Characteristics Of A Senior Leader In Education

I took part in a really good discussion recently through @SLTChat on Twitter. The focus of the discussion was; What does Leadership mean to you. This was based on leadership in an educational setting. The usual key phrases came up including; clear vision, challenge, clear communication, holding to account and high expectations. All the things that you would expect to hear any good Headteacher demonstrate to an OFSTED Inspector. However for me there was something missing. I watched with interest for most of the discussion, reading the tweets and the good points raised as they came through. Very near the end of the session I gave my thoughts.

THIS is what I said about the skills/characteristics of a good leader…

“Leading by example is the only form of leadership. Only challenge others if you would do it yourself. Model how it can be done”.

This was very well received with a number of re-tweets and people being kind enough to tweet back about it. However, while I have always believed this is how leadership should be carried out, it actually made me question; What does look like in practice?

It took me back to my leadership style as an Assistant Headteacher working in a large school of 1500 students across two sites. My leadership responsibility was for the curriculum which involved doing the timetable, ensuring that the curriculum met the needs of the learners as well as managing duties for the safeguarding of students within lesson and social time. All of these jobs were made even more challenging with a split site school. Those that work in one will know what I mean!

Before reading on please understand that I am not saying that I am a ‘good’ leader. That is for others to decide. What I am saying though is that leadership is not rocket science, it is about ‘the action of leading’ and ‘actions speaking louder than words’.

Anyway, how did I follow my own mantra? The first thing I did was made sure that I did my fair share of teaching. I did the timetable, I could have made sure that I had a cushy time of it, but instead I used myself like a piece of glue to the stick the timetable together. I was an experienced teacher, therefore I decided that I would fill the gaps which usually meant taking on those groups that the other staff may not have relished having on a weekly basis. Every school has them so you will know what I mean. I even made sure that no-one switched site more often than me where possible. I did this to win hearts and minds and I think it worked!

The second thing that I did during the curriculum planning process was involve as many curriculum leaders (subject leaders and heads of faculty) as possible in the planning process. Basically what I was doing was empowering them to be part of the decision making process. They did not make the final decision, as the book stopped with me I had the casting vote! I did try and do as much problem solving as possible to ensure that most curriculum leaders got as close to what they needed as possible, within the constraints that we were working under. I did this because I wanted them to be part of the decision making process and selfishly I wanted them to think, “Wow, he really values my opinion!”. The real reason was that they probably knew the school and learners better than me so I was actually stealing their great ideas to make the curriculum better for every learner!

Finally when it came to duties. I made sure that I did more duty than anyone else. Why? The reason was simple, I wanted to show what a great opportunity this was for creating relationships with the learners that could be taken back into my own classroom. Again, this started to work after a while and more members of staff were offering to do even more duty than their allocation. As part of this idea of doing duty I was always one of the first to support in lessons when I was available and was needed. This developed trust and respect because I was supporting colleagues. I did not, however, discipline any learner myself through these situations. That would have dis-empowered the member of staff. Instead I supported them in the disciplinary action that was decided. This ensured that the member of staff was seen as the one handing out the discipline and allowed them to keep the initiative with the learner/s.

Why do all this and put myself out? It was because I was a leader and that is the way I felt that I needed to do it. To gain respect, to gain trust and moreover to be able to challenge members of staff towards the collective vision. I believe that you cannot, as a leader, challenge or hold to account or have a great vision until the basics have been put in place. The basic skills/characteristics a leader needs to demonstrate to their staff is that they can roll up their sleeves and be a part of the team. Being part of the team should be displayed right from the start and ideally before, or at least at the same time as all the ideological leadership takes place.

THIS is what I believe makes a good leader before (or alongside) any other OFSTED related expectations. These are the skills/characteristics that a good leader should demonstrate very early on in their leadership. Once done a leader will then be able to do the other more strategic parts of the role.


Footnote: Although my experiences are based around the role of an Assistant Headteacher in education, these skills/characteristics should be even more needed in a Headteacher as the main role model in every school. My belief is that a good or outstanding school has these characteristics in their Headteacher, unfortunately there are many schools that do not have this type of Headteacher or leadership team.


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