Liz Free looks at why it is important for international schools to have a diverse team of leaders and tips for those hoping to gain leadership roles.
We need great leaders, full stop. This matters. This matters because every person working in our schools matters. And it is our leaders in our communities that act as the cohesion, the cohesive unifying force that supports us all on our paths, empowering our community.
Leaders inspire, empower and enable. Just as teachers aim to optimise the potential of every student, leaders aim to optimise the potential of every member of staff. I'm a great fan of Dolly Parton who said (often incorrectly attributed to John Quincy Adams),
“If your are actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.”
Teachers, by this definition, are leaders every single day. Why is it then that we seem to see headlines like, “number of schools failing to recruit senior leaders rises to record high” (The Independent, 2019) and “schools struggle with principal turnover” (New Orleans Advocate, 2020).
Why is it that 69% of school heads in international schools (ECIS, 2021) are male, when the global teaching population is almost 80% female (Porritt and Featherstone, 2019). We need our teachers to see themselves as leaders and to know deeply that they can bring their professionalism, their skills, knowledge and expertise to the table.
So, why are so many choosing not to?
This, of course, is complex and multidimensional but, if there is one thing I've learned over the years, it is that school leadership is also complex and multi-dimensional. It needs depth and breadth. In the book, ‘Glass Wall’, it says “women are notorious for ruling themselves out of senior positions because they consider themselves unqualified”. This is not wholly exclusive to women and is often said to me by great teachers as though teaching is somehow nothing to do with leading; let's not forget Dolly’s quote. We need to see different representations of leadership in education. We need our future generations in the profession to see what is possible. Let's create school leadership that visibly represents the communities it serves. Let’s start to break down the barriers to visible representation and diversity of leadership.
And so, if this has ignited a flame, no matter how small, I urge you to be 10% braver (as my #WomenEd colleagues would say) and put yourself out there. You have nothing to lose and we all have everything to gain.
Here are my 5 top tips for getting started:
- Know yourself: know your why. As Simon Sinek so fabulously demonstrated in his 2009 TED talk (you can find it on YouTube), knowing your why will give you the courage to take the risks needed. Anchor your leadership in this and do not deviate. If the leadership role, activity or endeavour is not in-sync with your why, don't do it. But, if it is, go for it! Have faith and make the leap.
- Show your true self. As you know your why, make sure everyone else does too. I recently came across a question on Twitter asking, “what shirt should I wear for my first headship interview?”. Some of the responses included comments like, “don't wear trousers”, “you must wear a black suit to be taken seriously”, and, my personal favourite, “you must wear heels”. I like heels, but what is this really about? All of these suggest that being a school leader requires a Star Wars, storm-trooper, uniformity. This is not leadership. Darth Vader didn't wear white, and neither should you. Represent yourself as your best self, who you are. You do you. If you never wear heels, don't wear them to an interview. Represent your why in who and how you are, and you will find your tribe; and, the right school for you.
- Leave perfectionism at the door. Daniel Coyle in ‘The Talent Code says, “greatness isn't born, it's grown” (Coyle, 2010). Apply a growth mindset to yourself as a leader. It's not a free-for-all but you know the destination in your vision for education, your why. Leadership is about empowering all those around you to join you on the journey. The path may not always be clear but, like all the best adventures, you're in it for the ups and downs, and this is okay.
- Empower self and others. Realise the potential of yourself and everyone around you. Work to your teachers’ and wider staff strengths. Be the catalyst for change and value all that you and your team and you bring. Leadership is deeply personal. Remember to keep people at the heart of all that you do.
- Celebrate the wins and learn from the losses. In the fast-paced world of education, and as a leader, you always have your eye on the here and now, as well as the future. The destination is always the driver, but it is important to be able to recognise the successful arrival at different destinations along the way. These are markers in the sand of progress and can be a strong motivator in maintaining pace and a sense of urgency. Celebrate together and also learn together when things go slightly awry.
School leadership is demanding. Teaching is demanding. But, if we are to ensure that every child, in every country, realises their potential, we need our profession to realise its own potential. Let's lead the way. Let's ensure our young people can be, and can see, great leadership in all its glorious guises. We need you!
Coyle, D., 2010. The Talent Code. London: Arrow.
Porritt, V. and Featherstone, K., 2019. 10% Braver. Sage.