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Introverts Can Be School Leaders Too

May 3, 2019, 8:59 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • Iesha Small explains why a gregarious personality needn’t be a prerequisite for headship...
Introverts Can Be School Leaders Too

Do you hate making whole-staff announcements? In meetings, do you prefer to listen to the points made and process what’s being said, rather than convince everybody of your opinion?

Are you happy to develop other people, rather than take credit for everything? Are you confident in your abilities, but don’t feel the need to self-publicise? Have you ever been told that you need to ‘speak up’ and be ‘more vocal’ and ‘confident’ in meetings, or with your colleagues?

Are you as comfortable alone as you are with other people? Sometimes more so? Are you happy working in a team and with others, but sometimes feel the need to work alone in order to really concentrate and process?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may identify as an introvert. At the very least, you may have a quieter leadership style and be happiest out of the spotlight.

Rage and disappointment

There’s a perception that leaders need to be extroverted, outgoing and charismatic. Many people may feel that these qualities are synonymous or interchangeable, believing that leaders need to be the brightest light in the room that all are drawn to. This isn’t necessarily the case, yet people often don’t expect introverts to make good leaders.

I identify as an introvert, but for some people this has negative connotations and they’d rather not be known as such. I enjoy interacting with people, but I also need long stretches of time alone, and tend to prefer being in small group or one-to-one interactions over socialising or working in large groups.

When I was an assistant headteacher, I was called into my boss’s office. “Iesha,” he said, “have a seat.”

I took the one opposite him at the huge conference table that dominated the office. So far, so normal; we met like this on a weekly basis. But next he said something which really had an impact on me. “I don’t feel like this year has been a very successful year for you, compared to last year.” He went on to outline why.

I sat and listened quietly, but inside, I have to be honest, I was livid. I left the meeting calmly, but internally seething. In my view, I’d actually had a more successful year than the previous one. My work had had a wider impact, due to others I’d worked with and projects I’d initiated, or so I thought. However, to outside observers it seemed I’d kept a much lower profile compared to the preceding year.

Once my rage and disappointment had subsided, I realised that deep down, I shouldn’t be that surprised by my boss’ comments. In the year he considered to be ‘highly successful’ I’d been extremely visible. I’d led on a staff consultation related to the school improvement plan, and had led lots of middle leader meetings.

This year – the one perceived to be less successful – far more of my work had been done in small meetings or individual coaching sessions. I wanted to empower other staff and develop their leadership capacity independently of me, so that the impact would last beyond my time working with them. To me, that felt much more successful, but as a result there were fewer demonstrable initiatives linked directly to me, so I couldn’t visibly take the credit for anything.

Perception and reality

Despite disagreeing with him at the time, I can see now that my boss did me a favour. After that meeting, I realised that in our working lives, whether we like it or not, perception is very important, since the perception of you becomes other people’s reality. Knowing this could empower me.

My boss was supportive, and we subsequently found projects that made use of my skillset while giving me a platform to be more visible.

One involved leading on our school’s transition to a new internal assessment system, since we were scrapping the old key stage levels. It involved lots of research and consultation, which I enjoy, as well as the one-to-one and small meetings I was skilled at – but crucially, it affected everybody in the school in one way or another, and there was a clear outcome in that it resulted in a pilot with the upcoming year 7 and subsequent rollout to other years.

Another project saw me leading on staff and governor training related to LGBT issues, which I tackled as a series of twilights targeting groups of no more than 30 at a time (we had over 100 staff). This worked, because once again I was exposed to all staff but in a way that suited me, and it was about a topic I was passionate about. It’s also always good when staff can see SLT in a setting which is closer to teaching, and appreciate that you’re skilled at helping people to learn too.

However, not everything can be done in small groups or workshops. Sometimes leaders need to talk to larger audiences. I first shared my ideas about being an introverted leader publicly during a talk at a major education conference. I was nervous, but made the experience more manageable by being well-prepared.

The killer tool

In talking to other introverted leaders I’ve found this is a recurring theme. Lila, now an executive headteacher of an oversubscribed school, recalled to me her first ever assembly: “I carefully structured the message that I wanted to give about the use of praise, as well as sanctions. I got such good feedback after every assembly, and that made me feel really confident because I hadn’t done assemblies prior to that role.”

Alex, a deputy head, highlighted the importance of the research he did to prepare for public speaking and key meetings “Confidence isn’t some physical show or some bit act; confidence and knowledge grow at the same time for me.”

Both Alex and I now speak publicly in front of a range of audiences. My key advice to leaders who consider themselves quieter or more introverted would be to develop your writing skills. Writing really is the killer tool – if you practice writing clearly to persuade others and convey a point, it makes everything else much easier. It means you can prepare for when you’re speaking to people face-to-face in almost any context. Also, don’t forget how much communication in schools these days is actually done in writing via letters and emails.

I hope that if you’re reading this as an introverted school leader it will help you to think about your strengths and find ways of using them in your professional life.

Iesha Small is innovation lead at the education think tank LKMco; her book The Unexpected Leader (an edited extract of which forms the basis of this article) is available now, published by Independent Thinking Press.

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