The three Ps: What can school leaders learn from football?

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
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What leadership lessons can headteachers, middle leaders and teachers learn from the world of football management? Co-author of a new book on this very theme, Phil Denton, discusses the three Ps...

How can you create a winning team in your school?

Whether you are a classroom teacher or a headteacher, you will be leading children or adults – or indeed both.

During the last two years, I have spent time with some of the most well-known names in football management in order to identify some of the key characteristics of effective leaders. The result is a book, The First 100 Days, which I have co-written with professional football manager Micky Mellon, who is currently in charge at Tranmere Rovers.

In the book, we compare the lessons from football management with some of the most successful headteachers and business leaders in the country.

We hoped to produce a book or blueprint that would help fewer football managers get the sack. We also hoped to help more headteachers understand their own leadership styles, while also giving them the chance to learn from leaders working in one of the world’s most volatile professions – Premier League football management! If you think Ofsted is unforgiving…

The experience of researching and writing the book has certainly given me clarity in my role as I navigate the complex world of headship. After many hours of interviews, research and writing. I believe there are three key areas which top leaders get right. As I say though, these three themes can be applied to any leadership role in school. I term these themes, the three Ps:

Position: The league doesn’t lie

Context is king in any leadership role. The US military describes the situations they face as VUCA: Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous. We talk about this in our book in detail.

Unpicking your VUCA world allows you to make decisions which best suit the environment you are in.

You can also understand your position by applying the STARS model. The STARS model asks whether your situation is: Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated growth, Realignment or Sustained success.

Actions should reflect the situation that you are in. For example, if you arrive in a department with poor results, unproductive working habits, and low morale, you are in a turnaround situation. There may be elements of realignment and there may also be some positives which can be sustained.

In a turnaround situation, action often needs to be simple, swift and targeted to address fundamental flaws in the current approach. In football management, this may be training that focuses on improving a poor defence, for example. In education, it may be an immediate intervention that improves routines around the school, or attendance, or behaviour.

Conversely, you may take on the role of head of a successful department and your job could be to sustain this success. Here you may look to take on board the positive behaviours, routines and practices that have contributed to the success; you could take guidance from the members of the team who have achieved this success.

The top football managers do this deliberately and begin to build their approach on the successful people and behaviours that exist, as well as improving elements of the team that can be further developed.

People: Your dressing room

The most valuable asset in any school, team or business is people. People are individual and need to be treated as such. The most impressive thing I ever heard an executive head say in an opening address was: “You are all highly trained, highly qualified people and I am going to treat you like that.”

It was real, tangible and uplifting. It set a positive expectation for the standards and behaviours that this head would come to expect from the staff team.

When Micky talked to his team for the first time, he asked them if they wanted to be champions. For more, see my previous article for SecEd on how school leaders might handle their first 100 days in post and what we might learn from the world of football management in this regard (Denton, 2021).

They responded affirmatively and so he asked them for permission to treat them like champions. They agreed and so he had their authority to hold them to the standards of champions.

We all want to feel special, noticed and valued by our leaders. Telling your team that you believe in them and their potential can be extremely powerful. It can then allow high expectations to be driven by a certain type of driven belief, like a parent has for their child, that compassionately but ambitiously underpins your leadership.

Belief and motivation – and any other emotion for that matter – are not static. Whether it is Dr Claes Janssen’s Rooms of Change (1964-1975), Daniel Pink’s motivation model, as detailed in his book Drive (2009), or the diffusion of innovations according to Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Curve (first developed in 1957; see Rogers, 2003), emotions and behaviours are mobile and malleable.

Take for example Rogers’ curve, shown below. When you are looking to lead, change, innovate or develop, you will encounter people at every point on this continuum. Understanding who your early adopters are is important, they will be the idea-generators and fuel for the initial launch of any initiative.

However, it is the early and late majority that will be the voices that dictate whether anything you do will reach the tipping point required for that behaviour, idea or intervention to become something that is used and embraced wholesale.

Who are your captains? The Rogers innovation adoption curve. Adapted from The Diffusion of Innovations (The Free Press, 2003).

I came to see that the people who were borderline early/late majority were vital to my success as a headteacher. I see these key people as captains in my dressing room (or staffroom).

In the football dressing room, it is these influential characters within the team who are the leaders when the manager is not there. As an extension of that, if you can create a culture in which the late majority will voice concerns but champion you in your absence, then you have an open and balanced team.

Purpose: Survival or Champions League?

A core purpose is vital for any team. Throughout this article, I have referred to school staff as a team. I used to call our school a family, but the fact is we are not.

I do not believe this change in my language is callous or uncaring. Rather, a team is brought together by a purpose for a collective goal. A team may decide that certain players are not committed to the shared values and vision.

The purpose needs to be central to all decisions and actions. For example, as a Catholic school we must make tough decisions on recruitment, performance management and the priority events if we are to remain true to our core purpose. This can be especially challenging when short-term goals conflict with the longer term aim of a faith-based school.

In Simon Sinek’s, The Infinite Game (2019), he argues that organisations with an “infinite mindset” are more prone to sustained success because while they are aware of finite targets, such as Ofsted inspections, they are also always looking at the core purpose of their organisation, for example social justice in an area of deprivation.

After spending a good amount of time with football managers Ole Gunnar Solskjær (Manchester United) and Sean Dyche (Burnley), I could see they both had an awareness of the short-term aims – win matches – but they also worked toward long-term goals.

Both managers, with very different resources, seek to stay true to the values of the local people, the local supporters, and the history of the football club. They are able to block out the “white noise” of shareholders and the media.

As school leaders, we must remain focused on our values and vision when the latest fad or trend arrives to steer us off course. That is, of course, easier said than done when we have the demands of parents, external agencies, and the like to deal with. However, the best leaders – in schools or football –keep credibility by always staying true to their core purpose.

Key ‘takeaways’

Having sat with some of the most famous leaders in football, I came away with a pride in our role as leaders in education. Their thoughts and approaches were authentic, humble and yet relentless. I know countless colleagues at all levels in schools who have the same characteristics. These leadership skills are honed in the classroom and then, for some, school leadership. Great leaders are great teachers and vice-versa.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Lancashire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at

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