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Honesty is the key to culture

The leadership journey is never easy. Many years working towards a position, only to find that when you arrive, there are so many other elements to the role that you never really expected or, indeed, warned about.

Leadership, of course, is all-encompassing, from developing school improvement plans, financial accountability, and HR matters, to sorting out playground squabbles between that group of boys and helping fit the toner in the staffroom photocopier. No two days are ever the same, but, I’m sure like me, this is what makes our roles both challenging and hugely rewarding in the same breath. The diversity of tasks we fulfil daily, allows the job to be anything but repetitive and, in fact, anything like we imagined it would be.

My leadership journey didn’t follow the usual path. I came into teaching late and, having trained as a secondary Drama and English teacher in 2005, through the now-rebranded Graduate Teacher Programme, I was focused purely on a career in secondary education.

Naively, the only real experience of the primary sector at this stage in my career would be steeped in blurred and fuzzy memories of my infant and junior school of the early 1980s. Recollections of ‘Come and Praise’ songbooks, ill-fitting plimsolls, maypole dancing and developing an understanding of British history through a weekly television programme called ‘How We Used To Live’ sadly and, again, quite wrongly and somewhat worryingly, at the very start of my teaching journey, this was what I believed primary education still was. I was a secondary teacher and that was where I would remain.

However, having spent many years snuggled cosily in the corner of a typical drama studio of a large secondary school, whiling away the hours teaching the whys and wherefores of Stanislavski, the finer theatrical points of Bertolt Brecht and, occasionally, gathering A-level students together to flail around the drama studio, hysterically screaming and shouting as we delved into the maniacal world of Antonin Artaud, after five years of teaching a gamut of expressive qualifications, I soon realised that I was, indeed, very bored.

So cutting a rather long, and convoluted, story short, after spending five further years cutting my teeth in the primary classroom and progressing through senior leadership, I was allowed to lead a school.

However, feeling comfortable in that position took a long time. As a new head teacher, I was always looking for the correct way to do things, searching for the mystical handbook or manual of amazing leadership, rummaging in dusty boxes and cupboards for the elusive, steadfast persona of headteacher whilst trying to make sure I presented myself as the archetypal school leader every minute of the day.

When moving into any new leadership position, we immediately try to find our default. A characterisation that allows us to protect ourselves from vulnerability. Just like the old maxims that were passed on to us in our early teaching careers, such as not smiling until Christmas, the majority of these tropes of career advancement are normally centred around keeping your staff at arm's length, reducing any real presentation of emotion and, importantly, never showing any kind of weakness to maintain your employee's utmost confidence in your unwavering and unfaltering ability to lead on all levels at every moment of the day, week and term.

Of course, these fallacies of leadership, regardless of their origin, are continually passed down time and time again and, unfortunately, serve to do no more than reduce leadership recruitment by the thousands. If not passed down, picked up by bizarre educational osmosis as we find ourselves, somehow, believing that these qualities are the essential characteristics that will keep us protected in our role of leaders. Masquerading our imposter syndrome by adding a superficial layer of leadership and in turn, removing the person to become the persona.

That said, with the high stakes accountability and the need to show rapid improvement, in sometimes the most difficult circumstances, the ability to work behind a persona can appear to be the first action of the embattled leader and rather prefer to say the least.

Sadly, looking at the projection for headteacher retention, the unwavering reality of school leaders leaving their posts is something that we are all becoming too familiar with and, given the current circumstances, coupled with the ever-changing roles within our schools, there is an ever-growing amount of empathy for those that do decide to move away from the profession.

The key to this is honesty; be yourself, a mentor once told me. The ability to lead with authenticity and genuine humanity. This may sound glib and like another cliche to cut and stick within the scrapbook of whimsical scholarly nonsense, but it’s possibly the best piece of advice I was ever given. Acknowledging ourselves as individuals, sharing our fallibility, always presenting as human and ensuring we connect on a personal level to our staff and wider stakeholders; enable us to lower our shoulders and reduce the much-wasted energy we spend trying to be someone else.

Of course, for some of us, this is easier said than done. However this isn’t about blurring the lines of professionalism, nor shifting accountability from the roles we hold, but merely a consideration to explore leadership through a different lens.

3 steps to transparent leadership

Know that you don’t know.

Feeling the need to answer every question on demand may look like you are highly efficient but, failing to give the correct answer or the wrong advice, will only serve as a negative. Have the confidence to say I don’t know…yet!

No journey is the same.

Never compare yourself with others. There will always be younger leaders, more effective leaders, leaders who are trailblazers of education, and leaders who are adorned with accolades and the educational equivalent of the Midas touch. Remember, it’s all about the journey, we get there in the end.

Go to where the information is

When making changes to school culture, strategic or operational, consult. There will always be someone in your school who has been there longer than you. Who will have witnessed what has gone before, what worked and what didn’t. Don’t be afraid to go to where the information is.

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