Some aspects of good leadership such as vision, influence and clarity can appear timeless and universal. We all know it when we experience it and can point to examples of those people who have (and those who haven’t) demonstrated it.
But once you dig into the detail of what it actually means in practice, good leadership gets a bit more complicated. That’s because it’s always, to an extent, responsive to the particular circumstances and needs of the moment. How can you compare Winston Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ rallying cry to Mother Theresa’s ‘be faithful in small things’ wisdom? They’re both examples of good leadership: a strong vision delivered clearly from people of influence. However, they don’t have a great deal in common with each other. Is one style better than the other? Are they examples of male and female leadership styles? Are they both the product of a bygone age?
Take a look at the latest official statistics below on school leaders today. Are you surprised, outraged, nonplussed or unconcerned at the difference in proportion of qualified female teachers who make it through to headship? Is this a national scandal, a waste of resources, or just about right?
I’m not going to answer any of these questions I’m afraid, or dig into the politics of gender or leadership in schools or beyond. All I’m trying to illustrate here is that leadership needs to keep changing and adapting if it’s to be relevant, useful and good for its time.
Who are our school leaders? How did they get there? What put off those that never made it? And what does good leadership look like? None of these are static questions set in stone or time. I’ve not found an exact figure, but you can bet the proportion of female head teachers was a great deal lower in 1940 when Churchill gave that speech. The point being that times change; language, demographics, ethnicity, the gender mix and even the values of a society (including its school leaders) are all constantly changing.
Rather than seeing this as a threat to tradition and established practices, it’s an exciting opportunity albeit one that can feel a little unsettling at times. It can be particularly uncomfortable for those school leaders who’ve succeeded ‘against the odds’ of their time – whether that’s about gender, race or work-life balance. Is it only fair they hold future school leaders to the same high standards they themselves had to meet? Or are we in a new era where good leadership, in schools and beyond, looks different?
Some exciting forthcoming research by Dr Karen Edge at UCL Institute of Education is comparing school leaders from different global cities. It looks to be a relatively tougher environment for new British school leaders, especially those who don’t want to sacrifice their family lives for the sake of their careers.
It’s important we understand this new emerging generation of school leaders so we can encourage virtuous intergenerational cycles, ones that promote equality and get us the best school leaders possible for our time. So whatever you think good leadership looks like, I hope you’ll be open to thinking about how it needs to evolve.
This blog was written for The Key.
(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)