5 qualities that should be in every leader's toolkit

Jill Berry

Following a 30 year career in education, during which she taught English and assumed different leadership roles across six schools, Jill finished as a full-time head in 2010. Since then Jill has completed a doctorate and written Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head, which was published by Crown House Publishing in November 2016. She lives in the Midlands.

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Image credit: Flickr // Keith Flannery. Image credit: Flickr // Keith Flannery.

At the third national #WomenEd unconference in Sheffield, Amy Jeetley spoke about how brilliant teachers don’t always make brilliant leaders. I absolutely agree, and would say that although the skills are in some ways related (getting the best from the students you teach/getting the best from the colleagues you lead), leadership demands something specific from us. Working with and through other adults is a challenge of a different nature to being an excellent classroom practitioner. So what is it that DOES make for effective educational leadership at all levels (middle leadership, senior leadership, headship, executive headship), and what are the tools every leader needs to have in their toolkit and draw on?

I suggest the following five things:

1. The capacity to win hearts and minds

In my view, strong relationships are at the heart of effective leadership, with the best leaders, able to generate mutual trust and build high-performing teams with clear emotional engagement and a commitment to discretionary effort. ‘Discretionary effort’ can be defined as all we are prepared to do above and beyond what we have to do to retain our job. Leaders who win hearts and minds are able to encourage, lift, inspire and motivate – whether this is a departmental group, a pastoral team, a whole school or a group of schools.

2. A commitment to the most effective communication

In order to establish such positive relationships – not only with colleagues but with students, parents, governors and the wider community – with clear and compelling communication as key. And communication is complex. We need continually to hone our communication skills, especially our listening skills, and not to fall into the trap of believing, “I’ve said it/written it, and therefore I’ve communicated it.” Those we lead may not have absorbed it and understood it as we intended. Striving for clarity of communication, and sometimes communicating difficult messages that others may not want to hear, is one of the challenges of leadership.

3. High aspirations for themselves and others

Relationships and communication are significant, then, but so is taking the most appropriate action. The action we take, and the priorities that drive us, should reflect high aspirations – personal, professional, and organisational. In my experience, just as the best teachers always want to be better teachers, the best leaders want to be better leaders. If we think we have ‘cracked it’, as a teacher or as a leader, I suggest that this indicates we have a long way to go! Complacency, coasting, arrogance and over-confidence will not secure high standards for us as professionals, nor for the teams we lead. This does not mean that we strive for unattainable perfectionism. It does mean that we recognise we are always learning, and have the capacity to continue to develop and grow.

4. Clear vision and values

Our high aspirations need to be grounded in strong, carefully thought through and clearly articulated vision and values. What is our educational philosophy, and is it underpinned by moral purpose? Do we have a sound vision which informs how we lead others, and a properly defined sense of the leader we most want to be, where we are on our journey to achieving that, and how we can move forward from this point? Do we also have a vision for the group/school/schools we lead, a community vision to which all have contributed and to which all have buy-in and commitment? Is it ‘lived and not just laminated’, as Mary Myatt would say?

5. A temperament which includes the four Hs (John Dunford)

Lastly, John Dunford, at the time general secretary of the union ASCL, talked in 2010 of four aspects of the temperament of successful leaders, and this has always remained with me. John suggested that effective leaders (again, at all levels), need Hope, Humanity, Humility and Humour. This seems to me an excellent grounding for leadership success. Many of the skills we need as leaders we can develop over time, but we also need to be temperamentally suited to a leadership role, and if we can cover these four bases, I believe we are in a strong position to build our leadership capacity.

So where are you on your leadership path, and which tools do you need to add to your toolkit, or perhaps sharpen and strengthen? Good luck!

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