Leadership - It may be time to act your age

Career, as life, goes in phases - and knowing where you are can be a powerful motivator

There are many theories about whether life can be broken down into defined stages and what those stages might look like. Are you still classed as "young" after you turn 30? Should you be classed as "old" just because you have celebrated your 50th birthday? There is no answer on which you will find broad agreement.

It is a similar story when you look at school leadership. Although it is possible to break down a tenure of leadership - be it a headship or another position - into stages, just as with age those stages are hotly debated.

While not claiming to transcend these debates, we do feel it is possible to roughly group school leadership into four phases, and that the resulting framework would be something on which the majority would agree.


The first stage is initiation, that teething period after a person first comes into a role. This is when all your stakeholders - staff, students, parents, governors and the local community - are trying to match up what you say and what you do with who you are. The better your homework before you arrive, the sooner you'll form a trusting rapport with people as they will be more certain that you have realised and respected their individuality. Similarly, the more widely you integrate yourself, the quicker the initiation phase will be over.


The second stage is the developmental phase, when, after listening to everyone's hopes, you are privileged to steer the school through the next chapter of its story. You need to constantly affirm and reinforce the vital essence, purpose and values of your vision, as well as the fact that the school is a shared enterprise. Another key element of this phase is to focus on staff development, so staff members never run short of intellectual curiosity and energy.


The next step is a dangerous period for leaders: a plateau stage that can easily stall altogether. Can you summon the imagination and resolve for another sustained period of development? Should you leave for another school? Certainly, taking a break after seven or so years is a good idea; ideally for half a term, but even a month's study visit will help to recharge the batteries.

However, even this may not be enough. Most people either emerge from the third stage with the commitment to start a new defining chapter at their current institution, or they leave. It is important that, as a leader, you are clear about which camp you fall into.


The unfortunate truth is that, just as with life in general, there is no way of avoiding the end phase of leadership. The ambition would be for a headteacher to run through successful development phases for many years, even decades, and then go out on top at the height of their powers. While this is sometimes possible, circumstance or reality does not always work that way.

When your time is up, be honest with yourself and others: don't hang around and allow things to lose momentum. Don't keep saying you are going to retire and then postponing it. Once the decision is made in your mind, stick to it, and announce it with the minimal notice consistent with not leaving the school in a mess. In short, make it an honourable "exit", not a long, slow "decline".

The sad truth is that school leaders tend to realise these stages of leadership only after they have passed through them. This is unfortunate, because the best time to consider them is at the start of a leadership role. The stages provide a structure from which you can work, and they help to frame how you operate. Hopefully, they also give you an insight - an opportunity to step outside and see the bigger picture of your role - and that can often prove invaluable.

This is an edited version of the chapter 'F is for Four Stages of Leadership' from The A-Z of School Improvement: principles and practice by Tim Brighouse and David Woods, published by Bloomsbury at #163;24.99. To claim your TESS subscriber 20 per cent discount, visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use the code GLR 8RW.

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