Sustainable leadership

For a number of reasons, I’ve been giving thought recently to the importance – and the challenge, in the current circumstances – of ensuring leadership, including headship, is sustainable. The past two years have tested schools, teachers, support staff, governors and leaders in ways the education sector has never been tested before. In my work with aspiring and serving leaders, helping to develop and support them, I have been very mindful of these words from Sally Anne Huang, the head of St Paul’s School, and, in October 2020 when she said this, the Chair of heads’ association HMC:

“If you haven’t run a school during a global pandemic, you can’t know what it’s like to run a school during a global pandemic – that’s a badge of courage owed to every headteacher right now, whatever their setting.”

I feel humble in the light of this comment. For all my leadership experience, I haven’t had to face this challenge, and I have huge admiration for those who have.

I’m committed to continuing to work with educational leaders, and I listen, watch, read and constantly learn so that I can build my capacity to do that. In the last few weeks several things have happened which have encouraged me to consider the issue of leadership sustainability, and what we can do to ensure leading our schools is manageable, and something that future generations of educators may aspire to.

I read this post, ‘Leaders with Lives’, written by Emma Kell for Education Support, in which she interviewed a number of heads and a deputy head to talk about the challenges of leading schools through Covid, and what advice they would offer to fellow school leaders about how to safeguard their wellbeing and avoid burn-out.

I spoke to 70 primary heads and senior leaders from Bristol at the annual conference of ‘PHAB’ (Primary Heads’ Association in Bristol), taking the subject of ‘Finding the joy in leadership’, and while I was there I listened to Laura McInerney talking (brilliantly) about the Teacher Tapp data into teachers’ and leaders’ fluctuating stress levels since March 2020.

And last week I watched several sessions at the online World Education Summit, including a presentation from Dr Karen Edge on ‘Why care, kindness and equity are mission critical for leaders in 2022’, and another from Professor Alma Harris on ‘Future-proofing education’. Both Karen and Alma considered the issue of self-care and support for school leaders.

Lastly, I have recorded an audio version of ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy Head’ with Kevin Mulryne for Crown House, and rereading the book aloud over two days made me thoughtful. When I reached the section about what leaders needed to do to preserve their energies and ensure they regularly take time to refresh and reenergise, I stopped reading and said to Kevin, ‘I wouldn’t write that today. It needs reframing in the light of the pandemic’.

In the light of all I have heard, read and thought on the subject, what would I suggest is key to doing all we can to make school leadership sustainable?

  1. Use your networks

No matter how lonely leadership may have felt at times in the last two years, we are never completely alone. But we have to develop, maintain and make use of our networks, within school and beyond it; professional and personal. We need to know when to send up a flare, and in which direction – we may need different networks for different reasons. No one expects their leaders to be infallible, and we have to accept (and embrace?) our own imperfections – they make us human. We need others, and mutually respectful relationships will build if we are honest and open about this.

2. Delegate and develop

Part of our responsibility as a leader involves the development of the confidence and capacity of those we lead. When we collaborate and operate in a collegiate way we are, at the same time, showing trust in others and helping to build their leadership skills – and this involves delegating some of the challenging tasks, as well as sometimes delegating things that we particularly enjoy doing ourselves. In demanding times, everyone’s leadership may have been strengthened and their resilience bolstered. Tackling difficult issues, and moving forward, tests us, but it can also be very satisfying and rewarding.

3. Be clear about what matters most

The question ‘What matters most?’ is one we have asked much more frequently during the pandemic. And making decisions about what is especially important has helped us to realise that the world has moved on, and our answers to the question don’t necessarily align with what we thought was particularly significant in pre-Covid days. Discussing this openly and coming to a consensus about what we need to devote our time and energies to can be liberating because it also helps us to decide what we need to park/rest/pause for now. We can’t do everything, so, as Alma Harris said in her World Education Summit session, we have to accept that and focus on doing WELL what we particularly value.

4. Prioritise

I am always aware that, when people say. ‘I haven’t had time to do that’, what they mean is that, although the time existed, it was taken up with other things. If we are clear about what matters most, that helps us to decide on our priorities for action. What will give us the best return for our effort and energies? What action aligns with our decisions about what is more important? What will we intentionally NOT do at this point? And then we need to focus on whatever is ahead of us and try not to feel overwhelmed by whatever is waiting in the wings. Take one step at a time.

5. Give yourselves credit

As an individual, as a team, as a school, make sure you carve out time (MAKE time rather than hoping just to FIND time) to reflect on and discuss what you have achieved, and what you feel proud of. Where are the ‘bright spots’, and what have you learned from them? How can that learning move you forward from this point? Thinking about the future, and not fixating on the past: how will our practice change as a result of what we have realised and recognised since March 2020? And what do we feel good about?

6. Time for yourselves

I still believe that it’s crucial not to neglect your own needs, your passions and your personal responsibilities in the light of your professional commitments. I think most of us appreciate that we will do a better job, and certainly demonstrate stronger judgement, if we are not exhausted and so drained that we are failing to function effectively. How we choose to rest/relax/refresh/reenergise may vary from person to person – and certainly no one can tell you HOW to do it. We make our own choices and decisions here, but NOT making time for yourself will never end well.

In ‘Making the Leap’ I talked about ensuring that, at points during the week and certainly in holiday periods, you should set aside time where you aren’t even thinking about school. I know now that, during 2020/2021, there were stretches of time where this was impossible for school leaders. They spent holidays preparing for navigating the Covid restrictions which would be necessary as soon as school reopened – for the children of key workers and those who were particularly vulnerable, and later for all pupils. Often the landscape subsequently shifted and much of the preparation they had done became immediately redundant. But I am hoping that, even though we are certainly not yet ‘past’ the pandemic, the picture is generally clearer now and school leaders are managing to create space for themselves – for example in the forthcoming Easter break, and certainly in the summer holiday.

You need it. You deserve it. And if you model sustainable leadership, it will help to ensure there is a future generation of school leaders ready to step up when their time comes.

Thank you for reading this.

Photo montage: John Berry

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