Why DO people sometimes become arrogant when they gain a senior leadership position? It seems so contrary to the values of our profession.
I was brought up to believe that you should treat everyone as you wish to be treated yourself. Later, when I went into teaching, I encountered many people with similar values. Teachers tend to like and respect other people; they want to improve lives.
Arrogance is among the worst traits a leader can possess. I have been privileged to lead a successful school, advise government, chair national committees and create leadership qualifications, but I am acutely aware that there is still much for me to learn. I also realise that leadership comes in a diverse range of styles. If you are not empathetic you are unlikely to be pleasant to work with, loyalty will be more difficult to achieve and you will find yourself managing a fragmented workforce.
Arrogance in leadership is a corrosive and disruptive force. Nevertheless, it is worryingly prominent in education. I remember feeling stunned after someone I had known for many years was promoted to a senior position. Almost overnight he was transformed into someone who believed they knew everything, no longer needed to seek advice and ought to associate with a different group of “experts”.
Those of us who had known him of old were initially offended; then, inevitably, some became disparaging. It was interesting to observe how a popular person could suddenly alienate themselves. Yet the more you analysed his behaviour, the more apparent it became that he was actually intimidated by his new role and was trying to shield himself from those who might detect that he did not know as much as he made out.
Ironically, many of his new colleagues were eager to offer support, but he struggled on pridefully and became quite isolated, disliking his job and eventually moving on to a different role. If only he had been more approachable – and less arrogant – he might have survived and flourished.
It’s important, as a school leader, to analyse your own behaviour for signs of arrogance. Are you the kind of leader who has stopped seeking other people’s views? Do you alter your perspective after discussions or remain steadfast in your original opinions? When you speak to people at work events, are you always looking over their shoulder, scanning the room for another contact? Do you accept suggestions for new initiatives, or is yours a culture where you and only you hold the answers?
If people bypass you to get things done, have separate meetings and then lobby you collectively, the chances are that they think you are arrogant and unapproachable. If you sense that you have become an arrogant leader, you need to address the situation. Here’s how.
Watch what you say
If you find yourself beginning a sentence with “It’s obvious that we should…”, think twice, because what is obvious to you might not be to others and your tone may sound patronising. People need to feel valued for what they know, believe and feel. They also have the right to think differently to you; being challenged is what makes a working environment more stimulating and innovative.
Reassess your interactions
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are vital to effective working environments. Feedback from colleagues above and below you in the hierarchy – through processes such as 360degree appraisals – can help you to reassess the ways in which you interact with others. This does, of course, require honesty from the colleagues providing feedback (confidentiality can help to ensure this), along with a commitment from you to address areas of concern.
Be open to feedback
Leaders need to be brave, not rude, and they need to lead by example. Steve Munby, chief executive of the CfBT Education Trust, once said: “Leaders need time on the balcony, as well as the dance floor.” Reflection is crucial, along with taking the time to ask colleagues what they think and how they feel. People need to feel empowered and valued.
Learn from others
As you progress in your career, it is necessary to observe the behaviour, actions and influence of those around you. You can learn a great deal from this, which will help you to build your own model of reference. You should then be better equipped to know when to hold back on your opinions and seek those of others.
Remember to praise and thank people who have gone beyond expectations, and never ask someone to carry out a task that you would not have done yourself if you were employed in that role. Do not be afraid to let others take credit for your ideas. Leaders influence – they must inspire – but they also need humility.
Deborah Leek-Bailey is a former headteacher and the founding director of DLB Leadership Associates. She is an adviser to the Department for Education and chair of its Independent/State School Partnership forum. She is also a trustee of Child Bereavement UK, vice-president of the Independent Schools Association, a school inspector and an adjudicator for the TES Independent School Awards