"What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt on your school leadership journey?"

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Jamie Lawrence
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This question was answered by Andy Buck, a former geography teacher turned headteacher turned leadership expert who has written multiple leadership books and now works with senior headteachers across the UK to improve schools and the school system.

Jamie Lawrence, Managing Editor, HRZone: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt on your school leadership journey?

Andy Buck, former headteacher and leadership trainer:​ The first thing is: I have been really surprised at the different ways that people perceive you as a leader the more senior you get. You know it’s just you, but other people give a credence and a value to what you say, above and beyond what I feel it should ever been given, if I’m honest.

And you need to remember that to be seen like that - by parents, teachers and children - is an absolute privilege as a head. But it does mean you need to choose your words a bit more carefully. Sometimes the odd thing that you think is a joke or a bit funny, someone else can take the wrong way if you aren’t careful.

So you need to think very carefully about the messages you give, but also harness that magnified ripple effect in a positive way by being very clear about what we [school, organisation] stand for and the way we do things around them.

And then constantly catching people doing it and praising them and constantly reinforcing what those things are. The magnification of you doing that can really add to the culture and climate of the organisation.

Here's a story to illustrate that. I got a LinkedIn message from a student who I remember having something about him: he’d come over from Kosovo as an Albanian refugee when he was five and come to us in year 7, and an amazing primary school had got him fluent in English, and he was going to make the most of everything we offered as a secondary school. He joined the debating society and took part in the Africa challenge. Basically, he soaked up everything.

In this LinkedIn request it became clear he’d gone to Cambridge and was working at a top law firm. He said he wanted to tell me something and we met up and toasted his succeess and he said that in year 7 I’d had a conversation with him at lunchtime (which is a great way for heads to get intelligence about the school - what are pupils’ favourite lessons, worst lessons etc). I often asked pupils what they wanted to do with their lives and he said he wanted to be a lawyer.

And I already had an impression about this guy and I said to him I thought he should consider Oxford or Cambridge and he said in that moment in that conversation he rather liked the sound of Cambridge. And we never talked of Cambridge again but I’d planted a seed and somehow because I was the head it germinated a bit more and he still remembered it 12 years later to tell me. And that’s a great example of the joy of headship. All the time you’re planting the seed.

The second thing is asking first, which is something I train all heads on. And it’s not a habit that leaders naturally have in this country. Usually someone comes to ask you about something and you feel the need to give them the answer. There’s a place for that but it keeps a dependency on you - and sometimes there’s a tendency to take the job off them completely.

But the best leaders always ask first: people liked to be ask first and often you can help people solve the situation themselves, which builds capacity in them, but in the end you may realise you do need to solve it yourself, because you could ask them until you’re blue in the face and they won’t get it.

But the key thing is you aren’t making the assumption about what they need - you’re asking questions that enables you to understand the situation.

There’s so much stuff about leadership styles but if you can just ask first, the power of it is phenomenal in bringing about change in other leaders in your school.

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