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Finding the right dynamic

Is dynamism really the most important quality to look for when appointing a headteacher? asks Hilary Moriarty

Posted by Dave Higgitt | October 23, 2014 | Teaching

Situations Vacant: only dynamos need apply

Now there’s a thought. How attractive would that be? And to whom?

I once heard a headteacher speak of how she was happily waiting in bed for her husband to bring the Saturday morning breakfast tray, (which I have to say does not sound like a dynamic scenario) when he appeared, tray in hand complete with single rose in a vase, and said: “The perfect job for you is in the paper – you could be a headteacher!”

And she could. She was a head of department at the time and, in the presentation in which I heard her tell the story, quick to point out: “Not even a deputy! I sort of skipped that bit!” She sounded quite gleeful, in a “wasn’t I daring?” kind of way, and she may well have been proud of this, since in those days it was unusual to become a head without having completed a dutiful spell as a deputy head first. But gleeful or not, it was not wise to throw that fact in the faces of people who actually were deputies, many of whom aspired to headship and most of whom had assembled to hear her pearls of wisdom about the job and how to get it. Getting it without doing what was almost thought of as the legitimate apprenticeship for the top job was ever so slightly red rag to bull-ish on that particular occasion.

Would her husband have drawn the ad to her attention if it had declared at the outset, “only dynamos need apply”? Would it have sounded less like his lovely wife if it did? Would she herself have been daunted by the prospect of whizzing about like a supercharged battery bunny, doing many great things in a hugely dynamic way if that was actually required of a head? Hard to know, isn’t it?

But that was then, and this is now. And in an era in which dynamism is apparently becoming a sine qua non of headship appointments, I wonder. And if that is what the ad says, how do they test the candidates, and how does the interview go?

“So tell me, Mr Bloggs, how dynamic are you? On a scale of 1 to 10? Hmm?”

No one likes to blow their own trumpet at interview – yes, I know it is a fine line, but that kind of subtlety is what you want from a head: a degree of self-effacing modesty is usually a good thing – “Yes, it’s true I did row in the Olympics some years ago, but it was for a very small country – they were quite desperate for chaps to take part, really ...”

But dynamism? Maybe a candidate would score points for leaping on to the table, swinging from the chandelier and rescuing the pretty clerk to the governors from the clutches of a life in thrall to the minutes.

Maybe not. Even with supercharged batteries, you would probably want them quietly purring rather than yelling in the board room. You would be James Bond-suave, flicking invisible threads from the elegantly crossed legs of the expensive suit and smiling conspiratorially – “We are, are we not, men of the world?” (Lean forward conspiratorially) “You know and I know that I can be as energetic, dynamic and effective as any governing body could wish, and any staff room would fear.”

No problem. Smooth dynamism, like a coiled spring.

But quiet or coiled or not, there is no doubt that dynamism is seen today as a vital ingredient in successful headship. Perhaps it is in recognition of the fact that headteaching is something of a killer job. If you don’t have stamina, you won’t last, and perhaps dynamism is seen as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible strength, physical as well as mental, and energy to spare.

If I think for a moment of the headmaster of the grammar school I attended, the word that comes to mind is ‘avuncular’. I rather wonder if ‘dynamic’ and ‘headteacher’ had even been yoked into the same sentence at that time. Did he do a good job? How was one to tell? Bright pupils did well and went to university, less bright pupils failed exams and went straight to work. I have always thought it ironic, and I hope not a true reflection of the whole, that there were in my sixth form people apparently in the middle who went to teacher training college and said for years afterwards that they had trained to teach, nah nah na nah nah, while we poor saps had studied subjects and hadn’t a clue how to teach, even with a PGCE. Whatever our fates, I do not recall a single complaint causing a stir in the ranks, not from us, not from our parents. Perhaps parents also lacked dynamism in those days.

There is no doubt that the increased focus on results – in all areas, sporting and dramatic and musical as well as academic – has turned a vicious spotlight on headteachers, and when appointing a head, governors are inclined to be understandably ambitious: taller, stronger, better, more degrees, more charisma, more energy, more dynamism. Come to us! Change things! Change them fast! Make us grow! Here and overseas! We do not want a mouse or a calm, steady, safe pair of hands – no, we want action! When do we want it? Now! Or rather, “NOW!!!”

Strident comes to mind – in the advertising, not in the candidates, though it’s possible the dynamos might themselves tend to the loud, the emphatic, the brooking of no argument.

It all sounds rather military, which is not surprising since that is surely the world from which the current model of leadership has been borrowed. Try the exercise in the staffroom – “Think of a leader!” Count how many people say Gandhi. Commanding figures – literally – are more likely to come to mind. Possibly like the man who sent the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death. Hmm. Definitely dynamic, just occasionally wrong-headed.

But irresistible? Well of course, though it has always seemed to me that transferring the military model of leadership into the civilian world is a wobbly fit, given that nay-sayers in the army have a history of getting shot for desertion, and that is not a discipline which translates into the non-military setting. No, leaders in our world need not only to be dynamic and energetic chargers at windmills, but also capable of charming birds off trees and cajoling recalcitrant staff room dinosaurs into the 21st century. And it’s interesting how the language just changed – the military may simply have no time for making an effort ‘to charm’ and ‘to cajole’, faced with dire threat and immediate danger – “When I say shoot, just do it!”

But most of us do not live in daily fear for our lives, or anyone else’s. In the real world, in the world of schools, we will definitely need enthusiasm and passion, but diplomacy may be as important as dynamism. To lead dynamically, first communicate persuasively: magic combination.

Now, devise the questions which will allow all this to be demonstrated, energetically and persuasively, in an hour-long interview.

Hilary Moriarty is Found Partner - Education for Greenings International

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