On the Qualities of Leaders

Reading “Effective Strategic Leadership”, author John Adair discusses three approaches to understanding leadership: Qualities, Situational & Functional.  Of the qualities approach to understanding – and developing – leadership Adair quotes a British military definition of leadership as:

‘…the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action; the art of controlling them, directing them and getting the best out of them.’

Such a definition – albeit a little blunt, perhaps – holds water in any field in which we have the privilege to lead.  Furthermore, in order to achieve that ‘influence’, there are personal qualities that will enable an effective leader to ‘get the best’ out of their teams.

Entering “leadership qualities” in a Google Search will return “about” 63.5 million results.  More than enough to be getting on with.  With a variety of websites of varying degrees of credibility pronouncing anywhere from 7, 10 or 101 skills, qualities or attributes of or for leaders.

There is clearly no definitive list of qualities that set leaders apart or would be beneficial for leaders to possess.  Adair suggests the following:

  • Leaders possess qualities that reflect their field – for educators, an empathy for children and learning would be a good start!
  • Leaders possess more generic qualities, such a enthusiasm, integrity, energy, toughness, resilience, etc.
  • There are always new qualities to learn from successful leaders – humour, humility, for example – but you should develop the natural qualities that you have.

If there are core qualities that a leader should posses, then they would be those we have known about for the longest time.  Therefore Adair offers us the four leadership virtues which Aristotle gave us:

  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Prudence
  • Fortitude

To cut through the “noise” of writing on leadership qualities, it helps enormously to focus on these few, simple terms.  From this platform we can build a broader sense of what we need to be, how we need to behave as leaders.


Why “Adventures”?

Adventure (noun)

  1. an exciting or very unusual experience
  2. participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure
  3. a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome


Transition is a time for reflection.  Inspired by Matt Cutt’s TED Talk and my 16 year-old’s setting of “streaks” in terms of behaviour change, this month (August 2017) I have pledged to write a blog post everyday.   I am starting with why I subtitled my blog “Adventures in School Leadership.”

This blog started 10 years ago, shortly before I got my first Headship and while I was still a Deputy.  At that time I had recently become a school governor and was starting to develop my practice as a coach for colleagues’ professional development.  In the intervening period I have worked at 3 schools, 2 as Head, been through 5 inspections (3 independent school, 2 OfSTED), elected as a chair of governors myself and worked with 5 chairs of governing bodies through my headships.

In this time I have had the opportunity to experience, develop and reflect on leadership in schools, both state and independent.  I have listened to and learned from leaders in a wide range of commercial and educational settings.  And I have grown a network of friends and colleagues across education, business and sport, all of whom have helped me, directly or indirectly, to find better ways to lead the schools with which I have been involved.

So to get the the “streak” started, here is why I called this blog “Adventures…”

An Exciting or Very Unusual Experience

To be involved with the education of young people is a privilege.  Therefore, to be a school leader is the most exciting opportunity of all.  You have the chance to influence the direction of your school, to develop and structure provision and build and grow teams of people to deliver exceptional experiences (from school lunches to science lessons) for the pupils in their care.

It is unusual because it moves you away from the reason you came into the profession in the first place – to teach children in a classroom.  The influence, therefore, is less direct, less immediate and other skills and attributes are required (more in subsequent posts) in order to establish and realise improvement in learning for the children – who now number a whole school-full, not just your class or year group.

Participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure

With this whole school focus – and this applies to senior leaders, not only heads – you are tasked with taking the entire community (or at least large parts of it) with you.  This requires the ability to communicate vision and demonstrate to people that your enterprise is one that is leading to greater improvement and success in children’s outcomes.

At the heart of great school leadership is the influence of others, enabling them to travel towards the goals that you have set – hopefully with their prior input!  The leadership adventure requires a spirit and a sense of collective purpose.

bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome

Children, colleagues, governors, parents.  One can’t be all things to all people and this brings risks and some hazards.  The adventure in leadership can stall if you fail to attend to your relationships across the stakeholder groups.  Therefore it is a bold undertaking to manage the risks, to work transparently and face-to-face with everyone, adapting and nuancing your style to ensure that you grow and sustain the necessary credibility and respect.

Yet you are alone in many respects and you have the responsibility to take action – that’s your job – to minimise the hazards you may be leading your colleagues to face.  Clarity of direction, the establishment of coherent, but flexible, plans, clear KPIs and relentless support for all will allow your outcomes to be more certain!

“Globally Competent Individuals & Leaders”

From the archives.  I found this blog post in my drafts and, although from a couple of years ago, the theme of global competencies continues to grow in importance in the development of young people.

Arne Duncan’s special message to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, providing support for the work that is done to promote global learning that develops the skills and competencies to play an effective role in our rapidly changing world.

A global education is part of everything we do in schools.  The interconnectedness of the world is such that we have now more effectively moved beyond the boundaries of the classroom in the development of values that will enable our children, and ourselves, to live more carefully and more curiously now and in the future.

Towards a global literacy.

It is a journey and, if it hasn’t already (which it probably has if you think about it), I suggest 3 simple steps that can be taken to further develop understanding of the world beyond our borders.  This is a global literacy.  Equipping our young people (and ourselves) with the language, knowledge and understanding to reach out and make the most of the world in which we live.

