Leading, learning, nurture, service and care: experiences from a first year of headship

In his first year of headship, Michael Hartland, principal at Chase Grammar School, distils some of what he has learned


Because our role is to lead, we must be frequently engaged in leadership activities – which, of course, begs the questions of what exactly ‘leadership activities’ are.

And as we all know, for a headteacher, leadership can mean attending to everything from broken boilers and grazed knees to chairing meetings and giving public speeches. However, I find that leading routinely involves the following activities: developing the future, meetings, and relating and communicating.

Leadership is about developing the future. As Robert Greenleaf, who coined the concept of ‘servant leader’ in the 1970s, wrote: “Why would anyone accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go?”

We have a responsibility, as school leaders, to make decisions of importance – albeit taken collaboratively with any or all governors, SLT, staff, parents and students – that will determine the future destiny of our school, for better or for worse.

One of the ways a leader ensures that important decisions are made wisely is through counsel, and so leadership is also about wisely calling, chairing and attending meetings of importance.

At my own school, we organise meetings around the following themes: strategic planning; events, extension and enrichment; academic development; recruitment and retention; finance; and pastoral care.

These meetings give me a chance to encourage the development of other key leaders in the school, stay in tune with what feelings ‘on the ground’ are, test out and debate ideas, and plan effective, strategic action.

Someone once said that leadership is 90% about communication. I believe this emphasis on communication is quite right.

Our office might lure us with the temptations of coffee, biscuits and a private space free, temporarily, from the unending demands of others, but it is also a dangerous place where we may start to catch the CEO disease of slowly losing touch – with staff, students and our school’s reality, which means our decisions will become less grounded and less effective.

Relationships are at the heart of effective leadership. As E.M. Forster wrote: “Only connect!”


Because our schools are places of learning, we should always be learning. Learning is also part of our wellbeing, in my experience, and is how we keep abreast of the ever-changing world of education, and, indeed, of life. I always try to build-in some time every day where I focus on learning.

For me, this usually means reading, and I am known for decorating my office with various books on educational or leadership theory. These do prompt some good conversations occasionally and they also serve to inspire me in the inevitable times of frustration or temporary exhaustion.


I once attended a day for aspiring and practising headteachers. The principal of the school was a charismatic figure and spoke persuasively about the word ‘nurture’. For him, it was a tougher word than ‘love’ or ‘care’. It meant doing the right things for the long-term flourishing of a young person – which, as we all know, can often involve challenge, discipline and saying no.

It’s never all one-way and it would be arrogant to assume that we never learn from those we are charged to lead. Of course we do, hugely. But the duty to nurture those around us is one of the key ways we relate and connect with students, staff and parents.


It was in the 1970s that Robert Greenleaf wrote his seminal paper on ‘servant leadership’, which has had a huge impact on many in leadership, in both the business and education worlds. Service, and servanthood, remind us as leaders that we are here for the school – for parents, for students, for staff, for the local and wider community, and for the ongoing journey of the school as a living institution for the future. We are here to serve and that, for me, involves every day making careful decisions about priorities.


Ultimately, leadership is about care. Power might seem a more appropriate word, and of course as leaders we exercise significant power, however, I find the word ‘care’ more helpful, as it is a reminder that we deal with vulnerable and sensitive human beings, often at very sensitive and vulnerable times of their lives. 

And if we do not set an example of care, as leaders, how can we expect our schools to be places which celebrate leadership, learning, nurture, service and care?

You might also like: What makes an inspirational school leader?

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