Leadership lessons from research and experience

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Caroline Sherwood considers the schools and school leaders she has worked with to date, some of the recent research and writing on leadership and the lessons she has learned

Leaders must be willing to live in a state of becoming or reforming, an eternal beta mode, recognising that we are incomplete, with errors and mistakes being inevitable – and welcomed.

Leaders in this fluid state focus on learning and experimentation; on progress, and not perfection. One of my greatest sources of personal development are the leaders I have worked with to date – and the following lessons that they have taught me.

Great expectations

Early on in my career, shortly after moving to my second school, I was observed and, having planned and delivered a lesson that I was not particularly happy with, I cried in my deputy head’s office when receiving my feedback.

Instead of mitigating or soothing my disquiet he said: “I’m glad you’re upset. It tells me a lot about you.”

The idea that positive expectations influence performance positively is known as the Pygmalion Effect (SecEd, 2017). And everything speaks. My deputy head could not possibly expect me to be excellent if he did not model that for me – starting with his expectations. His high expectations of me maximised my motivation, my commitment and my dedication to being the very best professional I could be.

As school leaders, we aim to infuse excellence into every classroom, corridor and lunch hall of our school setting, so we must communicate our high expectations of our staff so they can be brilliant in all that they do. My deputy head did not accept mediocrity, he held me to account with high expectations and I rose to meet them. What I heard was: I have very high expectations of you and I know you can reach them.

Lean in

Unconsciously, we tend to like people who look like us and think like us. This can result in similar faces, similar beliefs and similar biases sat around the table. What happens if you break that mould – break the confirmation bias that feels safe, comfortable and expedient?

There have been times when I have felt like an imposter and have sat on the sidelines; an act of self-sabotage when I have struggled to recognise myself in the faces of the other leaders around me.

A brilliant headteacher I worked with would give me a voice – he would not let me silence myself, asking directly: “Caroline, what do you think?”

Seeking out different perspectives creates a shift from group-think and group ideation to something both more productive and holistic – and more likely to reflect the community that we serve. My headteacher was a leader who “(sought) connection and made sure voices were heard”. He used a simple mechanism to “encourage, spotlight, and value full-group contribution” (Coyle, 2018).

Operant Conditioning Psychology

Burrhus Frederic Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect – reinforcement. He recognised that behaviour which is reinforced tends to be repeated and is strengthened, whereas behaviour which is not reinforced tends to be weakened or is extinguished entirely.

As Susan Scott points out in Fierce Conversations (2004), “as a leader, you get what you tolerate – people do not repeat behaviour unless it is rewarded”.

We can all think of examples of how our own behaviour has been affected by reinforcers and punishers. When leaders choose to welcome different views and perspectives (even if these are difficult to hear) and when leaders recognise and reward excellence, the leader works towards creating a highly successful, high performing group. However, when leaders allow and tolerate substandard practice this mediocrity is rewarded and will continue, it becomes insidious and constitutional.

I have worked with leaders who have challenged inadequacies and been relentless in their follow up. Only when this is done can a staff team work together towards a shared purpose.

Being human

Susan Scott, again in Fierce Conversations, recognises that some leaders “leave (their) warmth, playfulness, and authenticity at home and prop up an automation at (their) desk at work, afraid to let (their) authentic self show”.

One of the bravest leaders I have worked with was also the most authentic. When things are not going well (which is inevitable when working with children), this leader stood in front of the students and showed them how she was feeling. This was one of the bravest moments I have ever seen – she made no compromises. The degree of authenticity she brought to that assembly was pronounced and respected by everyone that witnessed it.

The study Authenticity at work (van den Bosch & Taris, 2014) found that, in the workplace, “being authentic improves productivity (and) increases performance and success”.

The lesson I learned in that 20-minute assembly was: brave and courageous leadership does not mean hiding who you are or how you are feeling – who we are is how we lead.

In Dare to Lead (2018), Brené Brown recognises that “courage and fear are not mutually exclusive”. She continues: “Most of us feel brave and afraid at the exact same time. We feel vulnerable”. She goes on to state that “our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability”.

Sweeping the sheds

James Kerr’s Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life (2013) shares the concept of sweeping the sheds – the idea that everyone is responsible for the smallest details; you are never too big to do the small jobs.

One of the heads I worked with swept the sheds – anyone who worked with this head would have followed him anywhere. His personal humility and humbleness saw him, on one occasion, on his knees helping me replace a printer toner. A seemingly insignificant moment, which meant the world.

Leaders of character are willing to do the dirty work. In a 2015 study, How does leader humility influence team performance?

Owens and Hekman reveal that “when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their humble behaviours, creating a shared interpersonal team process (collective humility)”, which “ultimately enhances team performance”. When leaders sweep the sheds, the staff team can strive collectively towards achieving the team’s highest potential.

Transparency: Clear is kind

Leaders who behave predictably and transparently and have a clear, shared vision create and maintain safety. A transparent workplace and leader nurtures an environment free from fear, encourages employees to be open, and values both achievements and mistakes.

In Why transparency is important to business (2018), Christopher Salem states: “A transparent leader’s main goal should be to identify each of their employee’s strengths and leverage them together to handle bigger and more complex problems. Your best solutions and innovations come from truly understanding what makes your people tick and leveraging their strengths. It is important for people to be out of their comfort zones.”

In Dare to Lead, meanwhile, the concept of “clear is kind, unclear is unkind” is explored: “Most of us avoid clarity because we tell ourselves that we’re being kind – feeding people half-truths ... to make them feel better is unkind.”

Clarity and transparency in all aspects of leaders’ work helps to establish an open environment where staff can work together to find solutions rather than manage problems.


In his article, Four attributes of great leaders (2019) John Addison states:“If you told me to describe what is the mission of our industry in one sentence, it is that we transfer confidence to unconfident people. But that starts with you. You’re the leader. It’s how you think, act, and the words you say. You have to build a team with unshakeable confidence. And that starts with you. You may not be the CEO, but you’re an influencer, you’re the leader.”

He goes on to value the impact of words, and asks, “are they positive and affirming?”.

One headteacher I worked with could make you feel like you were the most confident, valuable and trusted person in the world – without blind-siding you to your failings. Mr Addison believes that, as a leader, “you have to be the most confident person on the team” and this headteacher was just that. It was impossible not to catch some of his confidence and enthusiasm for making a difference/

The right (not the safe) decision

Working with a leader who has a clear philosophy and vision and sticks to it means you will witness them making unpopular decisions – because they are the right ones.

The strong leaders I have worked with to date are unswerving in their motivation to do what is best for the children and do not shy away from difficult decisions. I find this inspiring.

  • Caroline Sherwood is assistant head and head of English at Isca Academy in Exeter. To read her previous articles in SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2UbukrO

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