Charismatic leaders are passe

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
I have been asked to take on the executive responsibility for another school as well as my own by the local authority, becoming its executive head. This school is not as successful as ours. I have worries about whether I am the right person for this role and whether or not I will be able to deliver real school improvement. I also wonder what my existing school will say.

You are worrying about some of the right things. Let's begin with you - do you want this challenge? If so, why? Is it that you want to "make a difference" outside your own school? Do you regard this as a way of staying at the leading edge of practice? Are you passionate about pupil progress and achievement? What are your misgivings about accepting this invitation? Start with some serious soul-searching.

There is no one set of personal characteristics that would appear on a job description for such a role. You might be thinking: do I possess a fairly strong personality, have bucketfuls of self-confidence and exude drive and determination with every step that I take? This is emerging as the stereotypical picture of such a being.

However the days of the "heroic leader" are disappearing along with these vanishing prototypes as people begin to realise that any improvement, however engineered, must be sustainable for it to be more than a fleeting quick fix. Lasting benefits to schools, their leaders, staff and pupils only come about when a team approach rather than an individual charismatic contribution is made. Remove the charisma and the school improvement can evaporate before your eyes. Sustainability is the name of the game.

Now, about the role itself. If you decide to take this on make sure that you are very clear about:

* how long they want you to do this for;

* what is the existing capacity in the new school for improvement;

* the set-up and exit arrangements for you and the school;

* who you will need to take from your existing school;

* the capacity of your existing school not simply to do without you, but to prosper further under delegated responsibility;

* the level of support and commitment you can expect from the new school and the local authority.

Don't be seduced into thinking and acting in the shortmedium-term mode at the expense of developing others for the long haul. The secret of success as an executive head is to go for longer-term capacity-building. You have to show some early success to establish credibility and for the sake of staff but the real skill comes in creating the climate and culture that allows for autonomous, intrinsically motivated, school improvement. This will endure long after you have returned to base camp. Don't forget your own school. What is the relationship going to be between your own school and your adopted school? Are the strengths of the former what are really needed by the latter? When you deploy the strengths of your present school in your adopted school, what happens back at the ranch?

You will have assumed double the professional and moral responsibilities.

Therefore you must be certain that all pupils and staff are getting a fair deal and what they are fundamentally entitled to. You don't want to win the hearts and minds of your adopted school staff and pupils at the expense of neglecting your own first community. Can you keep this balance?

Ask yourself if you have the ability to lead a less successful school out of a difficult patch: do you have a realistic chance of achieving this and will there be any detrimental effects on your present school? Good luck.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.Do you have a leadership question? Email

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