‘We can all be leaders’

Mark Herbert, director at Leaderfull and former independent school teacher, discusses how schools can develop leadership at every level

I meet a lot of people in my coaching and consulting work who readily declare that they are not a leader. It is usually stated in response to a challenge put to them and prefaced by the words, “Yes, but…”

Coach: “Have you thought about trying to influence this group to understand your point of view?”

Coachee: “Yes, but I’m not a leader. They would never listen to me.”

Coach: “I have every confidence that you could achieve that dream.”

Coachee: “Yes, but I’m not a leader so even if I get there, I doubt I could inspire others to follow.”

Coach: “You seem to have a really clear message to get across.”

Coachee: “Yes, but I’m not a leader. All the leaders I know are comfortable giving speeches.”

The rationale behind these responses seems to be that some people ARE leaders and others are simply NOT.

Whilst it logically makes sense that for leaders to exist in the world, there must also be followers, I believe there is a real problem with looking at leadership in too binary a way.

Rather than declaring whether or not we are leaders, perhaps we’d do better to focus on what leadership actually is. Doing this might leave many people surprised that they are indeed leading when they probably thought they were not.

In reality, every one of us will have to lead in life. If nothing else, we will have to lead ourselves, taking responsibility for our behaviours and the attitudes that lie beneath them.

King of the castle

We live in a world that too quickly links leadership to position or title. This is doing great damage and many of the seeds for this mindset are wrongly sewn in our education system. Let me explain.

Some students are sports captains and others are not. Some are prefects and others are not. Some are on scholarships and others are not. Some staff are on leadership teams and others are not. Yet why is it that we can all too quickly assume that it is the captains, prefects, scholars and leadership teams who are the leaders and everyone else… well they are just not leaders?!

What do we mean by leadership?

It is simply wrong to view people in positions of leadership as leaders, and those not in these positions, as non-leaders. Leadership is about influence and not position. This is all underpinned by attitude.

At its heart, leadership is about positively influencing other people through relationships. In different ways, we can all seek to do this, meaning that in different ways, we can all be leaders.

Celebrating leadership in all its colours

One of the things that first motivated me to start a teaching career (and to indeed continue seeking to influence education today as a coach) is the recognition that every person is unique.

Education for me is about tapping into this individuality and seeking to inspire people to be the best version of themselves. Our uniqueness shapes our temperaments, behaviours, worldview, abilities and motivations. It also shapes the style and types of leaders that we are or could be. No two people are the same, meaning no two leaders will be the same.

How might it positively transform our educational systems if together we all recognised this and committed to celebrating the richness of the different styles and forms of leadership that do in fact already exist?

Some leaders are inspirational and naturally lead from the front. But let us not forget those whose leadership effectiveness comes through quietly drawing alongside and nurturing the outsider. Some leaders are creative and visionary. But let us not forget the value of leaders who bring great clarity and precision, sweating the small stuff behind the scenes.

Our society (and schools I fear), all too readily recognise and promote the inspirational, confident, visionary leaders, at the expense of the more reflective, understated, steady leaders. Leadership comes in many colours and various shades within each colour. We would do well to more intentionally affirm this.

I recently visited a prep school in Surrey and shared these thoughts with a group of Year 7 students. Two remarkable mindset shifts were observed in a relatively short space of time. Firstly, I saw how the inspirational, confident, visionary young people began to appreciate the value of complimentary leadership styles and became more ready to listen to their peers rather than characteristically charging forwards ‘their way.

I also observed some of the quieter, more reflective and less confident students feeling empowered that they had a voice and no longer feeling they had to ‘fake it’ in order to have an influence or to fit in. What a joy it was to see!

Leadership starts with character

A great deal of leadership development focuses on the task of leading. The emphasis so often on ‘how to…’ develop culture, cast vision, communicate clearly, inspire others. These are all vital components to leadership but can only be effectively deployed when built on foundations of solid character and attitude. If I do not know myself, I cannot lead myself.

Perhaps we could do more in our schools and colleges to emphasise the people we are becoming, over and above insisting on only celebrating the things we are achieving. One way to do this is to encourage every student and staff member to set themselves a year-end goal, but to ensure this is more focused around character than competence.

A model to reflect on

The model below presents what I view as the six main components to leadership development.

We begin with self-awareness and taking personal responsibility for our attitudes and actions. This is followed by seeking to understand other people. In turn, connection is fuelled which enables effective communication.

Relationships inevitably bring about conflict but when founded on mutual respect, present opportunities for both sides to grow. This all builds trust which provides the context for developing others.

Leadership is not a position or a destination. It is a posture and a journey. We can all have leadership influence meaning we can all be leaders – staff and students alike.


Spend some time reflecting on the leadership culture at your school.

  • What are you doing well?
  • Where have you got room for growth?
  • What could you do to release untapped leadership potential?
  • What difference would this make?


Mark Herbert’s book, I’m Not a Leader, is available to buy now.  

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