I remember a headteacher once telling me that one of the most important parts of becoming a head is having a good level of self-awareness – he had the Latin phrase “temet nosce” on his wall, which translates as “know thyself”.
As I progress through my first year of headship, this advice has really resonated with me, particularly when I consider how I am developing my understanding of the theoretical aspects of leadership.
During the aforementioned conversation, I asked the headteacher what his journey to headship had been, and whether he had always wanted to be a head.
He explained to me that when he was an assistant and deputy head he worked for a headteacher who insisted that the members of his senior leadership studied the theory of leadership so that they understood the research behind many of the strategies they were employing.
He must have seen the look of surprise on my face as he was explaining this and asked me whether this was my experience too. I replied that it certainly was not my experience, and that I had spent the majority of my leadership career getting by on using common sense, instinct and doing what I thought was the right thing.
He laughed and said that those three things are really important, but if I wanted to develop as a leader then I should actively study the theory of leadership, so that I have an evidence and research-base to inform my decision-making and strategic planning.
He also said that, occasionally, when you introduce something new as a headteacher, there will be a handful of people who are resistant and a good way of convincing these members of staff is to refer to a body of research and evidence that what is being introduced is a proven school improvement strategy.
Since this conversation I have made a conscious effort to read up on the theoretical aspects of school leadership and also leadership in general.
I have also reflected on my own journey to headship and how there really was a paucity of support and guidance from anyone other than my colleagues around me.
I know for sure that through some kind of osmosis I have picked up and embedded a lot of really effective leadership practice by working with effective school leaders and identifying key strengths of their leadership styles and their decision-making processes.
I have also observed a lot of practice which I would firmly place in the “this is not how I want to lead” category.
Once thing has become really clear to me though: it is not enough to simply develop my leadership style and philosophy through observing others and deciding which aspects I think are worth adopting and which need to be dismissed.
I have had many useful coaching conversations during my first year of headship, where I have explored with my coach certain aspects of leadership theory and, in many cases, when the theory has been explained to me, I have recognised that I have actually been following a similar process, but without realising that my actions were backed up by existing research.
This made me feel good for a few seconds – it is good to know that one’s instincts in leadership decisions are shown to be valid. However I then quickly came to the conclusion that this really is not good enough.
As a headteacher, I feel that my actions need to be deliberate, purposeful and well-considered – I will always trust my instinct and follow my gut feeling when I need to, but a real goal for me this year is to develop my understanding of leadership theories and ensure that I give the senior leaders on my team the opportunity to do the same.
SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.