5 tips for thriving as a new leader

Of the seven jobs I had, across six different schools in a thirty-year period, headship was by far the most stimulating, rewarding and joyful.

Leadership consultant, author and former head Jill Berry offers advice on leadership

Leading schools is undoubtedly challenging: you will work hard and you will face some difficult judgement calls and tricky, unexpected and sensitive situations. But I had far more good days than bad ones, and far more positive experiences than negative ones, in my ten years of headship.

Early headship can be particularly demanding, as you build your experience and your confidence.

It is not unusual to have days where you think, ‘I’m actually doing OK, here’, followed by days where you think, ‘Who am I kidding? I’m barely getting away with this! Someone is going to find me out…’ Imposter syndrome may always be lurking in the wings.

However, I still believe that headship is a great privilege. It offers you the opportunity to make a difference on a scale unlike any other you will have ever experienced, and that is thrilling. What you say and do will affect countless young people, and adults – staff, parents, governors and perhaps members of the wider community.

How can you ensure that you make the most positive difference and that, in the process, you achieve a sustainable balance between your personal and professional lives and safeguard your own wellbeing?

Below I offer five tips for those who are new to headship.


Jill Berry, former head, leadership consultant and author of ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head’

1. Listen and learn about the school you're leading

During the lead-in period between being appointed and formally stepping into the role, take advantage of all opportunities to learn, and to begin to establish yourself as the incoming head.

Be sure to tune into the specific context of the school you are joining, at this point in its history, and beware assumptions and preconceptions which can be misleading and unhelpful.

Every school is different: what makes this school distinctive, and what does it need from its incoming leader?

Take the temperature; ask far more questions than making statements.

Ask others for their opinions and occasionally their advice.


2. Understand the school's core values

Once you are in post, revisit the school’s vision and values with governors, staff, parents and pupils and make sure that what the school stands for and prioritises is agreed, clearly understood and effectively communicated within and beyond the school gates.

Simon Smith, a primary head in Whitby, suggests that it is helpful to think of your school as a stick of rock: what three words run right through it?

Is everyone aware of what these words are and how the school’s ethos is manifest in its relationships, everyday systems and processes?

Being clear about your core values will help you when you face challenging decisions and choices.


3. Create a supportive environment

Ensure you establish helpful and supportive networks, personal and professional – within the school and beyond it.

People say headship is lonely: I don’t believe it has to be.

If you have others around you to whom you can turn when you need to talk through issues, problems and causes for celebration, this can be immensely sustaining and energising.


4. Be kind to yourself

Don’t judge yourself too harshly, especially in the early months.

I believe that self-doubt and humility are positive characteristics in leaders. Reflecting and sometimes changing direction in the light of new evidence suggests strength rather than weakness.

Those we lead don’t expect us to be infallible, but they do expect us to be honest.

Apologise and learn when you get something wrong and be determined not to make the same mistake multiple times.


5. Don't neglect your life beyond the school

Give yourself credit for all you achieve and the progress you/the school make over time.

Ensure that you do not simply focus on the failures and frustrations. Where are you moving forward? Acknowledge, value and celebrate that.

Remember the principle of Appreciative Enquiry:

  • Consider the school’s strengths, and how you can make the most of these, rather than always focussing on what’s broken and how you can fix it.

Keep a sense of perspective, and never forget that this is a job. It is an important job, but it is still a job – it is not your whole life and the sum total of what you are.

In my experience the best heads have a life beyond work and they model a healthy balance. When they, one day, move out of headship, there will still be a well-rounded, effectively functioning human being inside.

Protect and nurture that individual, and you will be a better head, and certainly a happier one.

You are embarking on an amazing journey. Enjoy it, and good luck!


What to do if you need support

If you're a teacher who is stressed or worried about anything you can call
Education Support's free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561.

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