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Learning to Live with Leadership

I feel this might be one of those confessional moments which are sometimes part of group therapy for people who are struggling with an addiction. My name is Stephen, I’m fifty years old and I have been addicted to leadership since being elected Head Boy when I was eighteen. Leadership has come at a cost for me and my family …..

… the post below is one of a series of leadership think pieces in Liminal Leadership which is available from John Catt Ltd or Amazon, as a paperback, or from Kindle

The challenges of leadership seem to be increasing in a World that is becoming more and more frenetic. After fourteen years of headship my main regret/reflection is that I tried to do too much. Mr Gove certainly won’t be reading this blog but if he was my only advice would be slow down or we will end up doing lots of things badly rather than just a few things very well. We’re not in a crisis in education, in England, we are good but want to get better and more haste will not be the answer.

This post is a series of random thoughts on surviving, thriving and enjoying leadership. My key concern is the sustainability of what we are currently expecting classroom, middle and senior leaders to do.

You’ve Got to Love the Job

This tweet from @kalinski1970 neatly sums it up.

Kalinski Tweet
Working and leading in schools is not for the faint hearted, there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days. Parents have entrusted us with their most precious possession, their children, and we need to feel the joy of journeying with them, if we are to find purpose in our professional lives. It won’t feel like a joy every moment nor necessarily every day, in fact whole weeks can sometimes be less than joyful, but when you take the long view do you actually love your job?

It Wasn’t the Hours I Worked it Was the Hours I Worried

Looking back over the past fourteen years, it has been the inability to switch off that has been more relentless than the actual hours physically working. I may have stopped work hours before but my brain just keeps ticking over. My long suffering wife often ends up saying, “What are you thinking about, you’re not really listening?”, as my mind drifts in and out of another family conversation to a work issue or problem.  As the Headteacher there is no one to pass the problem to though a great Chair of Governors ( I’ve been lucky) Can help share the load.

The worry I won’t miss.

Both the work and the worry will affect your work-life balance, you need to find a better way of dealing with it then I do.

Just a thought, most of the things I’ve worried about either haven’t happen or they weren’t the really big problems I had imagined them to be. Hopefully this will make some sense; because I am worrying about them, they are known, seen and planned for. It is the problems that come out of the blue, from no-where, one rainy morning or afternoon that hi-jack you.

Take a rule on student’s hair colour for example. One whole academic year seemed to be spent maintaining our rule on hair colour with one student including some difficult meetings with parents, trying to find out whether it was cost or otherwise that was the problem and eventually dealing with the local newspaper which actually turned out rather well.  A strong line on standards plays quite well in the press. The point is it’s the unanticipated unknown, unknowns that hi-jack you and your leadership. They are the ones that keep you awake at night.

People Come with Problems

By this I mean people come with problems and people come with problems.

I actually sort out very few problems. As a headteacher you will soon discover that most issues are sorted by other people particularly if you have a great team that you work with.  However, the ones that tend to land on your desk are the most complex. Colleagues will bring you problems that have proved difficult to sort. Sometimes it can be a parent who won’t be happy until they’ve seen the Head. You don’t actually do or say anything different they just accept it as the final word. Other times there is a level of complexity of decision making that will require your input as the leader.


Over time, I’ve developed a way of dealing with the few complex problems that come my way. Meeting with the person is important to clarify exactly what the concern or complaint is.  I always put this in writing to check I have understood the issues.  This also demonstrates that you are dealing with it and their concern is important to the organisation. Make sure the investigation and gathering of data is thorough and seen from all viewpoints. Don’t rush to a decision but consider the evidence carefully. Meet again with the person to explain your decision and follow it up in writing. I’m not Solomon, I don’t always get it right, I just make the best decision I can.

Some colleagues have difficult and complex lives whilst others can go through difficult and complex times. Trying to balance the needs of the individual and the organisation will be a challenge. A teacher not in front of a class or a member of support staff not carrying out their job often puts pressure on others, it isn’t great for the students and can’t go on for ever.

