Let me explode a few myths…

26th February 2016 at 00:00
Why does a head have to be a certain age? And do you really think that a suit and tie make a good leader?

In my first year as a headteacher, I used to get an occasional ego boost when meeting prospective parents for tours. Occasionally one would say, “You look too young to be the headteacher.” Cue mental double-fist pump. The passage of time and the cumulative toll of the job mean that those days are long gone, but it always set me thinking on the many myths about good leadership. The mass media coverage of figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump lately has brought this to the fore once more.

1 Wrinkles

Young, but not too young. As a profession, we get very exercised if someone happens to be appointed to a leadership position at an age that we suspect indicates they lack the sufficient experience. I remember being asked in my interview about my age in a very roundabout way, and I responded that, as a nation, we seemed to be comfortable with a Chancellor of the Exchequer who was my age but got quite twitchy about people of a similar age running a very small school.

Prospective heads should be judged on what they have done in their career and on their potential, not on their date of birth. The same goes for when we are appointing leadership positions in our schools.

2 Shoulder pads

I’ve heard a lot of people comment lately that Mr Corbyn dresses like an RE teacher (that’s a nice brown jacket, by the way, Mr Bennett). It reminds me of the comments that were passed about an exceptional former colleague of mine who ran a PRU. She had a penchant for baggy, cable-knit sweaters and was thus labelled “mumsy”, itself a proxy for weak and soft, in the pejorative sense. Sharpness of suit and shininess of shoe – and a military bearing to match – seem to reassure and convey authority, control and steadfastness. Anything less and there may be a hint of the wet, liberal type or the dangerous radical about you.

In reality, clothes tell you little about how someone leads. We need to be clear about dispelling false assumptions and ensure in our own hiring decisions that we do not fall foul of the same stereotyping.

3 Decisiveness

We like leaders who make firm decisions. It implies a clarity and certainty of thought, a commitment to action that we can get behind. Changing your mind can appear weak.

This can encourage leaders to entrench their position when the best thing for a school is to change course. The latter is not easy if you’re the leader who enacted that policy or made a decision in the first place. It’s not comfortable to publicly admit that you were wrong.

Leaders must get used to this discomfort, though. We should not follow a path that we know is damaging through fear of being seen as less of a leader. And we need to educate our senior leadership teams to do the same.

4 Bullshit bingo

My closest friend, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Marines, is the defence secretary’s military adviser. I learn a new piece of technical military jargon from him every time we meet. The latest one he used is priceless – “vectoring assets to a kinetic situation”. This simply means sending our guys to help out their mates as some bad guys are shooting at them.

All professions have their own language and it evolves and grows like any other. There is a danger, though, that we use this technical language to create a mystique or a complexity around the leadership of schools that is unnecessary.

Yes, leadership may be complicated, but so is teaching, and one of the basic skills of good leaders is clarity in their language, both in oral and written form. We do nothing to motivate colleagues to consider taking on leadership roles if we continue to vomit up talk about “creating synergies” or of “drilling down to a level of granularity”. It is going to take some willpower, though, not to use my friend’s phrase the next time that I’m asked to support a colleague with a tricky Year 11 group on a particularly wet, windy afternoon.

5 Profile

Finally (note to self), the volume of tweets, articles, blogs or keynote conference speeches that someone produces has no correlation whatsoever to their competence as a leader. I was once falsely labelled as a “leading headteacher” solely on this basis. It’s not true, I can most definitely assure you.

Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey @JarlathOBrien

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