Leadership - Headship shouldn't be a vanishing act

30th January 2015 at 00:00
Increased demands can drag you from the front line, but leaders must be seen and heard

Here's a test: add up the minutes you spend outside your office and meeting rooms in one day, and count the number of people you encounter other than your immediate staff. What do you find?

For many, the sad revelation will be that they have become a remote leader - a shadowy presence on the fringes of school life rather than its most recognisable representative. And that often means trouble. But it is all too easy for school leaders to become remote.

When the paperwork and meetings begin to dominate your time, being at the school gate at the start and end of the school day can be one of the first routines to disappear. But this simple habit shows parents and staff that your open-door policy is more than just talk and that they really can "grab you for a word". It also gives the day a better chance of beginning and ending on a positive note - for everyone in the school community - because you are there as an overseeing presence.

Daily walks are often next to be lost in the schedule. No longer can you ensure that you see and speak to every member of staff regularly. One headteacher I knew confessed to being greeted by a teacher who asked: "Is there something wrong? You haven't spoken to me this term."

Whether you lead a phase, a department or the whole school, it is easy to recede from view. But to be a successful leader you must take measures to ensure this doesn't happen. Audit your time regularly and take action when you find you are keeping yourself hidden away for too long.

Arguably the most fundamental part of your job is to be seen but successful leaders also listen. They take the blame, give credit and are contagiously full of hope, enthusiasm and energy. They are thoughtful and considerate of the people they see regularly. This is an essential part of creating a positive culture in schools; spending all day in an office is not.

Remote control

But what about leaders who are necessarily removed; executive headteachers of groups of schools, directors of local authorities, or - whisper it - Her Majesty's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw? How do they manage remote relationships with the front-line staff who make a real difference?

They must understand that communicating with stakeholders - especially teachers, support staff and school leaders - can be a challenge. They are going to see most of the people they lead rarely, if at all. This is where they need to make meetings and appearances count. The first impressions they make, often in speeches, through e-circulars and articles in journals - and now in blogs and on Twitter - need to be carefully thought through as they can be very revealing. The handwritten cards and letters that should be sent after school visits are even more so.

And promises: do they do what they've said they will? Do they acknowledge the committed practice they have seen? Remote leaders thrive or are condemned on little actions such as these.

Stay in sight

Of course, another hazard for remote leaders is that they often have to communicate through the media. When I was running Birmingham's education service, I compared notes with a secretary of state about who was in our thoughts when we appeared on television or the radio. Who was the audience? For me, it was teachers and parents. For the minister, surrounded by public relations advisers, it was Number 10, the Daily Mail and the electorate. No wonder professionals in the public service so mistrust politicians.

As far as the media is concerned, it's best to seize the initiative. For the leader of a chain of quasi-private academies or an executive headteacher of a school group, that can mean writing interesting and thoughtful articles in journals and magazines such as TES, which are likely to be read by school staff. Although directors in local authorities should do the same, they are necessarily in the public eye on a daily basis, so they need to be available and proactive when it comes to good news, and should build relationships with reporters.

Steve Munby, former chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, was a great example to follow. Hours of exhausting phone calls, visits, articles and speeches, punctuated by acts of unexpected kindness and thoughtfulness, turned the school leaders from sceptics to keen supporters of the college.

So put in the hard work, whatever level of leadership you're at. Being visible is not optional; it's central to success.

Sir Tim Brighouse is a British educator and former schools commissioner for London

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