What makes a great school leader?

Are you born to lead, or do you learn to lead?

There is an argument to say that some people are naturally born to lead. You can often spot this in the playground of any primary school or in any secondary classroom. There will always be pupils that seem to take control of situations and are adept at directing others and getting others to follow them. These qualities will often be carried forward into later life. Many of the leaders of tomorrow are making their presence felt in the classrooms of today.

But, if truth be told, these types of people are the exception to the rule. Most of us have to work very hard at leadership. For most of us, it’s not something that does come particularly naturally. In schools, as in many other sectors, this can cause particular – and quite significant – problems.

Not all leaders can lead

It is standard practice for teachers to be promoted to positions of responsibility and leadership on the basis of one thing: being good at the job they are currently doing. But, just because an individual is an excellent classroom teacher, is willing to take on various extra tasks and shows a real commitment to the school, it does not necessarily mean they will be successful leading a large department. Similarly, even a highly proficient head of department might not make a great senior leader. For many, the step-up to having responsibility for the whole-school, rather than their distinct subject area can be a step too far.

Schools that promote on this basis run the risk of creating a leadership vacuum. All schools need leaders, but being good in your current role doesn’t mean you can actually lead. Leadership of teams requires an entirely different set of skills.

Of course, as a way to address this potential skills gap, most schools work hard at developing their staff. Various middle management and senior leadership courses, such as NPQSL, run across the country – either delivered by external providers, or run in-house or through networks of schools. Indeed, even the most ardent of critics of academisation would agree that the model of multi-trust academies does at least provide the opportunity for a greater sharing of expertise and staff development.

What makes a good school leader? Well, the answer to this question does not come merely from the completion of a particular course or CPD programme. Inevitably, it will be beneficial but no single course makes you a great leader, in the same way that a first class English Literature degree does not guarantee that you will make a great English teacher.

What is leadership?

It’s useful to try and unpick what leadership actually is. It’s also useful to recognise that leadership qualities and skills can be developed by all each and every day. Leadership is not something you go on a course to do, it is something to work at over time.

There are basic principles of leadership that we can all work on and get better at.

Leaders are good listeners

Leaders need to be able to communicate their vision effectively. They are often ‘good talkers’ but there’s a lot more to it than simply being confident enough to tell people what to do. The best leaders are the best listeners too. Many leaders fall into the trap of having what essentially boils down to one-way conversations with colleagues – not listening to others and being too focused on what they are going to say next rather than how others are thinking and feeling.

Leaders are good storytellers

Good leaders talk to people rather than at them. Humans are naturally tuned to look for the narrative of anything they are being told: How does this start? What will the middle be? How will it end? Leaders need to ensure that the narrative is communicated clearly to whoever their audience might be.

Leaders get to know people

Many schools suffer from a feeling of ‘them of us’ between senior leaders and classroom teachers and ‘frontline’ staff. Many leaders forget all too quickly what it is actually like to spend 21 hours a week at ‘chalk face’. Leaders need to show a genuine interest in the staff they lead. Only when leaders understand what it is really like ‘on the other side of the fence’ will the ‘them and us’ barriers be broken down.

Leaders lead by example

Strong leaders lead by example. Yes, they are good role models, but there is more to it than that. Leaders lead through action, not words.

Leaders never stop learning

Good leaders, like all good teachers, never stop learning. For most leaders, being good at it requires plenty of time and a lot of commitment and determination.

Leadership is needed at all levels 

Schools need excellent leaders at all levels. A school leadership team that has weaknesses might mask its flaws and be able to carry passengers for a time, but ultimately, the failings will be exposed, often too late. However, the real drivers of change in any school, particularly in secondary education, will be its middle leaders. This is exactly the reason why most schools invest heavily in the development of middle leaders.

But, we all need to lead. Classroom teachers have to lead their classes. It’s in the classroom that teachers can first cut their teeth with leadership.

There is much to be gained from leadership training, but the basic leadership principles: good listening, good storytelling, getting to know people, leading by example and a commitment to always get better are at the core of becoming a better school leader.