Former headteacher Jane Golightly discusses how to be a successful leader by detailing what she thinks are important school leadership skills – including being resilient and flexible

Did you read the story reported in the Daily Mail (22 September 2009) about the tiger that climbed to the top of the water cooler and then was too scared to come down, despite encouragement from his keeper? As we could have guessed, hunger was eventually the answer and there was a happy ending for all concerned. I can’t help but compare that tiger to some leaders who also find themselves in positions difficult to get down from. And, judging by the statistic quoted in TES magazine (25 September 2009), we have more leaders than ever: ‘…almost one in six teachers is a leader. Of the 363,000 full-time regular teachers employed in schools, over 59,000 are paid on the leadership scale as either a head, deputy or assistant headteacher.’ This means that there are a lot of leaders working in our schools every day dealing with all sorts of situations.

When I was a classroom teacher being awarded an ‘A’ or ‘B’ allowance was the trigger for taking on more leadership and management responsibilities. I was fortunate enough to acquire my first ‘B’ allowance under the leadership of a headteacher who believed in developing leaders by investing time in their professional development. Her feedback didn’t always make comfortable hearing, but looking back she was spot on in her observations and timely in her advice. Two pieces of her advice stay with me to this day. Firstly, if you want to be a successful leader you need to develop a thicker skin and secondly beware of how you behave in the presence of others – especially make sure not to display signs of impatience or intolerance. My bad habit, when sitting with legs crossed in staff meetings, was to swing my right leg as I began to run out of patience, particularly at that point when discussion seems to be going round in circles. Has anyone given you feedback which has inspired you to consciously change your behaviour?

The National Standards for Headteachers set out the key areas of headship. To deliver the key areas leaders need a whole range of skills, including resilience, flexibility, problem solving, strategic thinking, the ability to innovate. Let’s think about resilience and flexibility.

Leaders have to tackle difficult issues and manage change. You won’t be everyone’s favourite and that comes with the territory – hence my being told that I would need to grow a thicker skin. Perhaps you have recently taken over a leadership position in a school. A few weeks into the term you are probably thinking, ‘Where on earth do I start? So much to improve – no-one told you it would be quite like this.’ As you map out the way forward and begin the process of change, you will meet setbacks. Some staff may not like what you suggest; others will appear to agree but then you find little change in practice; there may even be others who are so incensed with what you are proposing that they will call their professional association. But you must not let any of these deflect you from your strategic vision. A resilient leader is able to cope when things don’t go the way they planned or expected or get the response they had hoped for. So what do resilient leaders do? They change the approach to get the required response. Importantly, they understand the need to come at the problem from a different direction and tailor their approach to the different personalities on the team, especially the way different people cope with change. Another feature of resilient leaders is that they don’t give up easily. But don’t confuse resilience with stubbornness and a fixed determination to get your own way. If what you are trying to do is based on a sound evidence base which shows that things could be better for the children if they were done differently you will win hearts and minds. On the other hand if you are imposing change just for change’s sake, then you can expect difficult days ahead.

Another skill of an effective leader is to know the right time to take stock of the situation and reconsider the approach. Let’s say parents have raised objections to your recent newsletter which says that no pre-school children can attend Friday class assembly. How do you respond?

A. Tell parents that the policy has been set and if they wish to attend they will have to abide by it.
B. Cancel class assemblies.
C. Listen to the views expressed, say you will think about what has been said and after discussing with staff arrange for a crèche to be provided.
D. None of the above.

I hope that you are drawn to C, as taking a reasonable approach will demonstrate that you are a listening person who is prepared to be flexible. Being flexible doesn’t mean chopping and changing to ensure that everyone is happy about things. It does mean that you recognise that others hold an opinion or view, which although different from your own may have a lot to offer. Undoubtedly, the ability to be flexible pays dividends. Before long people will have confidence and trust in you – reasonableness and flexibility have a lot to offer in bringing about change.

At this time of the year, when performance management is uppermost in people’s minds, it seems timely to turn our thoughts to the skill-set of effective leaders. I would encourage you to use the headteacher standards as part of the performance management process. Developing the skills for leadership takes time and practice. They will always remember and be grateful for your investment in them and the difference it has made.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education