Leadership


The indefatigable Jill Berry (@jillberry102) invited me to respond to a series of set questions based around the theme of leadership. The over-arching question being: What are your experiences of, and your thoughts about, school leadership?

Having read what she wrote, I put finger to keyboard and composed my own responses. Here they are:

What is your most memorable experience of leadership while at school?

In my final year at school I was promoted to the lofty position of House Captain. As I recall we didn't get much by way of training but were supposed to have picked up what to do having seen others do the job ahead of us (much as it still is in school leadership in many schools!) Aside from wearing a ridiculous uniform, the job mainly involved organising house teams, events and chivvying reluctant fellow teenagers into playing their part. It also involved, though - and here it was really useful experience - a bit of public speaking.

At the end of every term it fell to the House Captain to make a speech in front of the whole house (70+ boys, parents and assorted members of staff). I had seen this done before by my predecessors - some were clearly terrified by the experience, others, by contrast, were effortlessly brilliant. I think I fell somewhere in the middle, but have never been particularly perturbed by public speaking since. I can't speak without notes as some lucky people can, but I actually rather enjoy crafting what I'm going to say and then standing up and saying it. And having worked under Stephen Winkley - an inspirational public speaker - I am aware of the extent to which good oratory can make up for a multitude of sins.

What is your earliest experience of leadership since becoming a teacher?

I started my teaching career at Warwick School. The geography department there inhabited the bottom floor of a brand new building and the architects had seen fit to provide the department with a generously sized staff workroom. It was in that room that I got my first taste of being led and of being allowed to lead. Simon Chapman, Matthew Close (@matthewcloseSHS) and I made up the full time members of the department. We had a ball.

Those first few years of teaching, though incredibly hard work, were formative and great fun. Simon Chapman taught me a lot - more by setting a fantastic example than by direct instruction. Humour featured heavily in his management style; he worked hard and we wanted to work hard for him. Somehow it clicked. When Matthew left at the end of his second year Simon used to refer to me as his 'second in department'. I put that title on my CV, but had to face the embarrassment of conceding that it wasn't an official position when the wily director of studies at Uppingham quizzed me about it at interview! As second in department Simon delegated all sorts of things to me: schemes of work, the departmental handbook, off-site trips and management of the geographical society amongst them. I couldn't have asked for a better start to my career.

Which of your leadership roles (if you've had more than one) gave you the greatest satisfaction?

In their different ways all the leadership roles I've had have been satisfying: head of department, housemaster and deputy head. But I guess it is in my current role that I feel I have been able to have the biggest impact. Oswestry is the first small school I've worked in (there are only 350 pupils in the senior school). A few years ago I might have turned my nose up at working in such an establishment, but I'm glad that the opportunity arose and that I took it.

In large schools changes occur, but often at a glacial pace. Not so in a smaller school. We have been able to effect changes in months that would have taken years in bigger establishments. Added to which the lines of communication in a small school are shorter, such that everyone in the organisation feels much closer to those pulling the strings - there's more buy-in. Working here has been exciting and immensely rewarding and I've been lucky that the things I've had to do have married closely with the things I like doing anyway. Coming into work has been a delight - had I been independently wealthy I might have done it all for free (though don't tell the bursar!)

Think of the BEST leader (at any level) you have ever worked with. List their top three qualities.

  1. They didn't take themselves too seriously.
  2. They worked damn hard, and in so doing led from the front.
  3. They knew what would make a difference and what was flim-flam.

Think of the LEAST EFFECTIVE leader (at any level) you have ever worked with. List their three greatest mistakes.

  1. They were lazy.
  2. They moaned about problems rather than solving them.
  3. They were quick to cover their own back and/or to blame others for their shortcomings.

Describe succinctly the sort of leader you aspire to be.

Over the course of my career I've read all sorts of guff about leadership. And some people - particularly those who work in our universities and do very little leading themselves - are obsessed with pigeon-holing leaders. This sort of thing is characteristic of the genre:

I don't buy it - human beings are far too complex to label in this way. Leaders do not fit into boxes. Even a cursory study of Margaret Thatcher's leadership style, for example, reveals that on many occasions she exhibited a far softer approach than is popularly attributed to her. Similarly Bill Clinton could be 'tough, direct and determined to win'. All the best leaders are able to adjust their style to suit the circumstances. In short, they use their common sense and thus stubbornly refuse to conform to academic leadership categories.

So above all I'd like to be a leader who dispenses liberally large doses of common sense. I also hope I never become the sort of leader who is so concerned about ticking boxes and being 'compliant' that I lose sight of what really matters.

I am concious that I need to work on my brevity too!

What'd the best book on leadership you've ever read?

It would have to be Delusions of Grandeur by John Rae. Being an autobiography it's not specifically about leadership but it's refreshingly honest and, I find, reassuring. Though the events it describes all happened more than a quarter century ago it is amazing how the debates and problems facing educators have changed so little. Kids are kids, schools are schools.

Finish this sentence: 'Leadership is....'

....about realising that you cannot do it all on your own.

Who I'd like to complete these questions:

Philip Cheshire, the head I admired from afar as a young teacher at Warwick.





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