What makes an outstanding school leader?

There are some vital skills and attributes that a great school leader should possess, says Howard Jackson

The head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, proclaimed recently that critical to the growth of the national education system was an increased emphasis on the training and nurturing of teachers with real leadership potential. He has since passed on a paper to the Education Secretary outlining why it is so crucial to have strong school leaders and stated that the UK, as a matter of urgency, must ‘make sure we have a national system which identifies good people with potential leadership capabilities and to identify them and move them into leadership positions as soon as possible’. 

So the question posed is: exactly what are these highly prized leadership capabilities? Unfortunately there is no check list as to what makes an effective school leader and often it is precisely the little idiosyncrasies that can shine through and make a leader so unique. That being said, there are some vital skills and attributes that a great school leader should possess, these are explored below:

1. Have a clear goal in mind

A great leader should always have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. There is a great amount of responsibility on a school leader to make the right choices when it comes to deciding what knowledge and skills to bestow on the pupils. In a technologically advanced society, the skills that young people are expected to learn are changing rapidly as technology develops. However, the need to keep up with the changing times must also be balanced out with a need to provide continuity and consistency for the pupils and to deliver a curriculum that teaches the ideas and narratives of the past and the present.

2. Retain a relentless optimism

A great school leader must be able to maintain a stubborn optimism no matter what obstacles may come their way. They should be able to demonstrate that a disadvantage needn’t be a barrier to success and it should instead be viewed as an opportunity to do something unique and outside of the box.

Part of this optimism should be a confidence that great things come with time and that results cannot be achieved overnight. There is however a distinct difference between being patient and being complacent; a confident leader should know exactly when to ‘shift gear’ and develop a healthy sense of urgency in order to meet deadlines and be as productive as possible.

A school leader must also take responsibility for maintaining the morale of the staff. It is crucial for them to understand that even with the very best of intentions, sometimes a plan just doesn’t come into fruition. It is in these circumstances that a school leader must step up to the plate and be able to brush off these failures and start again. Otherwise, if the leader is unable to remain optimistic, then a feeling of negativity can spread throughout the entire team.

3. Be inclusive

School leaders should be able to create and maintain a culture that values the ‘we’ over the ‘I’ and promotes a feeling of togetherness. They should adopt an inclusive leadership style which treats everyone equally and has an active interest in the progress and personal development of every single individual – both staff and students. This inclusiveness should also extend to outside the school walls, as school leaders should also build strong working relationships with parents and the wider community. At the heart of what every school leader does there should be a desire to bring out the very best in people and this should be the driving force behind the school. 

4. Inspire teachers at all levels

Teachers at any level, whether they have just started out or are 20 years into their careers, all have pressures to contend with. A school leader must be able to deal with their own pressures whilst finding the right words to motivate and help alleviate the stress of their staff. 

Many school leaders adopt a caring role when it comes to their staff and try hard to protect them as best they can. However, wrapping your staff up in cotton wool and preventing them from taking their own risks can be counter-productive. It is only natural for leaders to want to shelter their team from the stresses and strains of life as a teacher. However they must be careful not to create a culture of dependency where staff are unable to think independently, as they have never been pushed to do so. 

When a teacher is pushed out of their comfort zone, although this is initially daunting they more often than not find their own coping mechanisms. Through experience they learn eventually to be able to navigate these difficult situations with ease. With this in mind, it is important that school leaders allow teachers to stand on their own two feet and give them enough breathing space to make their own mistakes. The very best leaders are supportive, but empower their staff to be individuals and take control of their own futures. 

5. Stay current and keep innovating

Even as a school leader, you should never ever stop learning; it is important that leaders put the time aside to ensure they are keeping up to date with current thinking when it comes to both education and the technology that enables and complements the learning process.   

To stay current, leaders should not be afraid to embrace new technologies to empower teachers and to supplement the learning process. It is worth noting that technology should not just be used for the sake of it – before embracing the use of new learning technology, leaders should be clear about how it will be used and how it can be used as a tool to empower pupils and teachers. However, to enable real progress, leaders must be able to take risks and invest in new cutting-edge technology. They must also be able to persuade the rest of the staff of the key benefits of leading the way in innovation. 

Further reading around the challenges facing the education sector in general is also key to keeping up to speed. One way to do this is to take the time to follow a couple of engaging education blogs, as this is an effective way to stay up to date and to reflect on their own teaching practices.

Great school leaders can come in many shapes and sizes, however, to effectively engage with the rest of the school it is essential to have a high level of emotional intelligence. Running a school successfully is not all about driving results, more importantly it is about inspiring the teachers to be the best that they can be and giving the students the support and resources they need to excel. For this reason, the best school leaders have a vested interest in the school and are driven by a strong moral purpose and not by monetary gains. Although arguably some people are born leaders, others can learn how to become one, most of all, the greatest leaders must have the best interests of the school at the heart of everything that they do.  

For more information, please visit www.hcsseducation.co.uk 

Howard Jackson is Founder and Head of Education at HCSS Education, part of the Access Group.

Howard is committed to empowering people to become inspirational leaders and holds regular talks and training sessions for Governors, Head Teachers and senior managers within the education sector. Howard will be sharing his experiences and expertise at the Inspirational School Leadership Experience (ISLE) on the 7 June.