You’ve just published a new book called Imperfect Leadership – why write it now, and why that title?
I wanted to reflect on my own leadership journey, from when I began as chief executive of the National College for School Leadership in 2005, to when I left the Education Development Trust in 2017. But the main point of writing it is that I’d become fed up of reading and hearing about ‘perfect leaders’ who always get things right, and are simply fabulous at what they do. Frankly, I’ve never met a perfect leader, and think the concept itself is a bad one. If we all think we have to be perfect, it’ll make us physically and mentally ill. We won’t delegate to our teams, but instead try to do everything by ourselves.
It’s called Imperfect Leadership because it’s a book about mistakes, things that went wrong and things that worried me as a leader. It’s my attempt to be honest about all that, while at the same time acknowledging the successes I had.
That notion of the ‘perfect leader’ seems closely related the concept of the ‘super heads’ sometimes called upon to turn schools round. In your view, is that a harmful model?
A reluctance to admit to weaknesses is still a big part of the culture in many schools, and I see this notion of the ‘hero leader’ as overly strong. It presents a particular issue for people wanting to step up to leadership, and for women. Recent research has shown that women are less likely to apply for a post if they think there are some aspects of the role they can’t do, whereas men will be more likely to ‘have a go’. This idea that you have to be able to ‘do it all’ before you can step up is really bad news, but it’s pervasive throughout the system.
What would be your answer to those who might criticise the idea of celebrating ‘imperfect leaders’ as embracing mediocrity?
I want celebrate imperfect leadership, but also I believe that leaders need to learn from their mistakes. It you keep making the same mistakes repeatedly, you won’t be a good leader – but recognising and admitting when you’ve made a mistake is something that’s honest and real. People will forgive a mistake, but they hate cover-ups and blame culture.
What would your advice be to school leaders having to balance the shortterm pressures and long-term performance expectations that come with the role?
If your school was rated Inadequate in its last Ofsted inspection, or is somehow really struggling, then you’ve simply got to look at the short term because otherwise there might not even be a long term. In that situation you’ve got to focus on the next year, or the next 18 months. Unless you turn things round and start demonstrate a difference, there won’t necessarily be an opportunity to look at the long-term picture.
That said, it takes years to get a school to where you want it to be, not months. There was some research published a couple of years ago by the Centre for High Performance at Kingston University, on the difference between ‘surgeon leaders’ and ‘architect leaders’. A surgeon leader focuses only on the accountability system, gets short-term wins and shows little engagement with staff or children. They’ll just ensure they secure the results they need during inspections, without looking at the long-term picture.
Architect leaders, on the other hand, focus on both the short- and the longterm. They’ll consider the consistency of systems, but also the people who are in them. They might not get quick results, but they’ll succeed in building long-term sustainability. I’d much rather be an architect than a surgeon.
Having been very open in the book about the mistakes you’ve made, do you observe a reticence on the part of other leaders to do the same themselves?
As a leader, you already feel very vulnerable. If your school then isn’t seen as high performing and doing brilliantly, you’ll be reluctant to admit not knowing things, when you obviously don’t. Added pressures from the government and the media can make you determined to be less open still.
In the book I stress the importance of asking for help. We must debunk this notion that we’re meant to know everything, while maintaining an inscrutable public profile, keeping all our problems to ourselves and carrying on regardless, as if everything’s going brilliantly. It’s not healthy, and it won’t help us deliver the school leadership we need for the future.
Under what kind of accountability framework could that candour and honesty be more easily expressed?
In terms of accountability, I feel the English education system is the most extreme in the world. I know of no other system where headteachers and principals are more vulnerable due to exam results or inspection ratings.
Nowhere else are they more likely to be dismissed if they do badly, or be celebrated and promoted by doing well. I’m not against inspections or testing, but I am against the high stakes nature of both. There’s a whole variety of things that the English system could and should be doing to reduce the high stakes nature of our current accountability model.
What education developments or reforms would you like to see take place over the next year?
What I think ought to happen is the formulating of a proactive approach to reducing high stakes accountability and a greater focus on capacity building. There should also be a commitment from the government and state to provide a form of leadership development, in a way that it’s backed off from for the last five or six years.
Especially at a time of austerity, it’s hard to argue that a school should spend its budget on developing its deputy so that they can go on to become a headteacher or principal somewhere else.
That’s why it’s the state’s job. I know of no other system in the world that’s developing, rapidly progressing or performing well in which the state doesn’t see a role for itself in investing in the development of school leaders. Just as the National College for School Leadership was closing down, Scottish and Welsh equivalents were opening up. Similar agencies are now opening across Australia and elsewhere in the world. I’d hope that a new government would recognise that it’s time to start investing in the development of school leaders.
What practical things can schools, MATs and LAs be doing to attract and develop new school leaders?
A compelling narrative matters. MATs and schools have to make the stories they tell about the future exciting. They need to enthuse people and present them with something they want to be part of, rather than just saying ‘We’re going to get better test results’ or ‘We’re going to get a better Ofsted rating.’
Second, we know that people learn to be leaders not by going on a course, but by stepping up to the role and being given the chance to lead with help. Identify opportunities in your organisation for people to advance into leadership, even if it’s just a temporary or unpaid role. Those stepping up will need to receive regular feedback from a peer, mentor, line manager or colleague, and be exposed to leadership in context. Those in MATs may get the chance to see various leaders in different contexts at other schools. Offer your would-be leaders opportunities to be mentored, to take part in work shadowing and job swaps and visit other settings, and encourage them to discuss their observations in a focused way with feedback.
Imperfect Leadership – A Book For Leaders Who Know They Don’t Know It All is available now, published by Crown House