What makes an inspirational school leader?

What are the highs and lows of life at the top? Steve Wright quizzes four heads about their journeys in leadership

Chris Townsend – Headmaster, Felsted School

For Chris Townsend, headmaster at Essex’s historic Felsted School, the key qualities of a successful head are belief, resilience and a sense of joy in what you do. 

“I think that it is crucial to enjoy the job, and fundamentally to believe in what you are trying to do – to make a positive difference to the lives of young people,” Townsend affirms. “You also need resilience and an outstanding support network of colleagues, family and friends.” 

Leadership, for Townsend, is intimately bound up with a sense of service. “Being the head of a 450-year-old school, I must always remember that I am only a small part of the story here. Therefore, my role as leader is, paradoxically, all about serving the needs of the school community. I aim to enable other members of staff to fulfil their potential in an environment that encourages improvement and development. The ‘vision’ for the school does not belong to me in any real sense – it belongs to everyone with an interest in the school. My role is simply to codify that vision and express it with clarity.”

Townsend’s own leadership inspiration comes not from education, but from the world of professional sport. “Mike Brearley [England cricket captain, 1977–1980] was thoughtful and reflective, and seemingly knew how to get the best out of those around him. He never wanted to take any glory in triumph, and I find that very inspiring.” 

Townsend also believes everyone can be a leader. “There is a myth that some people are born leaders and so, by definition, others are not. This is a falsehood that schools must challenge. Not everyone starts from the same point, but everyone can improve their leadership skills. Therefore, heads must always seek to give leadership opportunities to everybody. 

“This does not mean that everyone becomes a prefect or a captain, rather, it means that everyone starts from the basic principle that they are responsible for leading themselves, and apply the qualities of effective leadership (service, reflection, hard work and a sense of purpose) to self-development. Then, when the opportunity for taking greater responsibility comes along, they will be better prepared to take it on.”

Being a head in 2019

Liz Free, director of the International Leadership Academy at The British School in the Netherlands, and Karen Burns, executive principal of Victorious Academies Trust, describe what qualities a head needs in 2019.

“A school quite simply cannot exceed the quality of its staff and so, when asked what does great leadership look like in 2019 – an age of social media where every leadership decision, action and motion is seen – I answer that it is about inspiring, enabling and facilitating all staff in your school to be great,” says Free. 

“Throw out compliance inducing performance management and start to build a self-improving culture and climate. Start conversations with every member of staff about how they can improve their practice; ask what you can do to support them. Incremental gains lead to cumulative greatness! Be a loud, proud and visible leader of learning in all its guises. Use the tools and technology around you to model and amplify the message, this action and this vision. Inspire greatness through the potential of greatness of all those around you.”

Burns, who is delivering the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership with Outstanding Leaders Partnership, says your vision should not diverge from the other stakeholders. “However, the head should be the lynchpin in designing the strategy for identifying key areas for development, and in planning for rapid improvement in those areas. Sometimes the needs of a school community may vary from a head’s own preference, however, the needs of those stakeholders must prevail.”

Jane Lunnon – Head, Wimbledon High School

When it comes to describing an effective head, two key words spring to mind for Jane Lunnon: fearless and friendly. 

“The word headteacher can still evoke images of imposing, stern, begowned individuals, striding at speed down school corridors and staring forbiddingly, over half-moon spectacles, at errant schoolchildren,” Lunnon reflects. 

“However, it seems to me that the most successful heads are emphatically and enthusiastically themselves: approachable, friendly, open and accessible. Passion and fearlessness are equally important, though – you have to take risks to bring about the changes you might want to see, and if we want students to demonstrate intellectual agility and take risks in their future lives, we have to model that risk-taking ourselves. 

“Finally, and critically, you really need to be able to laugh – at the absurdity of life and certainly, at times, at yourself. Things don’t always turn out as expected, but all of us want to come into school and have fun with the great adventure of teaching and learning.”

Any difficult decision I have ever had to take, I have checked against the simplest of questions – is this the best thing for the children?

Vision, says Lunnon, is another key asset for inspirational headteachers. “You must lay out your vision, get the right senior team in place, and devise your strategy for making that vision a reality. 

