5 Things That Successful Heads Do

If there is a magic formula for being a successful and wizard head teacher then it hasn’t been found yet. Of course, there isn’t a recipe or one-size fits all approach but there are some common personas and behaviours that many leaders seem to share. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Get in the H.A.B.I.T

In ‘The 5 Traits of a Highly Effective Leadership’, Douglas Conant identifies a handful of H.A.B.I.T qualities and behaviours that are the building-blocks of high-performance leadership. He says that the most effective leaders have:

1. HUMILITY – they are well-grounded, steadfast and competent but they are humble and don’t pretend to know it all. They ask for help when they need it by going to others with more experience and expertise, they are open-minded and they actively listen. They don’t take all the credit and thank their team.

2. AUTHENTICITY – they know who they are, they are true to themselves and they speak with honesty and from the heart. They don’t try to fake it because they know that being ‘real’ builds trust, builds bridges and builds teams based on respect. They say what they mean and mean what they say.

3. BRAVERY – they make tough and bold decisions and their staff look up to them and count on them to meet challenges head-on. They don’t shy away from what matters and respond with a level-head even if they don’t always know how to deal with a problem. They don’t avoid problems and regularly step out of their comfort zone with courage.

4. INTENTION – they are proactive, committed and determined. They approach their leadership duties with discipline, meaning and purpose and take time to reflect on the strategies that will oxygenate their leadership craft and vision. They adopt a mastery model, prepare for adversity and strive to constantly improve.

5. TENACITY – they have fortitude, stamina, resilience and a ‘fierce resolve’. Tenacity is the jewel in the crown of leadership because it encapsulates grit and the power of passion and perseverance. When things get tough, they meet like with like and persist by drawing on the habits of humility, authenticity, bravery and intention.

Douglas Conant reassures us that these habits are patterns of behaviour that leaders can shape and evolve through practice and repetition and by having them in mind at all times they become part of us and help us to grow and flourish.

Be Clear

H.A.B.I.T is a useful acronym to hold on to but what do others have to say? Andy Buck in ‘Leadership Matters’ notes, “Your success as a leader at any level isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about how you lead, your leadership style and how you support and inspire others to develop.” He talks about the importance for all leaders to:

(i) build trust

(ii) create a transparency around decision-making and how information is used

(iii) develop the skill of active listening and to develop a critical leadership habit: to ask first.

Andy Buck talks in particular about creating a positive culture and climate in order to build ‘discretionary effort’ where staff go the extra mile because they feel valued, trusted and inspired to give. He notes that one key feature that successful heads do is have a clarity of vision and clarity of strategy in relation to the values, ambition and direction of a school. Combining realistic but high expectations and consistency, heads that have a relentless focus on high standards work out a successful strategy and keep to it.

Stand Out

Adding to this, Andrew Moorish in ‘The Art of Standing Out’, reminds us that assuming we have a really solid base camp, it is important to let children know that “their school is the best party in town”. He identifies eight traits of being a stand out leader:

1. Articulate often – they share their vision at every opportunity.

2. Energise often – they are great motivators and masters of momentum.

3. Celebrate often – they seize on success and are obsessed with excellence.

4. Fail often – they embrace modesty, fail skilfully and harness their vulnerability into action.

5. Question often – they ask “what if…?”, embrace creativity and don’t flinch when questioned by outsiders.

6. Dismantle often – they are cautiously reckless changemakers who review, refresh and are always looking for solutions.

7. Imagine often – they are great thinkers, they dream carefully and come up with new ideas that add value.

8. Discover often – they have an innate thirst for new learning and shine their light to encourage others to shine theirs.

Being a successful head teacher encapsulates an enormous number of behaviours but sometimes one of the simplest and most overlooked is visibility. Head teachers that are seen in and around the school make themselves available and approachable and so command respect and inspire confidence just by ‘being there’. Relationships come first, lessons second and as John Tomsett says in his book ‘This Much I Know about Love Over Fear’, “A head teacher can only be as good as the relationships she forges with her colleagues.”

One thing is certain, there isn’t a leader on the planet that is perfect and can unswervingly demonstrate a list of habits and high-flying characteristics.

What great leaders never do though is give up, they keep on moving and build a legacy based on hard-work, respect and a realisation that perfection doesn’t exist.  Assessment guru Dylan Wiliam once said that teaching was “the best job in the world… because you never get any good at it.” Perhaps we can say the same about being a headteacher too.


If you are looking for your own headteacher role, search jobs here.

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