However, failing to support people through difficult times produces an organisation where nobody in their right mind would want to work.  Staff go the extra mile and as a leader so must you.  Whether it is forgetting the rule book on who can or cannot go to a particular funeral, first day at school for children or the Christmas Play staff have a life outside of school – sometimes I forget this, work can become all consuming.  There is often no right or wrong answer to balancing the needs of different people rather a tension that most be managed.  Most of this work will be confidential, quiet and unseen.  What would your rule of thumb be when managing these situations so you are reasonable, equitable and balanced in each situation.

You’ll Have a Different Clock

Photo Credit: Bionicteaching via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bionicteaching via Compfight cc

It’s always a great moment when a colleague comes in and asks, “Are you busy?” I keep thinking one day I’ll actually give an honest answer but I think my face may have already done that. Both teachers and leaders have very busy lives but teachers have much fewer time slots to have that all important conversation.

A teacher’s life is ruled by routine and is very largely pre-organised. This may not seem obvious until either you retire or are promoted to a role where your classroom contact is more limited. For a teacher the timetable dictates your daily and weekly routine including to a large extent work outside normal school hours. The annual rhythm of students joining and leaving, coursework completion, writing reports and sitting examinations all add to a repeating pattern of organised work.

Time in leadership is different. Moving to Deputy Headship with a reduced timetable was totally disorientating to begin with. Sorting priorities, over different timescales and the flexibility to determine what to do next, came as a bit of a shock to me. Think about how you will organise and prioritise your workload when the school bell has less significance.

Avoid Ratner Moments

These are named after Gerald Ratner who had a successful chain of jewellery stores until a fateful speech in 1991, to the Institute of Directors, in which he was explaining his business strategy:

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap.”

Needless to say the business plummeted out of sight and you have to be of a certain age to remember the shops. The “regretted outburst” is another hi-jack that you will need to find a way of controlling.  What you say has far greater importance and weight when you are the leader of the organisation.  In the early days of headship, I sometimes had a quick conversation on the corridor with a colleague only to find out later what I had just said was now consider policy rather than a random thought.

Avoid Hybrid Posts

I seem to spend my life in two different time zones: there is now and infinity, the end of my nose and the horizon; the operational and the strategic. People tend to prefer or be better at one or the other and avoiding creating jobs that require someone to essentially be doing both, the so called hybrid roles, at pretty much the same time should be avoided if you want to remain sane.

I was interested in reading John Tomsett’s recent post, This much I know about … feeling like a dinosaur, in which I sense he was simply thinking aloud.

John Tomsett Blog

Credit: From John Tomsett’s blog post: This Much I know about … feeling like a dinosaur

John’s thinking is spot on as he muses about the two very different headship roles that are appearing as the current system evolves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an academy chain or conglomerate of schools, think more a co-operative venture in which, like the best of families, members look out for each other and meet the needs of the weakest at any one time.

We need Executive Headteachers who are part of the system and building professional capital across a local family of schools but are not involved in the day to day running of any individual school. We also need Headteachers who are making sure an individual school is the best it can possibly be for the students who attend it. They are very different roles. Separating them out I hope will make each sustainable and give the best of both Worlds. This requires a very different co-operative style of leadership and thinking to replace the competitive “my school” approach of the last twenty five years.

The External Accountability Era is at an End

I joined the profession in 1987. The following five years saw the Education Act 1988, the introduction of a National Curriculum, Baker Days (INSET Days), league tables, SATs and Ofsted though I don’t feel I can be held personally responsible for all of these. Without possibly realising it they will have shaped, influenced and affected me as a professional. The last twenty five years have been the era of External Accountability.

As a leader I will always have one foot in that era but feel genuinely excited that the next twenty five years may be a very different era, I will also have a foot in it. I hope to act as a bridge leading colleagues and the next generation of leaders from one era to another. The new era may see a more self-regulating profession, that is certainly my hope. It needs to be an era where we have a greater professional capital, the autonomy and respect that goes with it, and move from being good to great. This needs both greater trust and time.