Your team are crucial here: they will give you (especially when you are new) the unique and lasting character of the school, and the qualities which must persist. 

So, you bring your heart and your soul and your strongest beliefs about what education should be, and then you merge those with what the school community – staff, pupils, parents, governors – tells you it needs.”

A sense of shared ownership and involvement, then, is crucial. “That said, there are always hard decisions which can’t be shared but are yours alone,” she cautions. “And for those, you need tenacity and an ability to reflect carefully. Any difficult decision I have ever had to take, I have checked against the simplest of questions – is this the best thing for the children? If the answer is yes then, however difficult the decision, I find I can make it and lead it through.”

Lunnon is passionate about creating opportunities for her own young charges to lead. “Our students organise much of school life, represent the school and show their agency in writing blogs, tweeting and inviting in speakers. They run off-timetable days for the whole school, and conferences and festivals for internal and external audiences. They also run a student parliament and a school council – both of which are mechanisms designed to capture their feedback and ideas. We then work with them to make those ideas possible.”

Chris Seal – Principal, Shrewsbury International School Bangkok 

Chris Seal, who leads Shrewsbury School’s thriving international sister school in Bangkok, believes that flexibility, and the ability to keep several plates spinning, is a central requirement of a successful head. “I’ve spent much of my career in leadership positions, but as someone relatively new to experiencing the demands of headship first-hand, one of my early reflections is the extraordinary range of issues that require your attention over relatively brief periods.

“The current picture in education and work is dynamic and fast-moving, and we must ensure that Shrewsbury stays in tune with the best of those developments. This also involves us being able to tell our story well, and I take a strong interest in the marketing of our school so that it has integrity and authenticity.”

Seal has been lucky enough to follow in the footsteps of some great leaders himself in education who fit the above themes. “Stephen Cole (Woodbridge School) taught me the importance of people and how to connect with them, and Tony Rolt and Jonathan Lee at Trent College taught me the true meaning of excellence and how to attain it – it was the only thing they agreed on! Lastly, Graeme Best at LVS Ascot and Craig Considine (Millfield) showed me that quiet courage and persistence really do work.”

Often, the art of leadership is to make yourself redundant. If you have empowered, delegated, trusted and guided well enough, you are no longer really needed

Seal also believes strongly in nurturing those leadership qualities in those around him. “Often, the art of leadership is to make yourself redundant. If you have empowered, delegated, trusted and guided well enough, you are no longer really needed. Therefore, creating more leaders (in staff and students) is exactly what school leadership should be about.

“To close with a coaching analogy, I always thought I had succeeded as a rugby coach when I could stand under the posts saying nothing at all, while the opposition coach barked orders. This didn’t happen often – but when it did, it felt great!”

Carina Nilsson – Principal, Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket, Sweden 

“We headteachers must remember that we are living in a rapidly changing world, and that an open mind is very important,” reflects Carina Nilsson, principal at Sweden’s prestigious Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket day and boarding school. “We must always be ready to listen to colleagues, to collaborate and to welcome new ideas.”

Nilsson sees her role as akin to that of a ship’s captain. “As leader of a big organisation, you must have respect for its size. Steering a ship and steering a Ferrari are two very different challenges. I am very humble regarding my role in a big organisation, which means that I try to avoid quick decisions and try to always anchor changes. But it is also my role to slowly drive the ship forward, even though it might get buffeted by some heavy waves at times.”

A few years ago, in order to better understand her role – and the lives of the students whom she leads – Nilsson tried a radical experiment. “While working as executive director of education, I came to a point where I felt I had lost touch with the students. Every day I made decisions that impacted my students’ lives, but did I really know in exactly what way?”

She decided to enrol in the school’s year 8 class for one week. “My plan was to join a class like any other student, sit through their lessons, do all the same homework, eat the same meals at the same times, use the common areas during recess and so on.”

Her week as a year 8 student became one of the most insightful experiences of Nilsson’s career. “I gained a whole new perspective of the realities of student life. I realised that lessons do not end simply because the bell rings. Discussions continue well beyond the end of class, despite the teacher leaving. How do we take advantage of this insight? This was one of multiple insights I received during my school week. As the expression goes: if you are a leader and no one is following you, you’re just a guy taking a walk.”

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