There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that school leadership has a huge impact on student outcomes; second only to the influence of teachers in the classroom. If, like me, you are making the transition to headship or are thinking that headship is something to which you aspire, this only seeks to emphasise the responsibility we have towards the whole school community.
I wonder, therefore, whether you have considered the plethora of advice and research there is available for future leaders. If you have not, let me provide you with just one example. James McGregor Burns, in his book, ‘Leadership’, introduced the concept of transformational leadership. This form of leadership focuses on the ability of the leader to not only create an inspirational vision of the future but also to manage the delivery of the vision and to build strong relationships with the team who are able to look beyond their own self-interest to work in unity for the fulfilment of this vision. This sounds idealistic but its importance is reiterated by John Maxwell who, in his ‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’, comments that: “the single biggest way to impact an organisation is to focus on transformational leadership. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organisation that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.”
Such statements are rather intimidating for the new leader! After all, although evidently successful as teachers and managers, how are we to make this transition to become inspirational leaders? Furthermore, how do we do so in a matter of weeks; often between July and September?
We also need to remember that there is a significant difference between being a leader and a manager. A leader is one who can inspire people to align themselves to his/her vision whereas a manager is one who enables the organisation to keep functioning. Furthermore, although many researchers propose that leadership is, to a certain extent, innate – you either have those skills or not – for the majority of us, leadership is something that needs to be cultivated and developed. We do not instantly become transformational leaders on the first day of term in our new roles.
Perhaps then, we need to focus on those skills that can cultivate and develop our leadership capacities rather than expecting too much too quickly. Erika Anderson’s advice is interesting in this regard. She suggests that to become a great leader we need to become self-aware; do we really know our strengths and weaknesses? What do we really believe about education? What are the values that inspire us personally? We might need help with this – inviting feedback from those around us and really listening to what we hear. Of course, many of the skills we will develop we have already done so in previous management roles. After all, what does it take to be a great manager? The ability to communicate, to motivate our teams, to delegate and to be motivated, passionate and flexible are all important skills that we learned as managers and can continue to nurture in our quest to become great leaders.
As someone with a background in Philosophy, I always consider the lessons that we can learn from the ancient world. Confucianism and Taoism are fantastic in this respect and can provide excellent lessons in successful leadership. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who founded philosophical Taoism, says: “a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Focusing, therefore, on the importance of dynamic relationships and team work are important and are skills that we can also encourage in those we teach. In his Analects, Confucius also argues that our own personal example is crucial to leadership success. He argues that being virtuous, leading fairly and wisely, thinking and then acting decisively, are crucial:
“The Master said, ‘Let him preside over them with gravity; then they will reverence him. Let him be final and kind to all; then they will be faithful to him. Let him advance the good… then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous.”
Whichever theories or schools of thought inspire us in our move to headship, we cannot doubt the importance of the role we have taken on. It is this, in itself, which should inspire us to cultivate and develop those skills necessary to lead the next generation of students.
Helen Jeys is the new Headmistress of Alderley Edge School for Girls.