Follow the leader: Martin Reader

Final part of a series in which we quiz four successful headteachers about their leadership. Here, we meet the Headmaster at Cranleigh School

Martin began his career at St Edward’s School in Oxford, before moving on to Oundle, where he became Deputy Head of Laxton, the day-school arm of Oundle School as the two schools merged. He then moved on to become Deputy Head of Reigate Grammar School before moving on to be Head of Wellington School, Somerset in 2006 and finally Head of Cranleigh School in 2014.

 “Although these were perhaps the headlines, the key moments for me were found in the smaller roles,” reflected Martin. “Running the athletics or the RAF, initiating a scholars’ scheme, taking on PSHE or prep school liaison, running a working party on marketing for a new head: these tasks taught me not to be parochial, and to keep as broad a view as possible. Most of these roles had no defined job description: they were responsibilities, not tasks, and I had to initiate any changes, consult, compromise and put them into practice. Most leadership roles are like that. I made quite a few mistakes along the way and hopefully learned from them.” 

A turning point for Martin came, in fact, not as a headteacher but some years previously, during his first term in senior management. “That was when I was first party to ‘all the facts’, and not just the staff or pupils’ perception of them. For example, you might think the headteacher is being inconsistent, but in fact he is treating this person in this way because his wife is seriously ill and it is confidential. There are usually more complex reasons for a decision and for keeping counsel.” 

“I try to create strong leaders by giving people the authority to make decisions without constant supervision.”

“I was also pleased that I studied for a MBA in Educational Leadership just as I started deputy headship: it gave me a context of theory and research from which to reflect on what we were doing. It also prevented a reliance on intuition, and exposed me to new ideas from excellent leaders in all sectors,” said Martin. 

As far as key qualities are concerned, Martin believes that the wish-list for an effective head is a fairly extensive one. “I think we are all expected to be heroes of integrity and visionary foresight with amazing communication skills, strong empathy and the flexibility to juggle between being a business leader and strategist one minute and an approachable teacher the next – and with a hide like a rhinoceros. Ultimately, headteachers have to be true to themselves, be prepared to be vulnerable and sometimes show it, and realise that they cannot do it all by themselves because they are just not that good at everything.” 

Across his career, Martin has been blessed to work with some really good headteachers. “Above all, what I have taken from each of them was the need to sustain a deep personal and moral commitment to the pupils above all else. This means that I have always retained a certain restlessness: never settle for second best, keep improving. I remember so vividly David Thomas, who was Head of Reigate Grammar, whose maxim at every airing of ideas before a decision was always: ‘pupils first’.”

Martin is now passing on his own leadership skills to others. “I try to create strong leaders by giving people the authority to make decisions without constant supervision. I think it is also important to have smaller, lower-stakes projects for people to learn from. Humans like to be trusted, and are fulfilled and motivated when they are. With pupils, the principles should be the same: give them opportunities and trust, and keep reminding them that the most important thing is to find out who they are and what they believe in. The practice is harder than the theory, so I cannot claim to have cracked it.”