- Leaders should have a good knowledge of all areas of school operation, but must surround themselves with ‘experts’ who have superior knowledge in their specific areas of responsibility.
- Good leaders avoid complacency and continually work at maintaining and improving standards.
- The best leaders aren’t frightened of being different and don’t succumb to pressure; they make decisions that they feel are in the best interests the school.
- People with a clear direction and vision are usually able to make decisions quickly because they know exactly what fits with their goals.
- Leaders need to accept responsibility when they make a mistake, rather than losing face by trying to deny it and appearing untrustworthy.
Leadership is a much-talked-about commodity in education, thanks largely to the recent efforts of Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has rightly shone a light on its importance to the success of schools. Before discussing what good leadership looks like, let’s first be clear about what leaders do. True leaders devise new directions, communicate the message then get things done. Adhering to the status quo, following a rulebook or copying others is management, and the result is rarely better than the original.
Articles about leadership normally follow a formula, with crucial but oft-repeated mantras such as ‘lead from the front’ offered up as advice. In the list below I have taken a more subtle view, concentrating on some of the overlooked yet essential personal characteristics needed to be an outstanding leader.
1 Know your school
Leaders must know how all areas of the school operate. It is no good, for example, saying ‘I’m not very good with data’ or, ‘I don’t do finance’ because leaving responsibility and oversight entirely to another member of staff creates the potential for things to go wrong. As a headteacher, you cannot afford any ‘dark corners’ where you do not know enough about a particular area of operation. If you do, you should aim to rectify the situation quickly, as incompetence or deceit (pretending you know more than you do) can be dangerous.
2 Surround yourself with people better than you
Having a good knowledge of all areas of school operation is vital, but is still not enough to ensure that your school can be the very best. Headteachers do not have enough time to know all these areas in sufficient depth to excel. The answer is to surround yourself with ‘experts’, other leaders who have a superior knowledge to you in their specific area of responsibility. You should provide leaders with knowledge and insight into the issues of other areas, so they can see the big picture, but I do not believe you should rotate responsibilities every year or two to give people experience. Being the best needs people with the very best knowledge, and ‘squad rotation’ works against this.
3 Keep your ego in check
I have seen a good number of headteachers, and indeed senior leaders in general, who have a hard time when one of the people they lead has better knowledge than them. They seem to develop the idea that because they are in a more senior position they should know more than others with whom they work. This is clearly nonsense, but some leaders find good people a threat and recruit poorer quality people – whether consciously or subconsciously. I prefer to recruit the very best, because they ultimately will help me to do my job better and will improve the performance of the school. More than this, I openly acknowledge their superiority in meetings. It doesn’t make me look like I am ignorant of those areas, just that I appreciate and value their knowledge, which serves to improve their confidence as leaders and team cohesion as a whole.
4 Good leaders are servants
Don’t have the impression that because you have the ultimate say in things, people should be constantly running around trying to please you. A major part of your role as leader is to support the staff who report to you. See yourself akin to a farmer whose job is to set the fertile ground for good things to grow, then to tend these as they develop into the great outcomes you imagined. Make no mistake, as a headteacher you are a major part of the school’s support staff.
5 Avoid complacency
Complacency is one of the fatal traps for headteachers. After many years of toil climbing the greasy pole, the temptation is to give yourself a great big pat on the back, fall in love with yourself and take your foot off the pedal. The rule here is to ‘keep on doing what got you there’, retaining the edge and remembering that you are only ever as good as your last set of results.
6 Be prepared to be different
Most decisions are relatively easy in that a consensus is often quickly reached, so it is easy to agree a course of action. In terms of senior team dynamics, the difficulties arise when there are clear differences of opinion, or when you as headteacher are left in a minority – even a minority of one. Group dynamics pile pressure on you in these circumstances to follow the majority view. The best leaders don’t succumb to that pressure, but make a decision that they feel is the best one for the school – despite dissenting voices. Although you may feel isolated at the time, if you have truly consulted with others and discussed a proposal, a decision to go it alone will generally be respected. When you are inevitably placed in that situation, remember that if you want to stand out from other schools you will have to do something innovative or different at some point.
7 Be decisive
If you struggle to make a decision you are unlikely to be an effective leader. People who have a clear direction and vision are usually able to make decisions quickly because they know exactly what fits with their goals. Conversely, people who take a long time to come to a decision appear either to have a poor grasp of where they want to go, or a lack courage, either of which gives a poor impression. Another factor to consider here is the fast-paced nature of the education sector today. Can your school be a successful organisation if every decision needs exhaustive meetings or to be thought about for a week? Of course, there are occasions when you need further information before making a decision, but don’t waste too much time over it. For those who do like to dither a bit, take comfort in the fact that your first thought is usually the correct one.
8 Take responsibility
One of my favourite sayings is, ‘Success has a thousand fathers, failure is but an orphan’. This recognises the tendency for people to dissociate from failure, blaming others for mistakes. Don’t do this. If it is self-evident that you have made a mistake you need to put your hand up and admit this, rather than losing face by trying to deny it. People will respect you for this and see you as trustworthy. Denial makes you look weak, cowardly and untrustworthy – all fatal flaws which erode confidence.
Equally, if the school has a success that is mainly or partly down to you, shift the praise on to others. Again, you will be respected for your humility and gratitude towards staff rather than being seen as egotistical and vain.
9 Personal humility
You can have all the best ideas, plans and resources in the world, but good leadership is also about personalities and relationships. A great way to win people over is to show that you don’t take yourself too seriously, allowing people to pull your leg or making the occasional joke about you. Many are afraid of doing this as they think it might make them look weak. If staff can see how seriously you take the job of leading the school, then the occasional joke at your expense will actually promote confidence in you rather than eroding it.
10 Take an interest in people
Being able to complete technically difficult tasks, such as writing a timetable or understanding how complex performance data is put together, is not in itself enough to make you a good leader. Having an interest in people and understanding their motivation and needs is also essential. By doing so, you can anticipate how people will perceive situations, and thereby be able to create an environment that gets the very best from them. For example, when motivating a senior leader who is more ambitious for success, you might talk about how they can ‘really make their name’. To the person who is more motivated by financial reward, you might talk about ‘the Mercedes you will be able to buy’.
In my view, this is a key reason why people who have only technical abilities and little empathy for others are rarely great leaders. So, if you are someone who is naturally interested in and attuned to others you have a natural advantage. If you aren’t, be aware of this and begin to develop an interest in them, as it is ultimately an interest in your career.
About the author
Adrian Kneeshaw was appointed as headteacher of Carlton Bolling in September 2013, which was the beginning of a very challenging, interesting and immensely rewarding experience. He has a passion for education, particularly in the enablement of disadvantaged young people, ensuring that they are able to achieve their very best. Adrian is very creative in his outlook and believes in taking education forward in innovative ways.