Leadership - Be friendly, but don't be friends

24th May 2013 at 01:00
As a leader you must establish some distance socially from the teachers you manage

You've got the promotion, the title and the pay rise; you may even have a new desk. But have you now lost your social life? For many teachers who are leading and managing former colleagues, it can come as a bit of a shock the first time they are not invited for a drink with the rest of the gang. You are still the same person, aren't you?

Well, yes and no. Yes, you still have the same character, values and feelings. But you are also someone different. You are where the buck stops if your colleagues get things wrong, as well as being responsible for your own messes. You are the one who now has to support, advise, assess, guide, persuade and, occasionally, instruct them - and even, possibly, take them through disciplinary or competency proceedings. So your relationship with them should display a certain distance.

Some schools have a pronounced "them and us" culture when it comes to leadership, which you cannot just dismiss. And even if there is a more relaxed atmosphere, you will still need to tiptoe a bit because you will be under scrutiny straight away.

As a leader you must be above suspicion. It is not enough to be fair and to treat everyone equally; you must be seen to be doing this. So the first casualty of your social life if you have been promoted to a leadership role may need to be the nights out that you had with a select group of colleagues.

You cannot afford to be seen with an in-crowd who have privileged access to you, as you may be suspected of favouritism. Resentment can build among staff when they see a small group on very friendly terms with the leaders and decision-makers. Any privileges or advantages allocated to a member of this group may well be ascribed to friendship rather than to merit or need. So tell friends that you may not be available as often as in the past. It could be a welcome admission, as they will not want other teachers to think they are sucking up to the leadership team.

Relationships are also best kept out of school, as these can cause even more disgruntlement. On one occasion I know of, people were so unhappy about an intimate relationship that the principal called staff together and announced publicly that there was full justification for a recent pay rise and it had not been awarded because the head of department was having an affair with the deputy principal.

Another big issue is confidentiality. The staff need to be sure that they can trust you, that what you know about them will not be bandied around among a group of your friends over a few drinks. It is a good idea to take an honest look at yourself: do you become a little indiscreet when drinking?

One solution to the problem of socialising with staff is to pay for a round of drinks and then leave. People will often expect you to pay more anyway, as you now earn more than them. Staff party at the end of term? You make a generous contribution to the wine table, walk around for half an hour chatting to people, then go home before you overhear anything that will make you, and them, cringe. Staff disco? Your exit should come even earlier - you do not want to risk any phone cameras capturing your attempts at jitterbugging and the footage being uploaded to YouTube.

Essentially, remember the advice we give newly qualified teachers: you are their teacher, not their friend. The same now applies to your relationships with other staff: be friendly, but not their friend.

Theodora Griff is a retired principal of a large UK independent school and a TESConnect contributor

In short

  • Promotion to a leadership position requires a rethink of your social habits.
  • Friendships with specific staff groups is unwise: you should have an equal relationship with everyone.
  • Intimate relationships with colleagues should be avoided at all costs.
  • Attend social occasions but be aware of your position - buy drinks, be sociable, but leave early. You don't want to drink too much and embarrass yourself or betray a confidence.
  • Don't go too far and distance yourself, however. Be friendly, but don't necessarily be friends.


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