Leadership - Lifebuoys of leadership to cling to

A checklist of essential tasks to help principals fulfil their complex and numerous duties

The leadership role is complex and extensive, so it is easy to lose sight of what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. When encountering these squalls of disorientation, remember the essential tasks of leadership that can act as lifebuoys to keep you afloat. Here are six of the most essential leadership tasks:

1. Create energy. A leader needs to be the driving force, leading by what they say, how they behave and who they are. They should be asking "what if?" speculative questions and building a team of optimists who say "let's try this" rather than "no, we can't". They should express a faith, which brooks no denial, that all students can achieve the highest standards.

2. Build capacity. The leader should push everyone, including themselves, to do better. They should teach, and be observed by staff doing so, and should rotate the chairing of meetings to improve the skills of others. They should ensure that young staff members are involved in a school improvement group and act on their suggestions, while all staff should have their own development programme, aided by articles the leader has read and shared. Leaders should never say "I"; they should use "we".

3. Minimise and learn from crises. At a time of crisis, a leader should find cause for optimism. They stay calm. They acknowledge their own mistakes. They are "pogo-stick" players: they can simultaneously be in the thick of things, yet still be seeing the wider picture.

4. Secure and enhance the environment. The leader has to make sure staff have the best opportunity to do their job properly. They should ensure that teaching and learning materials are well organised and in plentiful supply, and that the computer system works. Good leaders make sure that the management arrangements are seen by staff as "fit for purpose" - right in detail and serving the needs of staff and students alike - and that the staff handbook is frequently updated. Meanwhile, students and parents should have access to lesson plans, homework tasks, reports and progress grades.

5. Seek and chart improvement. Leaders should use comparative benchmarking, comparing data from their own and other schools. They should be striving for the school to be the best it can be and seeking to put improvement at the heart of everything they do. Part of this process is to celebrate success - governors and staff meetings, awards ceremonies and briefings are crucial to that. Leaders are, above all, good at "collective" as opposed to "individual" monitoring.

6. Extend the vision of what's possible. This involves being both historian and futurologist. School life is dominated by the present, to the extent that it can seem overwhelming and energy levels drop. Wise leaders, therefore, tell stories that remind people of past success and honour predecessors. But they also describe future possibilities, confidently tracing a path from the present to the future.

In addition to these tasks, there are some other points for leaders to remember. The first is the need for unwarranted optimism: being upbeat when there is seemingly no way round insurmountable difficulties. Also, in difficult situations, it is important to regard crisis as the norm and complexity as fun - there will be no end of chances to demonstrate these attributes.

Overall, a leader should be endlessly intellectually curious, speculating about ideas and possibilities so that teachers are empowered to do the same.

Of course, a leadership role requires much more besides all this but we hope that this can form an initial checklist to make a difficult job easier.

This is an edited version of the chapter "E is for essential tasks of successful leaders" and elements from the chapter "L is for leadership" from The A-Z of School Improvement: Principles and Practice by David Woods and Tim Brighouse (Bloomsbury, pound;24.99). To claim your TES subscriber 20 per cent discount visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use code GLR 8RW.

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A forum discussion on the essential skills of leadership.

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