Why schools (and societies) need authentic leadership

Trust in our leaders is dangerously low right now – and it’s at times like these that school leaders can be beacons of hope, says Kai Vacher

leadership advice schools

Leadership has never been a hotter topic. Distrust of those at the top seems to be at an all-time high, with politicians and high-profile chief executives repeatedly found to be lacking integrity. 

People want to be led by someone real; an authentic leader.

But what does that mean? How do authentic leaders lead and behave? How can we distinguish the authentic leader from the tyrant? 

These questions are important when we are looking for the leaders of a country, but they are just as crucial when we think about the leaders of our schools.

To thine own self be true

The notion of authentic leadership is not new. Shakespeare was pressing the importance of leaders driven by ethical and honest morals more than 400 years ago.

Whether it’s King Lear’s ego dividing his kingdom and family, or Macbeth’s maniacal hunger for power causing his own tragic downfall, we can see similar storylines playing out in the contemporary world. 

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Shakespeare coined this definition of authentic leadership in Hamlet. There are many ways in which to interpret these words of wisdom. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps expressed the notion more clearly to the modern ear when he said: “When what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony – that is happiness.” 

Both Gandhi and Shakespeare seem to be commenting on the need for your internal monologue to match your external actions if you are to achieve an honest, ethical and practical leadership style. 

But there is evidence that we are trusting our leaders less and less today, and this has serious effects on how we work. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 report found that 6 in 10 respondents felt political leaders didn’t listen to them. 

A new model for school leadership

A report entitled Navigating the Educational Moral Maze, published in January by the Ethical Leadership Commission (ELC), offers some hope for a brighter future. 

The commission was set up in 2017 by the Association of School and College Leaders to help school and college leaders consider the ethical foundation of their work, and to offer guidance for our colleagues at a time of great change and unprecedented pressure.

The report contains a Framework for Ethical Leadership that resonates closely with the notion of authentic leadership. It is designed to tackle the concerns around a lack of guiding principles for ethical leadership in education.

The ELC confirms that ideals of “strong and robust” leadership are less important than a “wise and just” style, with leaders “driven as much by a vision of a good society as by competitive advantage”. 

So, what does authentic leadership look like and how can we help school leaders to become more authentic? 

As a facilitator on the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) Programme for Aspiring Headteachers, I’ve developed a method of self-assessment that allows aspiring headteachers to reflect on their leadership practice and compare it to that of a model authentic leader. 

Four key questions, based on research on authentic leadership, underpin the assessment method and encourage participants to look introspectively at their leadership behaviours:

How self-aware are you?

Do you know your strengths, limitations and what’s unique about you? In order to be truly authentic, leaders must work hard at understanding and developing themselves.

Do your intentions match with your actions?

Do you walk the talk, but with a limp? To be seen to have integrity, your deeds must match your words. 

Do you lead with your heart or your mind?

Regularly relying on intuition as well as objective data helps leaders to gauge appropriate timing.

Have you got ambition and humility (sometimes termed humbition), in equal measure?

In Good to Great (2002), Jim Collins highlights that organisations that go from good to great are most typically led by leaders who demonstrated the key characteristics of what Collins termed “level 5 leadership”; personal humility and a professional will to do the right thing.

There is a myriad of reasons why being an authentic leader is not easy: the strict accountability systems in place in the current English education system, increasing funding pressures and the recruitment crisis all make it harder to practise the qualities spoken about above. 

What can you do when what you think, what you say and what you do are not aligned? Do you resign yourself to unhappiness or do you seek your happiness elsewhere?

On reflection, I now know why, eight years ago, I decided to accept the post as principal of British School Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman. Most days, to borrow Gandhi’s words of wisdom, what I think, what I say and what I do are in harmony.

I can strive to be an authentic leader. I am proud of my students, my staff and my school. In these circumstances, headship can be the best job in the world.

Many headteachers in England, like their colleagues in the classroom, are either leaving the profession entirely or leaving the country to ply their trade elsewhere.

Is this not a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions?

Kai Vacher is principal of the British School Muscat in Oman

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