WomenEd Blogs

Leadership can be scary

By Julie Hunter     @MsHMFL

I gave a talk at a #WomenEd conference in January 2022 and only came across my slides again recently. With the background of leaders suffering from accountability measures in England, now seemed like the perfect time for me to put my presentation into a blog.

I'd like to credit the beautiful image below to the Bad Cinderella production by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by David Zippel. I have a playlist I created 14 years ago to keep me going on scary leadership day commutes and Bad Cinderella songs were added way back in 2020 as they chimed with the emotions leaders often feel in the scariest school moments.

I remember sitting at The Festival of Education at Wellington College in 2016, as an assistant headteacher, listening to Sir Michael Wilshaw talking about school leaders. I was at the festival talking about happiness being taught in school straight afterwards and I just couldn't get the complete juxtaposition of our views on leadership being so different.

On the mainstage I was listening to the sitting Chief Inspector of Schools in England saying that schools needed leaders to be more macho and that was what school leadership needed to be to see things improve. In terms of leadership language, it wasn't the most helpful way to suggest leaders need to behave, however it did make me think about female leaders going to interviews and being expected to project this desired for quality of being macho, a ball breaker or a bruiser.

Macho - adjective - masculine in an overly, assertive or aggressive way.

Macho - noun - a man who is masculine in an overly assertive or aggressive way.
So a female school leader has to balance societal expectations of them as a female and the expectations of what supposedly makes a good school leader?

Every time I go to a #WomenEd event I am still shocked by the statistics on female school leaders and it makes me wonder if part of it is not due to aptitude but how they are perceived. The Harvard Business Review has great articles about how judgements are made about female leaders being too emotional and nice to lead, yet the emotionally attuned and kind leader is exactly who we gravitate to when things are challenging.
In my NPQH we were privileged to hear from lots of amazing female school leaders who were doing the job incredibly well. It was no surprise to hear one after another explain that they had gained a headship in the most challenging of settings. The glass cliff phenomenon is definitely part of many female leaders' career journey, where they are appointed at crisis points in a school improvement journey. These strong school leaders share their stories with refreshing honesty and humility in #WomenEd spaces to empower those who take up the leadership mantel behind them.

Psychologically safe conferences and training spaces for female leaders enables them to harness their full emotional toolkit for leadership.

Sensitive, intuitive and empathic leaders are brave.

A lack of sensitivity in school leadership drives out the best teachers as none of us wish to be in an educational setting where there is a palpable ethos of insensitivity. So if you are a leader who has been told that they are too nice or too kind, please remember what the opposite would do for your school setting.

So it wasn't a surprise to me to see the educational landscape becoming increasingly filled with a certain type of leaders and those who simply don't fit the mould finding it harder to remain true to their authentic leadership styles. Authenticity is key as a school leader and when you work with authentic colleagues everyone has the chance to flourish.

One of the most scary parts of being a school leader is knowing that people regularly disappear from the profession as if the fairy godmother in Cinderella has just cast a spell overnight. This often happens after Ofsted and is something that sits heavily on those who are waiting for a phone call for a team to descend.

No-one in education at the moment is naïve about the impact certain judgements have on careers but having been through numerous inspections I hold on to one thought. A team of staff who are seen as requiring improvement/ in a category do not overnight become good colleagues based on one 2 day visit. A school judgement is not a judgement about any one member of staff. A headteacher's name is on a school report but if they are in a trust the whole trust is part of the judgement and if they are a local authority school then there is a team who are part of the judgement. Yet the psychological strain on the school leader is truly scary.
New headteachers may believe in the fairy tale of headship, the golden period of stepping up to headship and that they can solve all things as the headteacher. School leaders who have been through the mill know that the reality of school leadership against a plethora of external challenges, whilst outwardly being a leader who is keeping a can-do team spirit alive, can feel like we are pretending.

I don't think anyone stepping into school leadership in this current permacrisis climate can be naïve not to fully understand the scary role they are about to take on.
Again the beautiful lyrics from Bad Cinderella sum up how some leaders feel in schools at the moment. School leaders are having to make crisis decisions daily due to staffing shortages at all levels, societal issues leading to safeguarding tsunamis breaching on pastoral leadership shoulders against a backdrop of funding being a permacrisis default position. It is little wonder that there has been an outpouring of emotionally charged, yet realistic concerns from school leaders.

If each day is a nightmare for school leaders, how do they maintain their kindness that parents and society expect from teachers across the nation?

Are schools unbreakable?

Are school leaders unbreakable?

We will see.

So I started my presentation at #WomenEd talking about the gendered language around school leadership and have brought this blog up to date with the current educational crisis we find ourselves in. My parting thought is about the truly inspirational leaders that I have the good fortune to know, because they keep me going. School leaders do need to be as tough as diamonds right now, but they are the shining lights that will get us through this crisis period in educational history. When you feel trapped and alone in the depths of despair as a school leader it can feel scary, however you are never alone. No school leader should ever feel like they are alone - reach out to networks such as #WomenEd and you will always find a listening ear, a mentor, a coach or simply someone to be by your side.

School leaders of this generation are leading schools in an era where we are becoming the fourth emergency service in our communities. We are relied upon to look after the next generation of this country. It is time for us to put aside our modesty and embrace our collective grounded humility. We will not wilt and fade as collective team of school leaders but will grow and become stronger from our scary experiences.

We have no time for silly games.

Scary moments are what school leaders are made for and we can do this in our own authentic ways.

This blog was first published here

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Thursday, 08 June 2023

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