The key to great school leadership

Viv Grant, discusses why you need to harness the power of hope, and the lessons that need to be learnt, to achieve great school leadership 

There is all kinds of advice out there about what makes a good school leader, from certifications to strategies, to taking the latest seminar. But so many people miss out on what is actually the most fundamental element of great school leadership – hope.

You would not have reached where you are now if you didn’t know how to harness the power of hope. Hope not only in yourself, but also hope in the sincerity of your vision and the future that you are seeking to create for the children in your school. All school leaders need hope; not just a spoonful of it – bags of it!

The future we all seek – the future we want to create for our young people – can only be created if you know how to hold onto your hope, your vision, your values and the belief that you can – and you will – make things better for the young people in your school.

We all know hope can be incredibly elusive. When external demands and pressures mount, and crisis follows crisis, the light at the end of the tunnel can appear to be a very faint and distant glimmer. In such times hope is just as essential for our own well-being as rain is for flowers in the desert. From the ever-expanding self-help shelves in bookshops, to the growing body of research around social sciences, it is clear that hope is a human survival mechanism.

As you seek to move forward, and continue in your endeavour to create new and emboldened futures for our young people, I want to share with you five lessons that I have discovered as a coach which are essential for helping school leaders keep their hope alive.

Lesson 1—Learn to keep one eye backward and the other eye forward

Here is a quote I came across a while ago, from Soren Kierkegaard…

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

In essence, this is what reflection is about. In order to live more fully, and to make progress with our lives, we need to have a process in place that enables us to develop a greater understanding of the journey, so that we can continue it with far deeper levels of insight and wisdom.

Throughout your life as a school leader there will be moments when you can choose to start again. In the natural pauses of school life, there will be times when you can take learning from the past to create new, more aligned realities for yourself. They are, and should be, your personal times of both reflection and renewal.

Lesson 2—Be connected

Leadership does not happen in a vacuum. Leaders need people – not only to follow them, but also to help them on their journey. The connections you make as you move forward will have a great impact on the degree to which you are able to deal successfully with the challenges of school leadership. In school, and because of the nature of your role, relationships can often be one-dimensional, meaning that your total need for human connection and relationship may be under-nourished.

It might take a stretch of the imagination for you to believe this, but you do have a life outside your school! It is important to invest in those other relationships that are beyond your life as a school leader. Actively search for relationships both within and outside your professional context that will:

  • Give you constructive challenges.
  • Open new learning opportunities.
  • Allow you to be yourself.
  • Create a space for you to be listened to.
  • Affirm your self-worth.
  • Enable you to be in a role where you are not expected to have all the answers!
  • Provide a space for you to be taken care of and have your needs met. Remember, you are a living, breathing, human being, not just your role!

Lesson 3—Learn the art of selfless leadership

Growing up in the 1980s I was very much involved in the anti-apartheid movement. When Nelson Mandela passed away,in 2013, I felt as if I had lost a dearly loved family member.

In an attempt to make sense of my feelings, and what Mandela’s life had meant to me, I returned to a book that I had read only a few years ago, Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life by Richard Stengel. Reflecting on Mandela’s leadership, Stengel writes that:

The African model of leadership is better expressed as Ubuntu, the idea that people are empowered by other people, that we become our best selves through unselfish interaction with others. 

I’d like to think this is what coaching does. By putting aside one’s ego, and the perceived need to have all the answers, one can create a space in which the person is empowered through the simple acts of listening and the total giving of one’s time and attention to the person they are with.

Lesson 4— Capture the golden moments 

They are there and they are precious. They are the parts of your life as a school leader that re-affirm why you do what you do in the school you are in and for the community you serve. There are the parts of your school life that cause you to say at the end of each day, ‘That’s the reason why I am here in this school, serving this community.’ 

One of my key golden moments was listening to our school gospel choir sing on a Tuesday after school. At 4 o’clock I would walk into the school hall and there I would see Daniel, our charismatic choir master, bring his own unique blend of energy, laughter and musical wizardry into our school.

Amongst the many voices that sang out across the hall would be those of some of our most ‘challenging’ year 6 boys, singing as though their lives depended on it. I would see the children proudly wearing gowns made from material that had been bought from the local market and made up by one of the parents.

Support staff would step up as leaders and lead the children in song with Daniel. I would see Maggie, a stalwart parent from the local estate who had very little money but, every Monday morning, could be depended on to arrive at the staff room door with her trolley of biscuits for all the staff. She would stand with her Mum, whom I affectionately called Nan, and sing along with the children in the choir.

In those moments, even when I had had the toughest of days, I would immediately be connected back to my passion and purpose. The weight of the day would lift and even if, at times, it was just a temporary lift, it was enough to help me to continue to strive forward with my vision for the school and the community we served.

Your golden moments will be unique to you and your school. Whatever you do, don’t forget to collect them. As far as possible build them into your daily, weekly or termly routine; they are the moments that will help to keep your flame of hope alive.

Lesson 5— Having the support you need

As a school leader, you do an amazing job! Every day you invest enormous amounts of time, energy, passion and commitment – seeking to create better futures for our children and the communities you serve.

This isn’t easy to maintain; after a long week, and the inevitable challenges of your role, it can often feel as though your energy, hope and emotional reserves are in short supply – and it can be hard to find someone to turn to for support.

If you are a headteacher it is, understandably, difficult to share ‘fully’ with staff; there is always the risk of crossing professional boundaries. Friends and family might offer a listening ear but, again, it isn’t easy. Unless they have walked in your shoes, it can feel like no-one really fully understands what you are going through.

However, I know from my own experience as a headteacher, and now as an executive coach, that personalised support is vital if leaders are to keep their hope alive and stay connected to their vision, passion and purpose

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