Becoming a head: the 10 traits that boards want to see

An expert on appointing school leaders outlines the attributes and skills those making the appointment usually look for - and how to demonstrate them

Geraint Jones

Leadership: 4 key lessons in running a college

Last year, an NAHT poll found that half of headteachers planned to leave their roles prematurely, and 70 per cent said that job satisfaction had fallen during the Covid pandemic. 

If we thought we had a leadership recruitment crisis prior to the Covid pandemic then, in Ronald Reagan’s words, we “ain’t seen nothing yet”. In fact, we are at the dawn of what I believe will be the biggest ever recruitment drive for school leaders in this country. 

Many will be excited by this, seeing it as a chance to lead a school and fulfil an ambition perhaps held for many years, or one that has only recently formed as an idea for where they want their career to go next.

I’ve appointed more than 50 headteachers over the past decade – in primary, secondary and independent schools in the UK as well as internationally. I know what the next generation of leaders need to demonstrate if they want to make the grade when applying for the top job.

Of course, a strong career history and the right qualifications are required. But there is more to it than this when you are assessing someone who will lead a whole school for many years to come.

Here are some of the key attributes any good leader needs to have and that an interview panel will be assessing.

1. Principled

For me, this is where it all starts and is probably the trait I test most in an interview. 

To be consistent in your behaviours, clear in your motivations and authentic in your leadership, the majority of your decisions will be governed by a handful of principles.

These may be wide-ranging and can include behavioural principles, such as how you feel people should be treated, or attitudinal principles – how people approach their work. Principles relating to your priorities are important – what matters most in your school?

For me, what matters most has always been an unrelenting commitment to continually improving the quality of teaching in a school. I advocate going about our business calmly and respectfully, always looking to take small steps forward in what we do.

To be effective at developing a culture in your school that aligns with your principles, you first need to look deep inside yourself and know what your principles are. 

Maybe ask yourself the question: why should anyone be led by you?

2. Inspiring others 

The headteacher makes the major decisions about where the school is going and decides on the big issues that will make things happen and bring about change. 

To move people in your direction of travel, you’ll need to be able to not only define what you are aiming to do but also communicate a narrative to an entire school community (as well as a panel of recruiting governors) as to why lives will be better under your leadership.

That does not mean standing up and telling everyone how great you are but rather subtly and consistently conveying the value you place on a professional existence, which is worthwhile. 

As such, at interview, be ready to respond to case studies and scenarios presented to you, which will test whether you really mean what you say.

For example, if the quality of teaching in your school is really that important to you, would you cancel a planned lesson observation in favour of an impromptu radio interview?

3. Self-belief

Don’t mistake this for arrogance – it’s more an inner, steely belief in what you want to achieve and why. 

Simply put, if you don’t believe in yourself, don’t expect others to believe in you either.  You will need be able to convey a sense of self-assurance by knowing what you are doing. 

An aura of authority and taking care of things in the right way at the right time will also give staff, pupils and parents the feeling that the school is in safe hands – which is vitally important. Get this right in an interview and the panel will sense it.

4. Nous and a bias for the truth

Nous is a tricky one to define and even trickier to learn. But if you can quickly see through what is nonsense or of no benefit and/or conversely see what is sensible and worthwhile, you’ve got nous. 

Better still, if you can swiftly analyse situations and see what is actually going on rather than perhaps what you or others would like to see, then you have a competency and a preference for dealing with the truth – a rare and prized leadership trait.

On interview, trust your instinct as to how to respond to scenarios or questions thrown at you. Often, it is the case that red herrings will appear in a task or a question, which is testing your nous to spot them quickly and not be side-tracked.

If you stick to the principles by which you work and apply them to a scenario you are faced with, more often than not your answer will be authentic. It sometimes doesn’t matter if your answer is not the “model” answer.

I’d far sooner a candidate knows themselves and then shows themselves to me on interview rather than try to work out what an interview panel are looking for. 

5. Keep it simple

It can be tempting, in an interview, to try to use complicated language and long answers to impress a panel. However, the very best headteachers I have met all have one thing in common – they avoid jargon and gibberish.

They have the ability to simplify and break down complex issues, then explain them in a way that is easy to understand. 

They are also direct and straight in the way they communicate with people, which helps to build trusting relationships and confidence in them.

6. Standards and expectations

The headteacher sets these. Whatever you allow – from behavioural traits of your staff to how your pupils wear their uniform – will be accepted as the standard. 

I look to challenge candidates to explain what you expect in all facets of school life and, more importantly, how will you achieve them? The answers can reveal a lot.

7. Courage

Once all the facts are gathered and analysed, it’s the subsequent actions that will define you. So, I look for people who get on with it when they lead schools and, if necessary, have the courage to change things that are going wrong.  

On interview, have in your pocket a handful of examples in your career to date of when you decisively enacted a decision and what impact this had, as well as when one of your decisions was wrong and you changed it. 

8. Balance

Leadership, and especially headship, keeps taking. 

There is always more to be done in the job. But if you can put work down when it’s time to put it down and prioritise family, home, friends, hobbies and health alongside work, then you’ll be far more in control of the job than it is in control of you. In short, wellbeing matters.

As such, while you may not want to spend too long on this in an interview or application, demonstrating you have a life outside work and that this sustains you in a positive way, can help the panel see you as a rounded candidate that can stay in the role for the long haul.

9. Do your homework

The common mistake in headship applications is that candidates concentrate too much on describing what they have led or achieved in previous roles.

Dare I say it but when judging upwards of 30 application letters, all saying roughly the same thing, they soon become stale and unremarkable.

The standout applicants are always the ones who have done their homework on the school and the job, and demonstrate how their principles and beliefs are right for this particular post, using some examples in their career to date to back this up.

10. Be yourself

Perhaps the most important final piece of advice is that, during any interview, stay true to what you’ve written in your application. 

The candidate who usually gets the job is the one whose beliefs align with those of the school, and who has demonstrated most consistency from the first word of the application letter to the last word of the final interview. 

It is also worth remembering that you are interviewing the school and the interview panel as much as they are interviewing you. 

If there’s a fit, it needs to be mutual.

If the governing body does not align with your principles, it’s probably better to walk away.  Equally, if you don’t get the job, there is no need to dwell on it too much – interviews are often some of the best professional development you can get.

Keep true to yourself and the right headship will find you.

Professor Geraint Jones is associate pro vice-chancellor and executive director at the National School of Education and Teaching, Coventry University, which runs an MA in educational leadership and senior leadership apprenticeship

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Geraint Jones

Geraint Jones is the executive director and associate pro-vice-chancellor of the National School of Education and Teaching, Coventry University

Latest stories