Before Andrew Day took over as executive director of Northumberland Church of England Academy, any management decisions tended to be made on the spot.
“I said, ‘Let’s take 24 hours’ – get a better perspective, so we make the right judgement,” Mr Day said. “Then I’d talk to as many people as I could about how they thought things could be done better.”
Mr Day’s preference for discussing problems before acting, leadership expert Neil Gilbride believes, places him at the higher end of a psychological scale of school leadership development. Mr Gilbride, lecturer in educational leadership at the University of Gloucestershire, has drawn up the scale to categorise heads according to their level of self-awareness and ability to cope with differing opinions.
Most headteachers fall into one of the four middle stages on the scale, he said. Towards the lower end of the scale is the self-aware head. These heads are aware of themselves in relation to others, but do not tend to discuss problems before acting.
“In the lower stages, you’re very determined by the rules – what Ofsted tells you,” Mr Gilbride said. “You hear about a situation and you’re action, action, action.”
Next are conscientious heads: “You reject the external rules, you do what’s important to your own value set. So: ‘Ofsted isn’t important – we’ll do what we think is important.’”
These are followed by individualist heads. “They recognise that there’s conflict between what they want and what the rest of the world wants, but they can tolerate it,” Mr Gilbride said. Individualists are not threatened by others’ opinions, so they tend to take time to listen. “People working for an individualist say ‘when I grow up, I want to be like them’,” he said. “Or ‘why can’t this person be prime minister?’”
The next stage – the autonomous head – has a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay between rules and personal values. “There are external rules,” said Mr Gilbride. “And these are my internal rules. Yes, they’re going to come into conflict, and that’s OK. I’m OK with it.”
The scale, he believes, allows headteachers to consider their own strengths and shortcomings. “This provides a psychologically robust means of looking at themselves,” he said, “of thinking, where am I? What comes next? How do I get there?”
One cannot force progression between the seven stages, Mr Gilbride stressed. Heads move from one stage to the next, as their outlook on life changes.
“Getting married or divorced, having a baby, your mother or father dying – all of these can fundamentally impact how you view the world,” he said. “There isn’t a workplace ego or a homeplace ego. You carry who you are everywhere and apply it to everything in the same way.”
Headship is like parenting
Nadia Paczuska, head of Meadow Primary Academy in Suffolk, sees the logic in this. “Becoming a head is a bit like becoming a parent,” she said. “The kind of parent you are is the kind of person you are. And that’s the same when you become a head.”
Mr Gilbride, however, is keen to emphasise that his stages are not a hierarchy; there is a place for all types of headteacher ego.
Mr Day, for example, recognises that his approach would not necessarily work in all schools. “If you’re a school in special measures, you have to be pretty certain of following the framework,” he said.
James Toop, CEO designate of the newly merged Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders Trust, believes that Mr Gilbride’s stages fit well with the four stages of school improvement talked about by school leaders: decluttering, repair, improvement and, finally, sustaining standards.
“The leadership style in those early stages needs to be much more directive,” Mr Toop said. “That’s where you’re tied quite closely to what Ofsted is looking for. Then, in later stages, you start to distribute more leadership across the school, empowering middle leaders more. I actually think a leader might be best suited to a particular type of school. There are examples of heads who move from turnaround school to turnaround school. I’ve known heads who’ve taken a school to ‘good’, then said, ‘I’m not the person to take it to ‘outstanding.’”
Presenting his new theory at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference, held in Cheshire last month, Mr Gilbride also mentioned several less-common stages of ego development for headteachers. At the highest level, integrated heads are so rare as to be essentially theoretical. “I don’t want to say that they’re the perfect human being,” he said, “but they’re totally at peace with the world. It’s like Buddhist enlightenment.”
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the scale are impulsive and protective heads. “We’re talking about severely regressed individuals,” he said. “They genuinely have no awareness of what they’re doing – they’re just acting on impulse.”
Ms Paczuska, however, questions whether these headteachers are as rare as Mr Gilbride thinks. “A lot of people I’ve met in headships don’t realise that their actions have impacts,” she said. “They don’t have the self-awareness for that. You can’t shout at your staff, however stressed you are. Go and do a yoga class, and then have that meeting.”
Gilbride’s stages of headship
Impulsive: afraid of retaliation; dependent, egocentric, exploitative.
Self-protective: afraid of being caught; prioritises self-protection; wary, manipulative, exploitative.
Self-aware: aware of self in relation to group; conforms to rules.
Conscientious: intense, responsible; allows for self-criticism.
Individualistic: tolerance of differing opinions, respect for individuality; allows for mutual exchanges.
Autonomous: copes with conflict; respects autonomy; tolerates ambiguity.
Integrated: no inner conflict; cherishes individuality; self-knowledge is its own goal.
What kind of head are you?
Complete the following sentences:
When a child will not join in group activities…
When I am criticised…
Being with other people…
My mother and I…
What gets me into trouble is…
A good father…
I feel sorry…
I can’t stand people who…
My main problem is…
My conscience bothers me if…
Neil Gilbride is looking for headteachers to complete the full questionnaire, as part of his study. If you would like to receive your official ranking, contact him on: firstname.lastname@example.org