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

Julia Watson

7 ways to succeed as a school leader

Looking to refresh or improve your leadership skills this term? Julia Watson explains how you can raise the bar.

The amount expected of a school leader has never been greater, with inordinate demands on time and resources distracting from the essence of the role. So how can you get off to a flying start this term?

1. Keep growing

Many SLT members forego training for the sake of saving time and money. But professional and personal development need not cost the earth: sometimes it can be as simple as finding an online course that suits you, reading an article or keeping up with inspiring educationalists on social media. 

After all, who wants to follow someone whose leadership has gone stale? Keep reading, learning and growing (all things we expect of pupils, lest we forget) and seek out anything that will keep you engaged.

2. Focus on solutions

Find out what is working well, and do more of it. Conversely, if something isn't working, don't do it! 

Taking a solution-focused approach to challenges and change avoids blame, and promotes a positive culture of problem-solving. 

3. Let people do their job

Leadership is not an exercise in writing your colleagues' to-do lists. Micro-managing is important to a point but can also be demotivating and harbour feelings of resentment.

Give staff the means to do their jobs, and seek support when they need to. But there's enough to do in the day without covering someone else's work as well as your own!

4. Stay organised

Whether it comes naturally to you or not, keeping on top of admin is key to managing your workload. Grabbing hold of the reins is crucial, lest this particular horse run away with all your precious free time.

Missing data, losing important files or even forgetting you are due to cover break duty... all can cause frustration in the staffroom and waste valuable time. Identify a time of day to answer emails, rather than responding to them as they arrive. Delegate tasks as appropriate.

Create a system that works for you – if you're not adept at time management, find someone who is and shadow them.

5. Be realistic

As a member of the SLT, a certain amount of ‘firefighting’ is natural. There will be plenty of things that arise each day to keep you from the work you had planned. Hence why it's important, at the beginning of the day, to identify three things you want to get done. Not twenty or even forty, just three. This will help you stay anchored when other things (inevitably) crop up, and give you a better chance of succeeding.

This feeling also releases Serotonin, and the reward of this lovely little chemical boost increases motivation, meaning that you might even achieve more than you set out to do.

6. Be human

Most of us enter this profession because they are interested in other people, and want to help them learn and grow. But it's easy to lose sight of this core purpose under a mountain of work, and more and more time spent away from the classroom. Human interaction is vital to all people, but as our stress levels rise, social isolation becomes increasingly common.

Good leaders maintain positive relationships with the people they work with and show a genuine interest in them. This isn’t by chance; they purposefully allocate time to keeping in touch with their colleagues. This might be by dropping into classrooms and asking how the day is going, or remembering to ask after a family member. It’s showing your face in the staffroom and remembering to say ‘thank you’ for a job well done. An open door policy for SLT is just one way of fostering an open and supportive culture in schools.

7. Look after yourself

Anyone who has ever travelled by aeroplane will know that you secure your own oxygen mask first and then help the child next to you. Taking care of yourself is not selfish. If you are rested, nurtured and happy, you are better placed to support others.

You cannot reach your full potential as a leader, or, importantly, inspire others to greatness if your basic needs are not being met. These include feeling safe, being nourished with healthful food and hydrated with enough water. You need to sleep and exercise. You need to spend time with people you like and love and more. These are not luxuries, but necessities.

Taking care of yourself is not selfish

When humans are not having their basic needs met, they begin to make their decisions leading with the amygdala, the centre of the ‘fight or flight’ responses. In terms of age, these decisions are that of a three to five year-old. It is your ‘toddler’ brain, which will explain why grown adults sometimes behave like children.

An effective school leader knows that to be great at what they do, they need to give themselves a break.

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