On Whose Shoulders?

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. It is a topic that has been on my mind for the last few years. It has been on my mind as a Headteacher and senior leader who has wanted to get better; wondered why my leadership hasn’t always met the mark, reconsidered my approach and tried different methods. More recently, it has been on my mind as someone who has really settled into a leadership style that I have been proud of. 

It’s also a topic that has been on my mind because, after 18 years working in schools and over ten as a school leader, I have shifted my career and focus towards work that I feel more called towards, and towards work that I hope continues to enable me to give back to others. 

More and more in my last Headship, I was drawn toward supporting other leaders, and uplifting new leaders who I knew would be vital to the future of the school and the sector. This is the work that I am now invested in; coaching and supporting leaders and teachers in schools who want to serve at a deeper level and want to show up in their schools with authenticity and with their values and moral purpose influencing all of their actions.

As I sit down to prepare my work with these teachers and leaders leadership is on my mind. I have been wondering how best to support people in becoming great leaders. I have been wondering about whether great leaders are born or created, and thinking that it is likely a combination of both combined with a context that requires them to step up and act. Not every context offers this opportunity but certain seasons do and out of these seasons great leaders are born.

If we’re not born great leaders, then I’m pretty convinced that certain people are born with a smattering of pretty unique qualities and it is then the case that learning, mentorship and context enables them to maximise their potential. That smattering of qualities includes confidence, magnetism, tenacity, empathy and a great ability to connect. When these qualities are recognised and nourished by others seems to be when the magic happens, and that enables great leaders to assume their position.

I would not describe myself as a great leader but certainly a good one. What I have benefitted from has been the nourishment and recognition of others who have gone before me, and that has nurtured my self-believe, confidence and influenced my levels of patience with change! 

The first question that Michael Hyatt asks in his blog 20 Questions to ask other Leaders is can you name someone who has had a massive impact on you as a leader and if so, what was their impact. Now, I can think of and cite many, many people, mentors, friends and coaches who have changed my leadership and my life and while picking one out is tricky I’ve recently been reflecting that there is a little clutch of three women who all made a difference to me at a formative stage.

As a trainee and early career teacher, I worked in an inner-city school in Bristol. Just as I was starting my NQT year, the Headteacher who had appointed me took a kind of sabbatical year to plan and implement the school’s transition to a City Academy. This allowed his long-standing deputy to take up Headship. The fact that Mrs H was a woman didn’t stand out at the time but looking back this, and the fact that she hadn’t necessarily seen herself as a Headteacher, really did. She stepped up and led with compassion, conviction and at times vulnerability, and looking back, her acknowledgement that she was needed in that moment and in that particular and unusual context and that she stepped up, has had many resonances in my life.

In the same year, my department was overseen by another long-standing Deputy Headteacher. She was a steady and consistent presence, and one always felt looked after knowing that she would have the answer needed. When I became a pastoral senior leader it was this woman, Mrs A who guided me, advised me and modelled what it looked like to know what to do as a consequence of patient and diligent leadership over time. Without her mentorship, I would never have had the confidence to lead an alternative provision or to oversee a pupil referral service and it is through doing this work that I became the leader I now am.

Finally, my dear friend and first Head of Department while I was an early career teacher, Ms S-H, had a significant impact on me. If there was ever a person to generously offer full support, acknowledgement and belief in another it was her. She created this incredible creative space in her department in which we could all find our wings, and she offered up such challenge that we were never lazy in our thinking or actions. She was and still is, an inspiration and someone who I am lucky is still, after 18 years, a coach, mentor and friend.

As I think about these three women and describe the impact of their leadership on the leader I have become, I see how clearly their legacy runs through my work in the world. And it is with this lovely provocation of Hyatt’s to think about the leader or leaders that have impacted you, that I ask you — on whose shoulders do you stand?