10 things everyone should know about great school leaders

By October 21, 2015 5 Comments

Teaching is one of the few professions where, as you progress and climb the educational ladder, the job you are doing begins to become almost unrecognisable. The daily routine of the full time class teacher slowly starts to fade and in its place is something that begins to resemble a desk job, with a never ending list of things to do that perhaps most class teachers are not even aware of. The irony often is, the better you are at teaching and the better the results of your students, the quicker and higher you travel. And whilst the situation is improving, there is only beginning to be some decent transition training; and little preparation. The rise upwards can often come with raw experience.

Like in other professions, there are innate leaders: those who just take that step out in front of the rest and hold the torch. For others, leadership does not necessarily come naturally. It is a skill that develops over time with lessons being learnt along the way. We are all human ultimately, striving to do the best we can. Having had the priviledge to meet and get to know some truly amazing leaders, there are certain traits that they all share. There is a thread of gold that runs through them all, making them shine.

What then makes up that thread? What is it that truly great leaders, leaders by definition have in common?

1. Great leaders remain positive at all times even when bad news has to be delivered, but they don’t shirk away from it. They are not so unrealistic as to kid themselves that they live in a sugar coated land of happiness but they are aware that around them are others that need for them to maintain a steady ship. They maintain course with a positive outlook which, even in adverse times, will have the effect of spreading calm and confidence. A positive approach will still require time to build a strong team but once there that team will be strong. Leaders keep this in mind, knowing that the destructive nature of a negative approach is often far harder to rectify, if at all.

2. Great leaders build their team to be better than themselves. They do not publicly suffer with insecurities over their own identity and recognition. They promote their team to be strong; understanding where their own weaknesses lie and ensuring that their supporting leadership team compensate for these weakness with excellence. Leaders continually challenge and develop the skills of their leadership team, making those that are within that team highly sought after individuals. Very often those same individuals will feel so valued that they only have eyes for one team and despite being readily employable, they have no desire to leave the team they are a part of.

3. Great leaders model consistency and reliability. They personify these qualities. They will not only talk the talk, they will without fail walk the walk and if they do fail, will hold their head up high and admit it readily, thus further inspiring their teams. We are all in it together.

4. Great leaders encourage risk taking and provide an encouraging and safe environment for their team to flourish as a result of those risks. They facilitate effective CPD and welcome the growth of their team as a result of the learning and experiences that take place.

5. Great leaders listen. Whether it be to the students within their school, the staff who carry out the multitudes of tasks, they listen, valuing genuine honesty and feedback and welcoming questions, knowing that it is as a result of this listening, growth can be achieved. Leaders know the value of a critical friend and not just from colleagues and students but from Governors and other stakeholders too.

6. Great leaders make time. No matter what commitments they are juggling (and they are), they ensure that they adopt an ‘open door, open mind’ approach and in this way make themselves accessible and visible. This together with listening, only serves to make these qualities stronger. Leaders make time to spend lunch times with the students, to walk the corridors and have conversations. They know that this time is invaluable in really being an integral part of the school.

7. Great leaders see the bigger picture. They are aware that their purpose is to lead a community which has the students at it’s heart but they do not lose sight of all the pillars that work together to keep this community standing. Part of that is thinking carefully about the force of least resistance. Great leaders have oodles of compassion and empathy for their community and do their level best to keep the wolves at the door, refraining from asking colleagues to complete unnecessary tasks: what is the quickest way to make the required progress? Leaders take that route whilst weighing up all of the other integral factors.

8. Great leaders are team players. They are always willing to do the jobs that others in the team are given to do. They are able to delegate effectively but also know when it is time to pitch in and they are always prepared to do just that. Their priority is for the team and the task in hand and very often this will mean forgoing recognition for their efforts.

9. Great leaders take responsibility for their decisions and their actions. They will be aware that lateral thinking is often necessary and that sometimes it is better to decide upon a course of action and stick with it rather than hesitate and lack clarity.

10. Leaders tackle difficult conversations effectively. They keep in mind the outcome that they wish to achieve and they do not shy away from the confrontation of a situation. They are able to separate the personal from the professional and deliver honest feedback and constructive criticism where necessary. With their positive and respectful approach to their team they are able to ensure that the ship is continually kept on track, guiding any strays back onto the path, even if at times this can prove tricky.

I know I said ten but…

11. Leaders know their own moral compass. They are aware of their own values and standards and they do not compromise them. Notwithstanding the difficult conversations and professional support of decisions that may not be theirs, leaders maintain their own values and integrity. Without integrity, a person cannot ever gain true respect from those around them. Professional integrity is about demonstrating those beliefs and values; about keeping firmly within their parameters and above all, leading the way through them and because of them.

School leadership is one of the most rewarding roles in education, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Let’s bear that in mind when as teachers, we don’t know what happens behind closed doors in leadership meetings that end up affecting the whole school. It’s tough at the top, but like us all – head teachers are that…. head teachers who are teachers at heart, doing the best they can for all in their community.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but the golden threads I mentioned earlier run through these various points like the east coast mainline. Straight and true. With direction and purpose.

Over and out.


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