On the loneliness of leadership

One of the things I’m doing at the moment is reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third part of her Thomas Cromwell/Henry VIII trilogy.  I’m enjoying it very much, as I did the first two books – she is a quite exceptional writer, I think.  In the chapter I read today, Cromwell reflects on his relationship with the king, and remembers, “The first time I came into Henry’s presence, it was like the Fox and the Lion.  I trembled at the sight.  But the second time, I crept a bit nearer and had a good look.  And what did I see?  I saw his solitude.”

I have been thinking about writing a post about the loneliness of leadership for a while, ever since this piece for BBCTeach was published early in March.  In ‘Five Tips for Thriving as a New Leader’, one of the things I suggest is:

“People say headship is lonely: I don’t believe it has to be.

If you have others around you to whom you can turn when you need to talk through issues, problems and causes for celebration, this can be immensely sustaining and energising.”

John Cosgrove picked me up on this, and explained why he disagreed.  His view was that there are times when a school leader has to make a difficult decision, for which they will be held solely responsible, and this can be a very lonely, even frightening, experience.  We had a fairly lengthy (but measured, polite and respectful!) Twitter debate about this, with various others contributing to share their opinions and experiences.  At the time I decided I would add the loneliness of leadership to my list of potential subjects for blog posts.

Since then, our world has changed quite dramatically.  Here in the UK schools are closed, with the exception of provision for the vulnerable and the children of key workers.  Key stage tests and exams have been cancelled.  We are adapting to a new rhythm in our lives – social distancing, self-isolation, some shortages and rationing.  Medical staff and other key workers are carrying out their jobs under great pressure and facing daily challenges and considerable risk.  And leaders in all spheres have had to exercise judgement (often very quickly) and to make very difficult decisions on a daily basis.  This makes the possible isolation of these leaders even more acute.

One of the things I do in my post-headship life is to coach and mentor new heads, and I have been very much aware of how difficult they, in particular, must be finding these exceptional circumstances.  Inevitably, when you are a beginning school leader you are building your experience and your confidence, and you may lack self-assurance and belief in your capacity to rise to such a significant challenge.  I support as much as I can, and very much hope that leaders in this position have other sources of personal and professional support which sustain them, guide them and bolster their confidence when they need it.

I tweeted one day that I thought this was a very tough time to be a leader.  One experienced educational leader sent me a Direct Message to say, “IMO a great time to be a leader.  It’s a genuine test of leadership – one where we will only know if we made the right decisions when they’re in the rear-view mirror.”

I can see that – the appeal of rising to a challenge, doing what you believe to be the right thing while recognising that it is only in time that you will be able to gauge whether you exercised the best judgement.  It is a great test of your leadership.  But I also see that for someone at a very early stage of their school leadership career, this can be extremely daunting.

So is it lonely?

I never had to navigate a global pandemic as a school leader: to organise closing a school and moving to remote teaching and learning; to ensure that Year 11 and Year 13 students were not disadvantaged but received GCSE and A level grades which were carefully considered and absolutely fair; to safeguard pupil, staff and parental well-being in these exceptional circumstances and to continue to protect the most vulnerable; to negotiate putting staff on furlough if that becomes necessary; to address the educational and financial repercussions of all these actions and decisions.

However, I still believe there are ways in which the loneliness of leadership can be mitigated, and this is what I would have included in this post before the coronavirus affected all our lives.  I hope those who are in leadership positions feel it is still relevant and helpful.

  1. Headteachers lead, but they also work within strong teams. Your relationship with your governing body, your Trust/Federation or your Local Authority should be sufficiently positive, constructive and mutually respectful so that, when faced with the most challenging circumstances, you have a source of guidance you can trust and which will inform and sustain you.  Your educational networks beyond the school, such as fellow school leaders, can be a rich source of advice and ideas – and you should be able to reach out and share with them what you are learning, too.  Last Sunday’s #SLTchat on Zoom, ably hosted by David Weston and the Teacher Development Trust, and led by Kathryn Morgan, was an excellent example of this.
  2. Within school, you need a Senior Leadership Team, including a School Business Manager, who may well have a quite different perspective and skill set which complements your own, and talking issues through with this team should help you to clarify your thinking and to see a possible way forward.  I also found my PA a huge support and the source of wise counsel.
  3. Beyond your professional environment you need people around you who care about you, who will listen and empathise and help you to keep a sense of proportion, and to find a release from work so that you are not totally absorbed by your responsibilities. We all need to rest, refresh and re-energise.
  4. You have to acknowledge that you can only do your best, make the best decision you can in the circumstances, knowing that it is based on clear values. You have to feel confident that you are acting with integrity and the best of intentions.  You will adapt and adjust in the light of changing circumstances and new information, to monitor, evaluate and move forward as these circumstances dictate – to step up rather than step aside, and as Steve Munby says to keep “showing up”.

For further reading, I’d suggest this piece from Steve, and excellent blogs from @Southgloshead and @Missis_SCS.

Sending very best wishes to educators and leaders everywhere.

Photo credit: The National Archives UK – Illumination of Henry IV, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43746918

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