16 thoughts on “Learning to Live with Leadership

  1. Another great blog Stephen. Very honest and reflective. So much of this resonates with me. I was head boy of my school many moons ago and I think I have always craved being a leader (I’m not sure what that says about me). I have been a deputy head for 19 months and only now am I getting used to the more fluid structure of my day which revolves around 1 or 2 lessons rather than 4 or 5. Very often I’ll be frozen at my desk (in my office) for 5 minutes wondering which spinning plate to concentrate on. I also struggle to switch off. Middle of the night wake ups are common with many and varied issues turning over in my mind. I talk to my head teacher at length about leadership and get a great deal of good advice and insight. I also talk to my fellow deputy head (and the ret of the SLT) which certainly helps me to understand my role.
    The bottom line is that I love my job and learning to live with the added responsibility is something I’m doing on a day at a time basis. Thanks for your honest reflections.

    Posted by mrbenney | April 5, 2014, 8:51 am
  2. Yep, I can relate to much of that(though an only in my 5th year as Head). Hours of work especially- when I was Head of Science in a big school I would often be up marking till the eRly hours each night, so probably did the same number of hours as now (almost). The massive difference is the stress that goes with it – I was in control of my marking and usually enjoyed it- it was seeing the product of my work after all. Hours of marking was tiring but not stressful. Now the hours are spent on suck complex issues, with big consequences often- totally different effect on my brain. I wasn’t drive by leadership- have sort of just got pushed along. However I like being challenged and enjoy solving problems. Matched with a passion for learning and an unshakeable desire to help every single young person that I can do so well – and that’s why I am here I guess. Mentally exhausting but hugely satisfying when you see even one kid make good progress (whether in a day, term or year)

    Posted by Kerry | April 5, 2014, 9:10 am
  3. One of my favourite posts yet!

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | April 5, 2014, 11:14 am
  4. This is a really helpful post. I have been a head for four years in a primary school in Norfolk and am seeing here exactly what you say about the different roles of executive headship and the head in the school. The idea that they are two separate roles and need to be defined as such is a bit of a lightbulb moment for me as Norfolk moves further into the model of cooperation and mutual support. I too am excited about the next phase – if we can develop a self-regulativa system of mutual support and accountability it has the potential to elevate the best practice and the education system in England to something that is far beyond the culture of fear and OFSTED tick boxing that has been the norm for so long now.

    Posted by Sheila Greenacre | April 5, 2014, 8:23 pm
  5. Great post – experience counts it seems, having years to reflect upon actually means a better future, maybe Mr Gove’s brand new world should reflect upon that

    Posted by Ian White | April 6, 2014, 8:03 am
  6. I have been a HT for 12 weeks now and when I got home from work on Thursday I described my role as such to my husband…. glad I worked in Blackpool for so long because being a HT is like being on a never ending roller coaster – exhilarating, fast paced, highs and lows and occasionally terrifying but all made worthwhile by those moments that simply take your breath away!

    Posted by Nicola Hall | April 6, 2014, 6:02 pm
  7. I have been a HT for 12 weeks now and when I got home from work on Thursday I described my role as such to my husband…. glad I worked in Blackpool for so long because being a HT is like being on a never ending roller coaster – exhilarating, fast paced, highs and lows and occasionally terrifying but all made worthwhile by those moments that simply take your breath away!

    Posted by nkhall1970 | April 6, 2014, 6:04 pm
  8. Great post Stephen! Always enjoying reading your blog. For an aspiring leader like myself your blog provides a valuable insight!

    Do you have any top tips for aspiring leaders who want to go on and become headteachers?

    Posted by mrocallaghanedu | April 9, 2014, 7:40 am
    • I’ve decided to have a leadership focus on the blog for a couple of weeks – if you look at the front page there is a post of preparing & applying for your first headship which might be useful as well as the one on advice to new senior leaders. If these don’t fit the bill then maybe I’ve got an idea for a new post.



      Posted by ExecutiveHT | April 9, 2014, 3:32 pm
  9. I enjoyed reading this blog, thank you.

    Posted by te4chl3arn | April 15, 2015, 8:26 pm


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