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The 6 Fatal Mistakes Any School Leader Can Make – And How to Address Them

6 Fatal mistakes any school leader can make - and how to address them

How can I be a good leader?

Teachers, academics and politicians have been trying to answer that question for as long as there’s been education of any sort.

When it’s one of our leaders we’re critiquing, you often have 20:20 vision about their strengths and weaknesses. But when it’s ourself we’re looking at, that picture can get muddied and it can be difficult to get a clear view.

So, whatever your leadership responsibility, do you recognise any of these traits in your leadership style? Checking those tendencies can make a dramatic impact in your abilities as a leader.

1) Doing It All Yourself

You’re in charge, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Leadership requires a different focus to being a practitioner – as a practitioner you have to be the best you can be. As a leader you have to enable everyone to be the best they can be. No matter how good you are, how organised you simply can’t do everything. If you try you end up getting bogged down in the minutiae of different tasks and miss the bigger picture. Also, you create a vicious spiral where the people that you work for you feel powerless and disengaged, perform worse requiring you to do more and more.

How to fix it? Start shifting that load and distributing that leadership responsibility – carefully. Many people talk about delegation like it’s the answer to all of life’s questions, but you have to make sure the people you’re delegating to have the capacity to take on the responsibility. So build their confidence and capability first, then give them the tasks they deserve. Always bear this in mind – it something better not being done if it’s in your pile, or being done (but slightly less well) by someone else?


2) Managing From Behind Your Desk

It’s massively important in a school to be out and to be seen. Firstly because it’s one of the key ways to keep a finger on the pulse of your school – to see what’s really happening, but also because people need to know there is a clear figure in charge. Ultimately, you can shuffle as much paper as you want, but it’s on the ground where it really happens. Something may look great on paper, but be failing miserably in practice. It really is worth making the time to be out and about, making your presence felt.

How to fix it? You might say there’s too much paperwork and you need to be behind your desk but it’s rarely the case that with some patient effort you can’t build the capacity in your team to take it on. Having time to see the fruits of your labour is important – both for your future decision making and your job satisfaction.


3) Being Your Staff’s Friend, Rather Than Their Boss

You need people to respect you, liking you is a bonus. As a leader you should always be compassionate, approachable – I’m not arguing that you don the dictator’s mask when you pass through those school gates. But sometimes, often even, you will be faced with decisions that will make people unhappy, but will benefit the school and the children. If you’re in that situation and bottle it because you’re upsetting people is a problem to you that’s when it becomes a real problem.

How to fix it? Here’s where work-life balance comes in. Having a strong group of friends outside work and/or quality family time means you don’t have so much of your self esteem bound up in work. Failing that, just look a few months into the future – will staff still like you if you fail your Ofsted?


4) Accepting Too Many Excuses

“The standards you set are the standards you get.” There’s a real leadership paradox here, which has received a lot of attention in the press. Everybody knows that there are reasons why some schools, some departments can’t be as strong as others – but you do your best when you accept no excuses.

How to fix it? If instead you patiently work to eliminate all the barriers to effective learning then you will have a school to be proud of – whatever your results. Is it fair for one school to be judged the same as another which are wildly different? No. Does it work? Yes.


5) Treating Every School the Same

“Well it worked in my last school.” Often that can be a sole justification for implementing a new scheme or approach. But all schools are clearly not the same. What made something work in one school may be completely absent in another. We can’t all look at what makes a Mossbourne work and implement it in our schools overnight. If that were the case improving a school would be easy!

How to fix it? You have to try and get an understanding on why something worked in the first place, and if the same conditions exist in your current school to make it work. This is one of the reasons that high quality data and analysis is so important – if you understand why things work, why things don’t it will be a sure guide to successful decision making.


6) Not Planning for Succession

Even the best leaders can make this mistake. Actually what matters is not just that the school or department you lead is outstanding, perfect in every way, but also that it continues to be outstanding even after you’re gone. What an amazing legacy – not just to turn something around, but to give years and years of pupils the benefit of this.

How to fix it? Spot talent and stretch it. You need to have an active programme in place to create the people who will take over from you in five or ten years’ time, and yes it means your talented deputies will go to other schools. That’s just a sign that you’re doing your job right. If you keep up that focus on nurturing talent you’ll soon have capable people to fill their shoes.


If you’re interested in developing some of the themes we’ve talked about above we run a wide range of school leadership courses in the UK, where you’re looking to step up a leadership role or you’re an existing leader looking for some fresh thinking and ideas.


One response to “The 6 Fatal Mistakes Any School Leader Can Make – And How to Address Them”

  1. Hi,
    I particularly think the ‘not leading from behind your desk’ is important because school leaders still need to be classroom fit. It is no use coming up with all these great ideas if you do not know what is happening in the four walls of your classroom and have a finger on the pulse of the students, teachers and parents. A leader who can perform as a teacher and can show it regularly by taking classes is much more likely to earn and deserve respect than one who can produce a great project plan.
    Thanks for the post,

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Tom Hesmondhalgh

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