The four qualities of great school leaders

This is an edited extract from How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning by Matt Bromley, published by Spark Books UK and available in paperback and ebook.

In my book Teach (2015) I wrote at length about what makes a great teacher. In short, I said that great teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and that their language with students is infused with this sense of urgency and drive. They need not argue about expected standards of behaviour. They achieve this in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience, sometimes through warm, interpersonal interactions with every student. They have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense, they ask good questions and give really good feedback – however it is done, students feel that they are learning, they know where they stand and feel confident about the process.

Great teachers, I said, know and care about their students and make personal connections. Although pedagogical and content knowledge is important, great teachers know that what matters most is how they apply that knowledge.

Great teaching is a nuanced, complex art form. And we refer to it as “teaching practice” for a reason – we are forever practising, forever striving towards excellence and expertise. And yet we will never master it. But great teachers never tire of trying new things, of taking risks. They experiment and evaluate; they try and reflect.

For a teacher to be consistently and sustainably great, however, they need to work in a school or college where there is also great leadership. Great leaders, you see, create the conditions in which teachers can thrive; they build a culture in which risk-taking is encouraged and in which teachers are freed from any unnecessary burdens to focus on teaching. This is not to say that great leaders afford their teachers complete autonomy. Indeed, great leaders create a framework in which all their colleagues are assured of providing the highest quality of teaching, learning and assessment and do so consistently.

So what is a great leader? I’ve already argued that great leaders are good listeners, able to care about and respond to people’s needs. I said that great leaders are consistent, fair and honest, and transparent and above reproach. They are sensitive and able to show warmth and to empathise with people’s concerns and worries, and they give quality time to people. Although, when a situation requires it, they can be assertive, determined and strong, they are always kind and calm and courageous.

In addition, great leaders are not consumed by what other people think. That’s not to say they are insensitive machines with skin thicker than a Tolstoy novel but that they are resilient and guided by their organisation’s shared vision, as well as by their own determination and commitment to make a genuine and positive difference to people’s lives. No setback will deter great leaders from achieving this vision.

However, resilience is not synonymous with an absence of empathy or social skills. Great leaders also have high EQs, that is to say they are emotionally intelligent. Some might argue that understanding how people tick is a more crucial to a leader’s success than being highly intelligent, that EQ trumps IQ.

The best leaders, in my experience, do not themselves possess all of the answers, they just ask all of the right questions.

Sir Tim Brighouse – former Chief Advisor to London Schools – has wise words to share on what makes a school leader successful. In Jigsaw of a Successful School (2006), he says that successful school leaders have three qualities in common: energy, enthusiasm and hope. To this excellent list I’d add ‘kindness’.

So what do these four qualities mean in practice…

1. Energy

To my mind, leaders need to possess resilience and determination, plus an indomitable will and passion for success. They need to show an interest in every aspect of their organisation, visiting all areas and speaking to all staff as often as possible. For example, standing in the foyer first thing in the morning allows leaders to greet staff who can then book a meeting later in the day if they need to talk. Shadowing a student once a term enables leaders to see their school from the student’s point of view – an invaluable and humbling exercise.

Great leaders need to stay calm during moments of crisis, and at such times need to be willing to acknowledge mistakes that have been made and then learn from them.

Finally, great leaders need excellent time management skills and that means using the diary effectively, delegating where appropriate and protecting their precious time. By managing their time well, great leaders can use the timetabled day to walk and talk, and downtime to read and respond to emails and letters, and to do paperwork.

2. Enthusiasm

Great leaders need positivity, especially when communicating their organisation’s vision and when reminding staff of past success as well as future promise. Such positivity can be exuded in state of the nation addresses such as assemblies, staff briefings, professional development events, and open evenings in which the leader gives a Henry V-style speech (in Shakespeare’s play, Henry V rouses his army as they go into battle at Agincourt with the words, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that shed his blood with me / Shall be my brother”).

Great leaders need to have an intellectual curiosity, too, reading widely and sharing articles with colleagues. They also need to lead by example, as a great practitioner where appropriate, but always as someone who loves to learn and always strives to know more and be more effective. Great leaders can also be role models by performing well in assemblies, by visiting tutorials and lessons to talk to students, and by covering lessons for colleagues to allow them to engage in quality professional development.

3. Hope

Great leaders need to display a certainty that their vision will be realised, as if they expect it to be achieved rather than just wish it to be so. They should always seek improvement and keep colleagues focused on the process of improvement by describing the journey from the past to the present (what have colleagues already achieved?) and from the present to the future (what is their next challenge?).

4. Kindness

Great leaders need to routinely recognise and reward success in a way favoured by each member of staff (some people like public adulation; others melt into a puddle at the mere thought of it). Celebrating others’ achievements should be an everyday part of what these leaders do rather than an afterthought or rarity. They also need to give quality time to people, having an open door policy does not mean being available twenty-four hours a day, but it does mean being able to meet with staff as soon as possible and listening and responding to what they have to say.

Great leaders need to be protective of their staff, showing empathy, respecting people’s privacy, remembering birthdays, and granting personal leave – without question – when staff have important or urgent personal matters to attend to such as family funerals. They should also set as their default position a genuine belief that everybody wishes to do well and will try their best, rather than assuming the worst of people.

And that, in my opinion, is what makes a great leader. But great leaders are also great because – like great teachers – they are human. And as humans they are fallible. They make mistakes. They do not always get it right.

Do not look to your leaders for perfection or expect it of yourself because, where you ostensibly find it, it may mask duplicity or inaction. Instead, look for humanity, for people who are energetic, enthusiastic, hopeful and kind but people who are also prone to making mistakes from time to time because they, like great teachers, are willing to take risks, to try new things, and to challenge and reform working practices in the hope of improving their provision. What sets these people out from the ineffectual is their willingness to admit their mistakes and their ability to learn from them, to dust themselves down, pick themselves up and keep moving forwards with energy, enthusiasm, hope and kindness.

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