they need to change, and bringing about change is a leadership act/practice”.  Tom asks whether change is necessarily the driver of success, and whether we should see the main purpose of leadership as creating a vision and motivating people through relationships and influence towards change.

Considering recent advertisements for school leader roles, Tom notes the frequency of words such as ‘dynamic’, ‘innovative’ and ‘motivational’ and questions whether these are necessarily useful proxies for effective leadership.  He wonders whether being thoughtful, knowledgeable, intelligent, ethical, experienced, pragmatic, and a good decision-maker with sound judgement might actually lead to greater success in school leadership.  Might the “superhuman, heroic” vision of leadership be leading to burn-out, and be off-putting to aspiring leaders who are highly capable, reflective practitioners but who do not see themselves as charismatic, extrovert and dynamic drivers of change?

In addition, as Tom observes, “The idea of generic, ‘transformational’ competencies overlooks the challenge of transfer and assumes that practices or people can be easily parachuted into other contexts and settings”.

In Helena’s piece, she cites Rebecca Zucker, the author of a recent Harvard Business Review article: ‘Why highly efficient leaders fail’ and suggests that being too focussed on ‘tasks’ and working your way through a challenging ‘to-do’ list does not lead to success.  Instead, leaders should invest in the staff in their teams, and ensure they “inspire, develop and empower” others.

Reflecting on all of this, considering my own leadership experience, my research and reading and what I feel I have learnt over the decades, I would suggest the following:

  • It can be tempting to try to make your mark as an incoming school leader by changing too much too quickly, without due consideration of and respect for the legacy you inherit.  I do understand, and discuss in some detail in ‘Making the Leap’, that incoming leaders need to inhabit their new role, in addition to inheriting from their predecessor.  However, change needs to be thoughtful and timely and implementation of change needs to be well thought through and suited to context.  Building the confidence and capacity of others is crucial and leaders need to focus on winning hearts and minds in the early stage of their tenure.  As Tom says, ‘transformational leadership’ is not necessarily the only route to success.
  • Those you lead are your most valuable resource, and building trust and earning respect (which will not automatically be given along with a new role/title) takes time.  You need credibility if you are to win the confidence of those you lead, and showing you are knowledgeable, ethical and have sound judgment is likely to have far more influence here than charisma and dynamism.  You DO need to be able to lift, inspire and motivate, but this is a more complex process than just sweeping others along with your drive and vision, especially if this vision is something you are importing/imposing, rather than developing alongside the community you have joined.  As Helena says, leaders have to take care not to be too ‘busy’ ticking off tasks that they fail to invest in the people with whom and through whom they reach the pupils.
  • I have known charismatic leaders who appear superficially impressive, but who lack substance, judgement and skill.  By contrast, I have known relatively quiet, perhaps introvert leaders who are extremely able and who have depth, integrity and impressive strength.  We all need to be careful not to be overly swayed by a show of confidence and charm.  This is certainly true of headteacher appointment panels who also need to ensure that they do not always seek to appoint in their own image, and fail to see beyond what they might consider conventional images of what a school leader should look like, or behave like.  I always remember Jim Collins’ ‘Level 5 leaders’ in ‘Good to Great’ – they have great personal humility but strong professional will.


I am looking forward to speaking at #BrewEdNotts on Saturday 1st June when I will take: ‘Leadership – what is it all about?’ as my session title.  I will be asking the audience to reflect on some questions about leadership, and to share their insights and experiences.  Come along and join in the conversation!

Thank you for reading this.

Photo credit: gradwell.com


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