  • Scratch the surface.  Even in leafy Hertfordshire, a class discussion on family trees or around traditions – particularly interesting at Christmas, Easter or Diwali – will often quickly uncover relatives who were born overseas.  Naturally, care needs to be taken over children’s stories, yet carefully handled, family history, traditions and culture can help children recognise the diversity that exists amongst themselves.
  • Fly the flag.  A flagpole is great, but any public display space can carry a regularly rotating image or a flag.  Whether, linked to a school’s own international projects or simply for developing general knowledge, a flag makes a fantastic talking point – see Roman Mars on TED.com for example.  You will also know what vexillology means!
  • Use the enthusiasm of others.  Not only within your own staff team, but also connect with what teachers are willing to do in other locations.  Making links through the British Council Connecting Classrooms initiative very quickly, in my experience, returns contacts from schools in other countries.  The enthusiasm and sheer will that I have discovered in school teachers and leaders is humbling.  With just a little organisation, some ICT, photos and letters children can come face-to-face with each other in very different locations.  In addition, I have found that just by starting this process, the interest of colleagues in travel has emerged, voluntarily, to support the physical connections that make linking schools so much more effective.

As a start (or rather, the continued promotion of global education) these are just a few of many simple things that can kick start discussion and development at school.  Once these conversations start, whether they are in the classroom or between colleagues, the motivation and momentum will increase.  And you will probably find yourself nominated global learning coordinator.  Now wouldn’t that be a good thing!

Can it really be this simple?

What really sets a school apart?

Although this is another in a very infrequent series of posts based on lists, it highlights the simple message at the heart of a successful school.  Colin Harris, writing the TES last November, recognises that it is love – for and of school – that lies at the heart of a successful school.

Paraphrasing Mr Harris, below is a distillation of the seven things that he feels make a good school and underpin the sense of love that pervades successful schools.

  1. Positive relationships throughout the whole community – teacher-pupil, pupil-pupil, teacher-parent, etc.
  2. Key values can be seen all around
  3. High expectations are pervasive, from the quality of the building to the quality of work being presented
  4. Teachers are dedicated to those in their care
  5. Behaviour is excellent, because the structures are understood by everyone.
  6. Staff are allowed to take risks to get the best from the pupils
  7. Strong leadership is present – in the literal sense as well as the figurative


A question of questions

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 09.41.39Baselines don’t lead to predictions.  They guide the next steps.  A map has a scale and a key but you have to be on the path to understand the terrain.  Each half term in the classroom, for example, you take way markers to keep you on the right path.  Regular, reasonable, manageable assessment of progress shapes a child’s learning.  Without establishing how far or how fast progress is being made, the next steps cannot readily be planned.

An article in the TES last week points to the consultation that is starting in the UK over baseline testing at Reception (4 years old).  That this debate has never gone away, is telling, so to is the fact that despite numerous attempts no agreed solution has been found.  Providers of assessment materials have themselves  pointed to the steep challenges that are presented in finding a meaningful way of assessing progress – and predicting future outcomes – in children so young.

All the same, working out where children are and where they are going is essential.  It is necessary in informing parents and carers of how well a child is progressing in, and engaging with, the school environment.  It is necessary for accountability, whether for the quality of teaching and professional development (appraisal or performance) or the success or otherwise of curriculum planning and resource management, i.e. budget allocation.

Collecting data is fine; let’s get over it.  It’s obviously not the be all and end all but an important tool in our kit for creating a dialogue with parents and colleagues about a child.   However the tool must be manageable and managed well; agreed by the team as a whole school policy and it must be discussed and the ramifications for subsequent provision understood.  Because this is part of the narrative, the story of a child’s journey through their life in school.  And that journey, like following a map could take them anywhere!


I forgot I wrote this.  Twelve years ago I was Deputy Head at Berkhamsted Collegiate Prep School (now Berkhamsted Prep School).  I was writing a blogpost on a site I created for a group of us who had met at an IAPS Aspiring Heads conference.

The post was written at the time when “Citizenship Education” was being discussed as the next thing to introduce to young people; aiming to develop character and values that would provide them with firm foundations in their lives ahead.  It was this point – the impact on the children’s lives in the future along with the need to develop whole school culture that lead me to ask the questions:


How are we to educate for future responsibility? My Year 6 classes or my 1W RE form are not simply the 6- or 11-year-olds in front of me now. They are the voting 20-somethings or parents with purchasing power in 10 or 20 years time. So these future-adults must be able to participate in an environment which instills core values of kindness, care, humility and self-confidence. Surely school management issues and not merely to be stuffed away as a subject within the curriculum?

Throughout my career, from Environmental Education in Florida to Prep School Headship, I have sought ways to manifest a social and environmental responsibility in school curriculum and culture.  Having established the principles of Education for Social Responsibility in IAPS 5 years ago, I was delighted to find this post.  I was equally delighted to realise that I have remained consistent in the intervening dozen years or so with this from January 2017…

What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid.  Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard.

Now, after 12 years, it is a pleasure to be working in schools that fully embrace the development of virtues, values and character and its impact on outcomes.  ‘Twas ever thus, of course, yet the time for antipathy and derision is over.  We understand instinctively that focusing on behaviours and attitudes to learning leads to improvement.  I am delighted that we can now give full vent to our passions and create schools and school systems that grow stronger and more successful communities.