The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

17 myths about school leadership

You can’t be nice, don’t have enough time and must shout loudest; John Dabell discusses common misconceptions about being a school leader.


School leadership has an image problem. There aren't many that want the job and the pipeline is running dry.

The image that many of us hold about leadership is often based more on anecdotes, toxic stories, and legends than facts muddled by stereotypes, false promises and pseudo-science (Owen, 2022).

While leadership is one of the most important components of any successful school, it is probably the least understood and we must reimagine leadership if we want to improve recruitment and make leadership a sustained career choice.

Many myths have persisted for so long that they have assumed an air of legitimacy but when stripped of mythology, it surprises many to learn that leadership is really about teamwork, empowering others, having a vision and prioritising goals. 

17 leadership myths

1. Common set of leadership traits

There is the idea that effective leaders possess a common set of traits. They don't, there is no 'one-size-fits-all'.

There are no universal behaviours that are effective in every instance and there is no agreement on what makes an effective leader.

2. You either have it or you don't

Leaders aren't 'born' with natural raw talent. Leadership is not innate but a learned set of capacities, competencies, skills and abilities that comes about through practice. Most leadership skills can be learned through the right combination of study, practice, and experience.

3. You don't have enough time

Time-management and prioritising is a skill and the way you use your time is a choice. Your workload is likely to be heavy but not everything needs doing now.  

Leadership is influencing others to leave aside their own agendas and act together.

4. You can't show vulnerability

Yes, you can. This is one of the most prevalent myths about leaders and the most damaging. Strong leaders are fallible and show transparency. They own their errors and mistakes so that they can learn from them. There is great strength in honesty because it builds trust. Being vulnerable isn't unprofessional but a sign of courage and self-confidence in a leader. 

5. You must know everything

No, you don't. Leaders are those with the humility and honesty to acknowledge their gaps and weaknesses and tap into the unique talents of their staff. Leaders rely on their team and are good cheerleaders.

6. You must be an extrovert

You don't need to be a larger-than-life, flamboyant personality to be effective. While some leaders do have charismatic personalities it is not a prerequisite to being an effective leader. Humility, will and an unwavering towards the right goals get less media coverage but these are key qualities.

7. You need to be a trailblazer

Not all of the time you don't. Trailblazers are ambitious, calculated risk takers, and goal oriented - but not all of the time. You can assume the role of trailblazer and change agent but this is something to step in and out of.

They don't dodge opportunities to impact change but they choose their moments as their number one passion is to develop a strong corporate culture across the school and keep a steady hand on the tiller.

8. You must be 24/7

A recipe for disaster. Leadership might be a way of life but there are lines that need to be drawn and lives to be lived outside of the school. Effective leaders safeguard and protect their own wellbeing.

9. You need your own distinct style

Think plural. Effective leaders dip into more than one style and use different approaches for different situations. 'Chameleonistic leadership’ means you adapt your style to suit the environment and circumstances you are in.

10. You can't be nice and a good leader

This is like the archaic advice ‘don't smile before Christmas’ nonsense adhered to by some teachers. They are calm, communicate with clarity, honesty and directness, and know how to listen. They are accessible, humble and easily approached.

11. To be a great leader you have to be a great manager

Leadership and management are not the same; you manage things, you lead people. There are plenty of experienced managers that lack leadership skills. Leaders can be managers but they don't have to be.

Leaders influence, inspire and ignite. Leaders are visionary. As Ron Edmondson (2017) says, ‘Leaders lead change. Managers guide systems.’

There are no universal behaviours that are effective in every instance.

12. Young leaders don't have the experience to be effective leaders

There is a stigma attached to age but leadership isn't related to it.

Of course, you will grow into leadership as you get older but leadership is a mindset. By embracing age diversity, we can tap into a wealth of skills and emotional intelligence that will drive a school forward.

13. Star teachers make star leaders

Not true. Some teachers are brilliant then take a step up to leadership only to find it's not for them. They find it is an intellectual and emotional seismic shift and soon end up back in the classroom. The skillset of a strong teacher and a strong leader are very different and successful leaders may not necessarily be consistently high-performers in the classroom.

14. Leaders should treat everyone the same

No, they shouldn't. Effective leaders pay attention to people around them and treat them uniquely depending on their talent, skills, strengths, weaknesses and what they bring to the school. When you treat very different people exactly the same, you deny their uniqueness and so lose the diversity present in any staff.

15. Being a leader is being the boss

Leadership is not a formal role, title, or position. Leadership is influencing others to leave aside their own agendas and act together so they perform as a coordinated team (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2020). It is not about going it alone and bearing all of the burden but mobilising the efforts of others.

16. You need to be authentic to be an effective leader

The best leaders are not authentic. 'Being yourself' means you are unfiltered and uncensored which is not what everyone wants to see. Effective leaders control their impulses and concern themselves with being professional.

17. Leaders have the loudest voices

Not all leaders shout, inflate their egos and run a school through sheer personality. Communication in a leader is more about listening than talking. Effective leaders know when to shut up, listen and show empathy. They know that the world doesn't revolve around them.

And finally....

Leadership is contextual and dynamic and so can't be boiled down to a formula and the negative impact of myths may prevent many colleagues from believing they can be, or are already, leaders.

If myths are allowed to multiply, they will hold many talented teachers back from trying to develop their leadership ability and deny them opportunities to grow as individuals. Understanding, recognising, and guarding against these myths is an important step to becoming an informed, emotionally intelligent leader.


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