An effective school leader who succeeds in remaining happy, confident and healthy draws not just on management skills, but on a "reservoir of hope", according to research by Nottinghamshire head Alan Flintham.
By that he means the things that give heads inner strength to keep going whatever happens. Vital to this, he argues, are strong personal beliefs that give them a clear sense of right and wrong.Good heads tend to believe that what they are doing is right and worthy. Also vital is the support of family and friends to refresh their reserves of energy.
He describes the reservoir as "a calm centre at the heart of a` leader from which their values and vision flow, and which makes effective interpersonal engagement possible no matter what..."
Borrowed from the work of Professor John West-Burnham, the "reservoir" metaphor was eagerly accepted by almost every one of the 25 very different heads Alan Flintham interviewed. Heads' core values were strong, but rooted in different beliefs. For some, the motivation was political - the need to offer deprived children a better deal; others saw their values as rooted in their upbringing. One primary head said: "My working-class background laid down my core values of inclusivity."
What is surprising, though, given that Flintham interviewed only eight church school heads, is that no fewer than 15 of the 25 said that their values were founded in Christian belief. One head of a (non-church) school saw herself as, "living out the message of the gospel to love one another".
The metaphor of the reservoir works well. Other people can draw on it as heads unfailingly support and inspire them. "It's the Boy Scout motto," said one inner-city head, "smiling and whistling under all difficulties. You have to resist the martyrdom model."
Importantly, "reservoir" also implies that hope can run low. Flintham gives numerous examples of heads being tested by fires, tragedies, child-protection issues and inspection reports. Unsuprisingly, such testing times are often strengthening, "If I can deal with that, I can deal with anything," said a primary head. (Not everyone, of course, survives, and Flintham is working on a follow-up study, "When reservoirs run dry", of heads who have left the profession.) Flintham, head of Quarrydale comprehensive, Sutton-in-Ashfield, says his research underlines how important it is for heads to have a confidante and supporter with whom to talk and reflect. Many heads, he acknowledges, find such a person themselves - perhaps the chair of governors, or a fellow head - but he believes there should be a statutory support system. "You need a sounding board, a professional listening partner," he says. "And it shouldn't be left to chance, it should be part of the entitlement package of leadership."
Without that, and other strategies for topping up the reservoir, there is a real danger that drained heads will leave the profession or, in the words of one interviewee, "die a lingering death through managing the stock cupboard".
Alan Flintham produced his study,"Reservoirs of hope: spiritual and moral leadership in headteachers", as a research associate of the National College for School Leadership. The NCSL finances heads to research useful issues for 30 days. Details, and copies of this study, at www.ncsl.org.uk
TOP UP THE RESERVOIR
Heads gave some examples of the sources of support that kept them going, even in the direst circumstances: FAMILY AND FRIENDS
"I don't see how you can go home on your own at night and come back the next day sane."
"I now have a conscious management of work-life balance, after bitter experience of a marriage break-up due to over-focus on school."
"The day-to-day support of the office staff providing tea, sympathy and laughter."
Most heads enjoyed meeting friends and peers at conferences.
"In my darkest moments, I say thank goodness he (the chair of governors) is here with me."
"Every Birmingham head could tell a similar story." (Referring to the direct support of the then Birmingham schools chief, Tim Brighouse)