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The secrets of leadership

By 28 April 2012No Comments

What makes a good educational leader?  I’ve been discussing that often recently.
I can reflect on my own career and the careers of countless colleagues.  Although I’m committed to the value of educational leadership, I question much of what passes for current wisdom.
There are the charismatic and exceptionally successful leaders.  I admire them all but no two of them are alike.  Each brings exceptional characteristics and applies these to their particular school.  If the school and the leader are fortunate, the leader’s characteristics match the school’s requirements.  If they don’t, it’s a disaster.
If the school is fortunate, a new layer of leaders is developed to support the school and to succeed when Mr or Ms Charisma moves on.  (Mr or Ms Charisma always moves on.)
The alternative is an adrenalin-surging series of changes and improvements and a return to status quo ante (plus demoralisation) when the inspiring leader departs.
The perplexing question is what supports schools as centres of sound learning.  I’ve seen countless headteachers come and go.  Those (and it’s the majority) who have done a sterling job have several common features.
Firstly they were, in fact still are, excellent teachers.  The head who can’t teach well has no credibility with staff and can’t support and encourage others to teach well.  It’s not a headteacher’s job to be teaching regularly.  There are too many emergencies pulling them from the classroom; that’s not fair on the learners but when they do step into the breach they need to do so with skill and aplomb and set a standard.
Secondly, good headteachers have an absolute, ever-present and inseparable commitment to both the learning and the welfare of their students.  Headteachers must look after their staff.  They must defend them against the brickbats of headline-seeking politicians or pushy parents but the interests of the young people must always have precedence over the interests of staff.
Teachers need to love learning and if headteachers are prioritising students’ learning, then learning must be top of their own agenda and top the agenda for staff.  That’s why CPD is about so much more than up-skilling, for the headteacher as much as for the youngest probationer teacher.  Unless all teachers are committed to their personal learning, they will never convince young people to learn.  Young people, teenagers especially, have an unerringly accurate, in-built hypocrisy-detector.
Educational leaders need the big pedagogic picture.  Instinct and subject expertise are insufficient.  To lead staff from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, requires a solid understanding of how learning happens, of children’s minds; of the social barriers to learning; of curriculum design.  Headteachers should not be intellectual snobs but they must be educational thinkers.
Perhaps most importantly, the best educational leaders are people-people.  Every member of staff is valued and respected irrespective of grade, function, age, gender or status.  Courtesy and kindness are the norms.  The proof of people-centred leaders is the quality of the relationships in their schools.  You will see that proof in the classrooms, certainly, but also in the school office, in the corridors and the lunch hall.  If you want to add key attributes, try humour, honesty, good  health and team-work.  The ability to communicate in plain English also helps.
You’ll note I’ve not mentioned raising attainment.  Of course improving performance is part of the job.  Improved attainment however is the cumulative result of achieving the other things in the list, and it’s part of the job, not what the job’s about.  The educational leader’s job is about values, not outputs.  If pursuit of the outputs murders the values, something is drastically wrong.
The above article was first published in SecEd on 1 December 2012:;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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